Industry leaders from four casual D.C. restaurants sat on a panel in Fisher Colloquium, a lecture hall in the Rafik B. Hariri Building, last Wednesday to share their experiences working for the hospitality, customer service and restaurant industries. The event, titled “The ‘Four Fathers’ of Casual Dining,” was hosted by the Georgetown Hospitality Club.
Panelists included Michael Lastoria, co-founder of &pizza; Brett Schulman, CEO of Cava Mezze Grill; Casey Patten, co-owner of Taylor Gourmet; and Burton Heiss, CEO of Nando’s U.S. The panelists began by describing their professional backgrounds, which, for many of them, included their experiences working in the restaurant and hospitality industry before working for their current companies.
While Schulman spent a decade on Wall Street before deciding to pursue a career about which he was more passionate, Patten has worked almost exclusively in the food service industry since the age of 13.
“I quickly figured out there was something about customer service and hospitality I really enjoyed — watching the excitement on people’s faces when they had a good meal, watching families dine together,” Patten said.
The restaurateurs took turns describing their unique brands, stressing the importance of staying true to a company’s core values. The panelists offered their perspectives on reconciling loyalty to a fundamental set of beliefs while staying relevant.
“I think if you find yourself with a brand that has to make a left turn in order to stay relevant, it didn’t have a good foundation to begin with. It didn’t really resonate, it was a fad, a one-time deal,” Heiss said.
Offering their advice for succeeding in hospitality and the greater business arena, the panelists stressed the importance of building a team composed of passionate, positive individuals. Lastoria said the desire for profit should not overshadow the need for individualism in building a company.
“I think my advice would be to be fearlessly weird about it. There are so many companies out there in the business because they’re motivated by profit and success and they have no idea what is about to happen to them. It’s a long journey,” Lastoria said.
Sam Blum, communications manager of &pizza, said the passionate and excited team of employees, or “tribe members” as &pizza refers to them, has inspired his own personal growth.
“Really since the very beginning, the company has taken an interest in my own career growth and has made sure that they kind of set me up with opportunities to learn and develop throughout my time with them,” Blum said.
Will McDonald (MSB ’18), who attended the event, said the individuality and personal connections the panelists had with their companies was inspiring.
“What was probably most striking was everyone’s passion for their restaurants. I think it’s easy to look at one of these companies and see it just as a collection of different ideas, and seeing how closely it connects to the identities of these guys was striking and pretty unique,” McDonald said.
In response to a question about fundraising, the panelists also described some of the more technical aspects of starting a business. In particular, the restaurant CEOs and founders said finding sources of funding can be challenging, especially when a business is just getting started. They emphasized that at these stages, investments often come from friends and family, but with continuing success and the right goals, financing becomes easier.
Schulman stressed the importance of ensuring that investors are aligned with the core goals and values of the business.
“I think if you focus on building a great brand and the matter at hand, those opportunities kind of present themselves,” Schulman said. “And they did for us, we were fortunate and then it became a question of — we were in a great position where we had a lot of great people looking to partner with us. The most important thing is philosophically, culturally, who is aligned with you.”
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