Capital Restaurant Concepts Ltd. could not have cooked up the success of its 14 restaurants and been named business of the year by the D.C. Chamber of Commerce without the ideas and drive of its senior executive officer, Paul J. Cohn.
Mr. Cohn turned a six-month consulting job into a 16-year career that has so far produced some of the best restaurant concepts the Washington area has tasted.
Mr. Cohn recently sat down with The Washington Times at Paolo’s on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown to discuss his company’s success.
“This is show business for us,” Mr. Cohn says. “You walk in [to our restaurants] and it’s immediate gratification. You get feedback right away. If you’re doing a good job, you get it. If you’re doing a bad job, you get it.”
Mr. Cohn has been getting customer feedback since he and a friend, Lawrence Hillman, opened J. Paul’s in Georgetown in 1982.
The two entrepreneurs had worked together in the local nightclub business years before and decided to turn a former Georgetown steakhouse into a “dining saloon.”
Amid skepticism from some who thought this would be “just another bar in Georgetown,” the pair spent eight months renovating the building and turned J. Paul’s emphasis to its all-American menu, from hamburgers and raw bar to hickory wood-smoked ribs and chicken.
“We had to institutionalize ourselves in Georgetown,” Mr. Cohn says. “We knew we had to have a good food product make it broad based and make sure the service and quality was good.”
Mr. Cohn remembers restaurant service in the 1980s was an issue in Washington.
“You could be naked in the middle of the room with a 50 dollar bill hanging on your head and they wouldn’t wait on you,” he jokes. “If you didn’t know ‘Joe,’ you were a nobody. It was so cliquish.”
Mr. Cohn knew he didn’t want his restaurant to turn people off because of service problems.
“So one of the first things we said was that everybody who walks in there was going to be treated the same,” Mr. Cohn recalls. “The most important people in the restaurant are the people coming through the door. That philosophy has stayed with us in one form or another through our genesis from J. Paul’s to Capital Restaurant Concepts.”
About two years after J. Paul’s opened and long hours for both Mr. Cohn and Mr. Hillman had ensued, the two received an offer by a real estate guru from Beirut looking to make his mark in the United States.
Bechara Nammour, now the chairman of Capital Restaurant Concepts, had eaten at J. Paul’s and liked it so much that he wanted to buy it. At the time, an exhausted Mr. Cohn and Mr. Hillman liked the deal and sold off the booming J. Paul’s business to Mr. Nammour.
Mr. Cohn signed on as a consultant to make sure things ran smoothly. Little did he know he would end up being the development head for an ambitious hospitality company looking to expand in Washington.
During the next 15 years, Mr. Cohn helped create seven additional dining ideas for Capital Restaurants Concepts, including the southern cooking of Georgia Brown’s, the barbecue taste of Old Glory and grilled seafood at Georgetown Seafood Grill. Eventually, 14 restaurants sprang up in Washington, Virginia, Maryland and Las Vegas.
The diversity of Capital Restaurant’s venues “shows the company is looking at the marketplace and satisfying consumer needs,” says Eric Peterson, president of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, which sponsored Capital Restaurant Concepts’ nomination as the D.C. Chamber’s business of the year. “It’s a progressive, forward-looking organization.”
Mr. Cohn admits the concepts and ideas he and his development team come up with aren’t new. Rather, they’re ideas already out there that are being tweaked and fine-tuned for Capital Restaurant Concepts.
For instance, the idea for the company’s second restaurant, Paolo’s, the pizza and pasta bistro, was conceived after Mr. Cohn returned from a trip to Europe where wood-burning ovens were the craze. He decided to reinvent the concept in Washington.
“Taking from one person is stealing,” says Mr. Cohn. “Borrowing from many is creative license.”
Mr. Cohn concedes he can’t take all the credit for the new ideas because his development team and other staff come up with concepts too.
Mr. Cohn has not always been in the restaurant business. He operated two D.C. night clubs in the 1970s, booking live entertainment for the venues. He also managed disco duet Peaches & Herb in the late 1970s when they cranked out the hit album “Reunited.”
Mr. Cohn says the music and restaurant industries are very similar.
“I can’t tell you an F sharp from a B flat, but I can hear if the note is right,” he says. “It’s sort of like in a restaurant. If you walk into a restaurant and it’s humming, you know it’s right.”
And obviously the company is doing something right. Capital Restaurant Concepts, which now has about 1,000 employees, had sales of nearly $30 million last year.
And the company isn’t stopping there.
There are still a handful of concepts stewing around in Mr. Cohn’s head, like a French restaurant and a Mexican eatery that will someday see the light of day.
“He has the uncanny ability to create an opportunity before other people can see it,” says Jim Jackson, vice president of operations at Capital Restaurant Concepts, who has worked with Mr. Cohn for about a year and a half. “He’s very artistic.”
And Capital Restaurant Concepts will eventually expand some of its existing ideas into other areas, like opening an Old Glory in Philadelphia.
But whether it’s a new concept or an old one, opening more restaurants is on hold, at least until the first quarter of 2002. The next year will be spent fine-tuning the company’s infrastructure and focusing on employee training and customer service.
“We need to be focused on the guests … focused on service,” Mr. Cohn says. “Everything else follows that.”
Mr. Cohn says he’s picky when he’s eating at a restaurant and says he can tell a lot about the restaurant by how the servers act. That’s why he’s putting effort in the next year on service rather than on developing new restaurant concepts or opening additional locations.
The company plans to make an effort to train its servers in suggestive selling the process of recommending an item on the menu that will help enhance a guest’s experience as well as increase the dollar amount on the bill.
“It’s suggesting a better way for [guests] to have a better experience in such a way that’s acceptable, not hitting people over the head with it,” Mr. Cohn says.
Mr. Cohn said Capital Restaurant Concepts has the potential to grow well beyond the 14 restaurants it has now. And the company doesn’t have to look much further than Washington.
“There’s tremendous opportunity here,” says Mr. Cohn, noting the development downtown such as the convention center being built, new office buildings and housing.
But turning Capital Restaurant Concepts into a monster company that churns out dozens of duplicate restaurants is not for Mr. Cohn.
“Take Old Glory that’s a concept I could do 50 or 60 restaurants of if it’s done right, but I’m not interested in that,” Mr. Cohn says. “I’m not interested in doing 50 restaurants that look the same or have the same kitchen. The thing that excites me is opening different concepts.”
Name: Paul J. Cohn, senior executive officer of Capital Restaurant Concepts
Native of: Baltimore
Education: a year and a half short of getting a college degree
Resume: joined Capital Restaurant Concepts (CRC) as a consultant in 1984, promoted to director of development, followed by executive vice president and then current position in the course of 16 years. Prior to CRC, operated two Washington night clubs and was a music manager.
Family: wife Maria Z. Cohn and two children, Brian and Melia, from a previous marriage; three grandchildren
How often do you eat out: “almost every night”
Favorite restaurant: (excluding CRC restaurants) Thai
Best hamburger in town: Old Ebbitt Grill. “It’s almost as good as J. Paul’s.”