On the same October day that Steve Salis acquired the local restaurant chain Ted’s Bulletin, the DC entrepreneur also became sole proprietor of Kramerbooks, buying out one of the original owners who had remained a partner. After a 13-hour marathon of paperwork to close both deals, Salis and his wife popped open a nine-liter bottle of Veuve Clicquot Champagne.
“I had two glasses,” he says of the four-figure bubbly splurge. “It was a pretty stupid purchase. As I’m getting a bit older”—he’s 34—“I become less productive even with a couple glasses.”
Salis is all about productivity. Once best known as cofounder of &Pizza, he’s rapidly expanding his portfolio of DC brands, both by revamping high-profile businesses and by launching some of his own, such as the barbecue joint Federalist Pig. In the process, Salis—who often drops words like “ideating” and “disrupting”—is becoming something of a brand himself, even if you occasionally need a marketing textbook to decode his patter. The goal, he says, is to build a “multidimensional ecosystem around how one lives, works, and plays.” And you thought you were just eating a peanut-butter-and-bacon burger at Ted’s Bulletin.
The New Hampshire native grew up in a blue collar family—his dad ran an Exxon gas station, his mom worked odd jobs—with a knack for sports. At six-foot-three, he was good enough at basketball that he was offered a scholarship to play at University of New Hampshire. But two years into college, Salis saw his studies in economics and business administration leading to a life of boredom and mediocrity.
MTV seemed like a bigger draw. The Real World recruited Salis to audition for season 15, and he’d made it to the final 40 out of a pool of thousands. While he didn’t ultimately make the cut, he started getting modeling opportunities in New York. Not that Salis saw himself as a “fashion person,” but it was an excuse to move to the big city, dropout of college, and shake up his life.
Salis graced a few glossy pages, but to make real money, he worked the door at buzzy nightclubs. “Those were places where people wanted to go—celebrities and you name it—and I built a really interesting Rolodex,” says Salis. The position gave him the cred and connections he needed to start consulting for hotels, restaurants, and bars.
“I’m very academic in a lot of ways, but I’m really street,” Salis says. “I effectively would be like a diagnoser. I’d come in and we’d do our own audit and then I’d say, ‘OK, these are the issues. I need $15,000 a month on day one. If I don’t get it, then we’re not doing it anymore.’”
The consulting gigs led Salis to Michael Lastoria, an entrepreneur who’d later become his partner in &pizza. Since Salis moved to DC in 2011 to launch the fast-casual joint, it has grown to 25 locations. But Salis has not stuck around to oversee the day-to-day operations as it grows, although he remains a partner. Instead, he has grander plans. He started Federalist Pig with one of the city’s top pitmasters in 2016 and is undertaking a multimillion-dollar overhaul of Kramerbooks & Afterwords Café. Ted’s Bulletin—which he acquired from Matchbox Food Group—will grow, too.
But Salis, who lists Elon Musk and Steve Wynn among his role models, would like you to think of him as more than just a big player in Washington’s hip new hospitality economy. He has already started a prefab-housing business and sees himself expanding into a broad range of industries, including media, arts, and entertainment. Will he start a podcast? Produce a reality show? Launch a chain of boutique fitness studios? Salis won’t say. But stay tuned: “I have very, very grand aspirations.”
A version of this article appears in the January 2018 issue of Washingtonian.