Geoff Tracy is not your typical chef. After graduating from Georgetown University in 1995 where he studied theology, Tracy took an unlikely turn and entered the culinary world where he found his true calling and passion. Before his 30th year, Tracy had already opened two landmark restaurants, Chef Geoff in 2000 and Chef Geoff Downtown in 2002. Following the resounding success of his first two restaurants, Tracy opened Lia’s in Chevy Chase, Hank’s Tavern and Eats in Hyattsville, and finally Chef Geoff in Tyson’s Corner.
Chef Geoff’s path to becoming one of D.C.’s premier chefs started rather humbly. After finishing college and spending some time wandering the United States, he had a chance encounter with Tom Meyer of Clyde’s, who advised him to get a few jobs in local restaurants and see if he still liked the idea of becoming a chef. Tracy complied and soon discovered his passion for cuisine was unhindered by the unglamorous and often tedious daily grind of restaurant work. He then decided to enroll at the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, NY, where he impressively finished first in his class.
Chef Geoff is now the owner of five area restaurants, employs over 300 people and oversees a burgeoning culinary empire that serves over 750,000 guests a year. Somehow finding the time, Tracy has co-authored a new book along with his lovely wife and White House Correspondent for CBS News, Norah O’Donnell, called Baby Love, which shares healthy organic recipes for busy parents.
You graduated from Georgetown University majoring in theology. What made you decide you wanted to be a chef? Was there a eureka moment, or was this something you had always wanted to do?
I took a job as a busboy during the summer before my freshman year at Georgetown. I loved the controlled chaos of the restaurant and working directly with guests. It gave me a real sense of accomplishment. At Georgetown, I ran a student-owned grocery store. Again, it was a hands-on business experience with tangible results. Being a trained chef and restaurateur allows me to create businesses from literally nothing. That is an amazing feeling. And what is even better is that people the public love visiting our creations.
You opened two restaurants before you were 30. That didn’t leave you too much time as an apprentice, if any. Traditionally, chefs tended to apprentice for years before they get to a level where they could become independent. Is there a secret sauce to your fast track to stardom and fame?
I trained at the Culinary Institute of America where I learned the fundamentals of cooking. I worked in a few other kitchens and absorbed as much as I could. But there is a difference between being an executive chef and being a restaurateur. I wanted the latter route. So, at age 27, I jumped off the entrepreneurial cliff and created my first restaurant. I wasn’t very well capitalized and I had no investors. There was a lot I didn’t know and absolutely nobody knew who I was. But I was passionate, hard working, and I had some great people who joined my team. We built the business from the ground up. I now have 300 really incredible people working with me. I am very proud of that.
I am very glad I made the jump at age 27. Young entrepreneurial people ask me all the time how long they should work for others before making the jump and going out on their own. I tell them exactly what my mentor told me in 1999. “The time is now.” Waiting 10, 15 or even 20 years is too long. By that time you’ll be married, have a child, have a mortgage or even a vacation home. You’ll have commitments and responsibilities. Young entrepreneurs have big dreams and little to lose. The hardest part is the first step.
You’re expanding in the metro D.C. area and you have five restaurants so far. Why Washington? Do you have any plans to expand outside the D.C. area?
Washington, D.C. is my favorite city in the world. It is beautiful, the weather is great, and I love the people. I met Norah here, my children were born here, and it is my home. My goal is to continue to open and operate restaurants in this area. I like to visit the restaurants often, so my rule of thumb is that the restaurant has to be within ten miles of my main office. My ten-year plan is to have ten restaurants, although it comes with an important caveat: I have to continue to enjoy it. If it ever gets overwhelming, I’ll scale back. But right now, I love it. I have the greatest job in the world.
Gordon Ramsay of Hell’s Kitchen is rude, abrasive and in your face. As a successful restaurant owner and manager, what is your management style. How do you run your kitchen? Is it hell or heaven?
That is Chef Ramsay’s shtick and it gets ratings. I’m not a yeller. I don’t think I have yelled at an employee in almost five years. Part of that is because we have systems to address operational issues. Our vice president, Chris Tracy, who joined me in 2006, has been instrumental in implementing systems that create structure and organization. We have very clear expectations and training. We constantly measure and evaluate performance. This means we can fine tune operations. Chef Ramsay is grumpy because he doesn’t have those systems. Not to mention it would make for boring television if his restaurants were well organized and properly staffed. I’m sure his demeanor when the cameras are gone is quite different.
I also truly appreciate the hard work and effort that my staff put forth every day. I have been a host, waiter, cook and busboy. I know how hard a restaurant job is, and I know how good my team is.
With the growth of TV celebrity chefs and cooking reality shows, there is a whole generation of young people who want to become chefs. What would be your recommendation to them? Should they run for the hills, or is being a chef all that it’s cracked up to be?
Being anything worthwhile is hard. The most important thing is that you love the process. A career is a long journey. I wouldn’t trade away any part of my journey.
You have five restaurants, your wife is a professional television personality, and you have young children. How do you balance your work and personal life? Are you like many of us, who squeeze in family and fun wherever we can, or do you have a formula for success?
Norah claims that “work life – personal life balance” suggests equal time is spent on these two parts, and that it is essentially impossible to do so. I agree with her. A career takes up a lot of time. Fortunately, I love my work. I think that makes me a good role model for my kids. I have also achieved a point in my business where I can hire people to do what I used to do who are much better than I ever was. That is pretty liberating.
Who do you find exciting in the culinary world? Which chefs inspire you?
I am amazed at the creativity in this industry. I find them all an inspiration, especially those who have the courage to create successful businesses from their ideas.
Many large restaurant owners partner up with REITs, (Real Estaste Investment Trusts). Is that something you’ve done or would consider doing in the future? Why or why not? I haven’t, and it sounds a bit convoluted. My ownership structure has been very simple. I own 100%.
Do you have an opinion on social media and daily deal types of websites that many fine dining establishments are using to draw in customers? Do you think that they have a positive or negative effect on the industry?
Social media is great. It is an amazing platform to communicate with guests and potential guests. As with any type of marketing, it has to be done right. I use Twitter, Facebook, Venga and have 45,000 people on my email list who receive my newsletter. Daily deal sites like Groupon, Living Social and others can be a benefit to restaurants from a marketing perspective. However, it is extremely expensive marketing. The restaurant is essentially letting thousands of people eat for less than the cost of goods sold, in return for an email sent to thousands of people. It’s an advertising/marketing decision as to whether it is good or bad.