Fall 2009 -- About halfway through our interview, Michael Landrum gets a call. It’s from a job applicant who wants to know about a position opening up. “What would my title be?” the caller asks. “What responsibilities would I be expected to take on?”
Those are not the kind of questions Landrum wants to be answering. “I’m looking for people who don’t need a lot of guidance,” he tells me after hanging up. “I need people who are going to be excited by the responsibility I give them...if you’re worried about your title, I’m not sure this place is going to work for you.”
That type of musing about food and how to serve it is typical of the waiter-turned-host-turned-restaurateur. Landrum, who owns a streak house, a classic American restaurant, and a hamburger joint (all three have something of a cult following) in the Washington, D.C. area, sees himself as more than just a proprietor. He got into the business because he wanted to change the way people eat out. “I’m not an entrepreneur who set out with a business plan,” he said. “I couldn’t stand the way it [hospitality] was being done.” Judging by reviews, food blogs, and the lines at his restaurants, he’s doing something right.
"Do one thing and do it well."
It’s an amazing success story for someone whose main preparations for his current gig were the years he spent working at a couple of D.C. restaurants (though not as a chef), a stint with the Israeli army, and a decade in Europe, where he lived after high school. Like many temporary émigrés, Landrum paid his way around the continent by working in Spanish and French cafes. There, he said he learned how to cook like Europeans do—from scratch, in a small space, wasting nothing.
He combined this cooking approach with his vision of what restaurant should be—an unpretentious but inviting place where neighborhood folks could socialize over excellent but affordable food.
Thus was born Ray’s the Steaks, which opened in 2002. (Ray is a nickname given to Landrum by a former girlfriend). Though the décor was minimal, the steaks were impressive, the wine was very good, and the vibe was inviting and casual. Families often showed up in shorts. After all, Landrum often wore flip-flops to work the tables.
Landrum had no investors or outside start-up capital when he opened the business—friends say it was because he didn’t want to give up his uncompromising independence. Landrum relates how he had saved a significant chunk of money—which he thought would get him through nine months of his worst-case scenario. But his projections and his business model were way off. He overpriced his lunch menu, under-priced his dinner menu, and was hoping to tap a take-out market that didn’t exist. As a result, by the end of the third month, he was almost completely out of cash—he had even liquidated his IRA.
At the end of the fourth month, Landrum needed to make a decision—close the restaurant quietly and recoup some of his losses, or keep operating and risk running out of cash and having his landlord retake the property. So he made what he believed were the necessary changes—changing the menu, cutting some staff members, and altering job descriptions. The changes slowly began to take effect, and the rest is history. Landrum’s determination paid off with a restaurant that quickly became a huge success. Some foodies declared Landrum had created the “ultimate of steak houses” and that his fare was equal or superior to Morton’s, Ruth’s Chris, and other pricey venues in Washington and New York City. And half the price.
Ray’s grain-and-grass fed beef is aged and cut on site. There are a variety of cuts and optional toppings, including hanger steak, spicy Brazilian strip, chateaubriand, and filet mignon with aged bleu cheese sauce, béarnaise sauce, or brandy mushroom cream. Warm, spicy cashews and fluffy focaccia bread are provided to each table. For appetizers, the velvety crab bisque is a local favorite, as are the deviled eggs filled with filet mignon and creamy hollandaise sauce. Creamed spinach and mashed potatoes are served up in black skillets and included with each meal. And for dessert, the tangy Key lime pie is a hit.
In fall of 2007, Landrum opened a second restaurant, “Ray’s the Classics”, which featured regional American cuisine. The success of both restaurants also turned him into something of a kitchen celebrity. He was named Restaurateur of the Year in 2007 by Washingtonian, D.C.’s lifestyle magazine, and the steak place is frequently included on the lists of top eateries in Washington. To meet increasing demand, Landrum moved “Ray’s the Steaks” to a larger location this year, and has tripled his business.
In 2008 Landrum launched his third venture, Ray’s Hellburger (Its official name is Butcher’s Burgers, but he checked with the neighbors, who said they didn’t mind the nickname). Hellburger is famous for its $7 burgers, made from hand-trimmed steak and roast cuts and served on homemade buns. Unlike most hamburger places, there are no sides of fries—instead, diners can buy a slice of watermelon, some ice cream, or chips. Landrum said his goal is to evoke a picnic-like meal. The restaurant is something of a cause célèbre among D.C.’s young working professionals, who brave long lines and a trek out to Virginia for a tasty burger and an ice-cold root beer. Washingtonian writes that Hellburger is the best burger place in the Washington metro area.
When President Obama and Vice-President Biden ate lunch at Hellburger earlier this year, demand for Landrum’s fare spiked even higher, leading him to move Hellburger to larger quarters.
The sensation that is Ray’s has given Landrum an outlet for his workhorse tendencies. He is on-the-move non-stop, visiting his restaurants, working with his team, and doing paperwork. “A day off is working only nine or ten hours a day,” he said.
Landrum has several more businesses in the works, including a sandwich shop, a fish place (which will be known, fittingly, as Ray’s the Catch), and Ray’s the Heat, which will be located in one of the poorest neighborhoods in D.C., where there hasn’t been a sit-down restaurant in ten years. Landrum chose the location for his latest foray, he said, because the neighborhood needs it.
“I’ve been aware of the area [in Ward 7] for some time,” Landrum said. “The more I looked into the neighborhood, the more I talked to people, the more excited I have gotten about the project.”
This newest venture fits Landrum’s hospitality philosophy, which can be boiled down to a couple of simple rules. First, don’t try to squeeze as much money out of the customer as humanly possible (“Most chefs, their goal is to charge as much as they can,” he said. “I charge as little.”). Second, treat your staff respectfully (“I pay as much as possible to my employees … I look at it as an investment”). And third (and maybe most important), do one thing and do it well.
There are a couple of other requirements too, which are widely discussed on foodie blogs and chat rooms. There is no talking on your cell phone at Ray’s, and no hording tables before you’ve gotten your food. It’s also impossible to email in a reservation or question. Ray’s has no web site because he prefers for customers to be able to speak directly with a staff member.
Landrum’s defiantly independent approach has turned him into something of an anti-hero in certain hospitality circles. He’s famous for his distaste of snobbery, documented in a glib comment on an online message board where people were complaining about Ray’s no-reservations policy (which has since been relaxed). The post, which made its way into The Washington Post’s gossip column, read “[A]s soon as my lease is up in Arlington, I will be closing up shop and moving to an area where 1) people’s jobs are not more important than their family, 2) people are not defined by their own sense of self-importance and 3) the assholes do not outnumber the decent people by a factor of 10-to1.”
The comment is out-of-character for the mild-mannered Landrum, but it captures a sentiment that courses through all of his establishments. His goal is to get people to come together and really enjoy a good meal in an unpretentious atmosphere. “I want it [restaurants] to be the focal point of community life,” he said. “It’s what a good place should do.”
Amanda Erickson is a reporter at the Washington Post where she writes about D.C.'s movers and shakers. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times and Chicago Tribune. When she isn't reporting, Amanda enjoys mastering new recipes, travelling on the cheap, and visiting second-hand bookstores.