Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Shaw Interview Series: Seasonal Pantry with Dan O'Brien

This week I had the privilege of catching Dan O'Brien for an interview at Seasonal Pantry.  I say "privileged" since he works over 120 hours a week, and I was appreciative that he made time for the interview.  Right after I arrived at 11AM, it seemed Dan had already made 12 jars of green tomato and lemon jam and 80 jars of Strawberry jam.  One of the first things I noticed was that the man has a work ethic.

Dan (along with business partner Ali Bagheri) are the owners and head chefs of two new restaurants in Shaw:  Seasonal Pantry and SUNdeVICH, both of which were awarded Best New Business in 2011.  Seasonal Pantry took first place, and SUNdeVICH followed.  Below is the interview.

Kevin:  Alright, let's start with a little bit about yourself and a summation of the business.

Dan:  Let's see.  I'm originally from upstate New York (Rochester) and heard that DC was a great place to be for the restaurant industry, especially if you want to open up a new place.  So I moved and thought I would try it out.  I've got 15 years background in cooking.  Those years are the foundation of what Seasonal Pantry is.  Everything I have learned over my career and education with cooking goes into my hands and my products.  Seasonal Pantry should express that and this place should be everything I have learned. 

K:  So cooking is a passion if not more than a passion?

D:  Definitely.  For me being behind a stove is kind of my life.  It has made me a better person and it makes it my life more enjoyable and more easy going--though I work a lot (laughs).  I would never trade this for anything.  Moreover I feel cooking is so important for people's lifestyles.  I've always believed cooking is very connected to the health of people living together in a home.  A lot happens around a stove top and you want to take advantage of these moments.  And that is what Seasonal Pantry is; it's for people who love coming together to cook and eat.

K:  Let's talk about the concept of Seasonal Pantry.

D:  Yep.  Well, the space of the building drove the concept.  What is that phrase, "necessity is the mother of invention?"  Well, that's Seasonal Pantry.  This space was suppose to house a 22 seat restaurant.  But we had other plans.  We wanted to do a pantry instead.  Jam and jars to stock the shelves with baked goods, pastas, ice creams:  all the initial things that we knew how to make.  Ali and I knew this would be a revenue channel but we needed something more than just this.

K:  So what else did necessity invent?

D:  The Supper Club.  Every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night.  10 seats.  Possibly 12.  And you are sitting around one big wooden table.  Four course pre-fix and two courses unannounced, so altogether a six course menu.  $97 with tax and gratuity included.  In my opinion it's a bargain.  Supper Club is great.  I think we do a great, great job.  There is always room for improvement.  We want to be the best we can be at everything.  Handwritten menus, home-made everything.  It is suppose to feel like you are at your friend's house, or a relative's house.  It's suppose to feel like another world when you eat here.  The service is non-fuss.  We don't want a pretentious atmosphere.  We want a low key environment.

K:  On that note, can you talk more about the food?

D:  Well, I think it's easy to fall into a rut when you don't own your own place and instead you are cooking for someone else.  When you cook what the cook wants your creativity is thwarted.  I found myself in this position before I opened Seasonal Pantry.  Now the creativity is in my seat.  It's a whole different ball game.  I love tweaking things just the way I want.  It's rejuvenating and inspiring.  It is so nice to cook the way I want to cook.

K:  And the menu?

D:  The menu?  Well, for the first 10 months we changed the dinner menu for the Supper Club every week.  Never repeated for one week.  Now, after having listened and observed the customers and their feedback, we are getting a sense that a menu change every two weeks might be better because customers could talk it up more and we wouldn't be changing so much so fast.  It's fun and creative to change the menu, so we love doing that and we are going to keep doing that.

K:  What about your philosophy on supporting local?

D:  Easy.  Get the money to the farmer and cut out the middle man.  90% of Seasonal Pantry is usually local.  And my word is to be held to that stat.  Local for me is as close as Marion Street for our herbs and as far away as Boston MA  if I can get the money to the farmer.  My father still ships rhubarb from Rochester.  I like keeping my farmers on the East Coast.  Definitely Delaware, Virginia, Maryland, DC.  But not everything can be local.  Do I buy canned tomatoes sometimes? Yeah.  I'm not going to lie and say everything here is 100% local.  But when I say 90% is local, I mean it.  Come and ask me and I'll tell you what is local and what isn't.  I'm serious about supporting local.  Everything at Supper Club and everything on the shelves is 90% local.

K:  What about your recent award for "Best New Business in Shaw for 2011?"

D:  Yeah!  Thank you to Shaw for voting Seasonal Pantry as best new business of the year.  And we were grateful enough to have Shaw choose SUNdeVICH second.  So, for Ali and I, it is back to back. 

K:  It seems Shaw has spoken.

D:  Enough said!  Just get ready for an even year during 2012.

K:  So you are a resident of Shaw.  Why is Shaw so likable?

D:  There is something different about these pockets of neighborhoods that are just awesome.  Where you can ride down 10th street and its so beautiful and then you can find yourself in a little bodega and all of a sudden you are finding some cool little restaurants and some cool bars.  The people are great.

K:  Where do you see Shaw going?

D:  Deeper into its community roots while expanding.  Shaw is on the cuff of breaking out.  I am looking forward to the growth of Shaw though sometimes the growths seems daunting.  Ali and I are serious about really figuring out  how we want Seasonal Pantry and SUNdeVICH to fit in to the upcoming developments in Shaw. 

K:  Based on Seasonal Pantry and SUNdeVICH's popularity, I'm sure you will have a significant role as Shaw expands.

D:  Let's hope so! 

(Thanks again to Dan O'Brien for his time.  SUNdeVICH is soon to come!)

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