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Like many food-centric cities across the country, the lifeblood of the food and beverage industry in Washington, D.C. is increasingly dependent on neighborhood hot spots –the places where D.C. residents can enjoy a familiar meal or a cocktail from a friendly face in our big town. Jamie Leeds, chef and restauranteur behind Hank’s Oyster Bar and Jamie Leads Restaurant Group can – and should – be credited with laying the groundwork for the restaurant landscape in D.C. today.
Jamie grew up eating seafood, her passion for it fueled her dreams of opening her own restaurant one day. After realizing New York wasn’t the right fit, Jamie moved to D.C. and seized the opportunity to break into the neighborhood and seafood restaurant space. That was nearly 18 years ago. Today, Jamie Leeds Restaurant Group owns a handful of restaurants and bars across the DMV area, a meal delivery service, and an events and catering service. Jamie’s restaurants consistently rank among the best in the city. She is also a culinary master, a mentor and a role model to many in the food and beverage industry.
In celebration of Pride Month, we asked Jamie a few questions about her business and her perspective as an LGBTQ+ small business owner in a year of unprecedented challenges and uncertainty.
The following interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
Question: I want to just start by asking what inspired you to open Hank's and later your own restaurant group?
Answer: I've been a chef for over 30 years, and I always had the dream of owning my own restaurant. I worked in New York City for many years. I worked in France for a year, and I've done a lot of traveling. I was consulting for a few years and had a consulting job in Washington, DC. And this was right after September 11, 2001. I had tried to open my own restaurant in New York, but I wasn't able to do it – I couldn't find the financing. So, when I came to D.C., I loved it so much, I decided to stay and open my own place.
I realized at that time – 17 or 18 years ago – there were only big box chains downtown and upscale restaurants, there weren't any neighborhood restaurants, especially seafood restaurants, or oyster bars. My favorite place to eat in New York was Pearl Oyster Bar in the Village. I love eating that kind of food, and I grew up eating that kind of food with my dad. I had the opportunity to open Hank's Oyster Bar in Dupont Circle in 2005, and it was just very organic. There wasn't a grand plan to have a big restaurant group, I just wanted to have my one little place, and it became very successful and opportunities presented themselves. I was able to grow organically and then got to a point where I had three restaurants and I realized I better take this seriously – this is becoming a popular brand. That's when we formed the Jamie Leads Restaurant Group.
Q: What are some of the unique challenges and opportunities presented to you as an LGBTQ+ business owner?
A: For me, it's actually been all positive. I mean, the opening at Dupont Circle was a great experience, we were very much supported by the community. The gay community was a huge part of our, and still is a huge part of our, guest base. It's very much been a very positive experience with a lot of support.
Q: Do you feel like D.C. has been like one of the better places to start a business? You mentioned it's a neighborhood-style business, with a community feel, do you feel like D.C. has been the kind of place that's right for that?
A: Very much so. Each of the restaurants are very neighborhood- and community-driven. I have four oyster bars. Even though they are all named the same and have similar menus, they all cater to the individual neighborhoods, and we have our neighborhood regulars.
Q: Jumping into your outreach, I was reading about your mission statement online, and it sounds like it's really centered on inclusivity, sustainability and diversity. Could you explain some of the ways that you incorporate that into how you give back to the community?
A: We support a lot of the many local businesses such as D.C. Central Kitchen and Food and Friends. Food and Friends is a big one that we support annually. We're always finding ways to support them, whether it's percentage of sales or me going and doing private dinners – things like that.
Q: It's Pride month. I know it's an unusual year to say the least, but do you typically incorporate any special initiatives into the daily operations of the business during Pride month? If so, are you able to incorporate any of those this year?
A: This has been a very challenging time. We were just opening. We didn't open necessarily when the city opened, but we've been doing it kind of on our own time. We've been focusing on new safety protocols and training – but not forgetting about Pride, of course. We put up our flags and we are honoring the month. In the past, we've highlighted our gay employees. We've done things like that. We have quite a few gay staff members.
Q: As a small business owner, how are you feeling about the future of American entrepreneurship amid COVID-19?
A: I think it depends on where you are in your life. We were on a growth trajectory to expand Hank's Oyster Bar throughout the Eastern seaboard. That has obviously been put on pause. Being in the restaurant business is really a young person's sport. I have been doing this for over 35 years. I'm not as much of a risk-taker as I was before. I think this pandemic has really required me to make sure my employees and my business are on more financially secure footing than before because restaurants work on very thin profit margins. In order for us to grow, I was using all the profits of the restaurants to put back into the business, to grow the business. Being the sole owner of the company, it's a heavy burden. This whole thing has given me pause in how much I'm going to actually grow and if I'm going to continue the growth.
Q: We like to ask small business owners that we talk to, what business means to them, would you mind explaining what business is to you?
A: What business means to me is creating jobs and taking care of the people that are committed to working hard for the Hank’s family. I have a lot of respect for and I'm very grateful for the commitment from the employees. They're first and foremost in my mind. It's about creating family, creating community, and being able to make people happy.
Make sure to check out Hank's Oyster Bar here.