Industry News | May 5, 2016 | QSR Exclusive Brief

After a Long, Winding Road, Two Friends Find Niche in Chaia

Before opening Chaia, cofounders Suzanne Simon (left) and Bettina Stern wrote a food blog, taught cooking classes, and served hand-griddled tacos at farmers' markets. image used with permission.

When Chaia opened its doors in Georgetown last November, the seasonal, Mexican fast casual fit in so well it might have given the impression of simply poofing into existence. After all, Chaia shared the same neighborhood as the original Sweetgreen, as well as other rising stars like Spike Mendelsohn’s Good Stuff Eatery and Chipotle’s ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen. And today, the concept will celebrate its first “Chaia de Mayo” party with house-made Micheladas and Mexican sangria.

Despite how seamlessly Chaia entered the dining fold, its origins can be traced back more than 15 years ago. At the time, cofounders Bettina Stern and Suzanne Simon were in a cookbook club together.

“Suzanne and I started talking about some business ideas. We each had three young kids, and we … came up with this idea based on something I had been privy to, which was the mobile food scene,” Stern says, adding that at the time, Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver were the only places with food truck communities. “I said: How about we take this idea of taking really good quality foods and we get one of these kitted-out trucks and we try to do this idea here in D.C.?”

The idea didn’t get far. At the time, Washington, D.C—which today enjoys a thriving food truck scene—had a moratorium on such operations. Impeded but hardly dismayed, Stern and Simon decided to foray their enthusiasm into a blog named “Loulies,” for Stern’s grandmother. The blog featured recipes, kitchen tricks, and shopping tips. Eventually, Stern says, larger sites like Food 52 and The Kitchn would dominate that space, but by then, the pair had a foothold on the D.C. food scene.

Stern and Simon began doing cooking demos at the local farmers' markets and teaching classes. In July 2012, their reputation had grown to the point that they were invited to participate in a local competition. Inspired by a trip to Tulum, Mexico, Stern and Simon served handmade corn tortillas filled with farm-fresh eggs and seasonal vegetables.

(Read more about the women leaders who are changing the fast-casual game.)

Following stints in D.C.’s first-ever incubator kitchen and at the White House farmers' market, where its hand-griddled tortillas regularly sold out, Chaia put down roots in Georgetown. And so far, the welcome has been warm—both from customers and fellow operators.

“In terms of restaurants, [D.C.] is a very kind and generous group of people,” Stern says, recalling a recent example when she contacted two veteran restaurant and bar owners to ask for their advice. She emailed them just before midnight and had thoughtful responses from both by 7:15 the next morning. Stern and Simon were also put in touch with Cava Grill’s CEO Brett Schulman, and he ended up talking with them and sharing advice over coffee for more than two hours.

“That’s the kind of business owners that are here in D.C. Obviously there’s competition, but it’s friendly competition. Nobody wants to see anybody failing; they want everybody to do well,” Stern adds.

(For more about D.C.'s thriving fast-casual scene, click here.)

Given the evolution of the Chaia concept, its founders are in a unique position to offer advice to aspiring restaurateurs, and this mentoring spirit carries over into their business practices. Stern says she and Simon have brought on two younger women who are like their “mini clones.” The younger women gain invaluable experience while Stern and Simon have a set of managers to cover more ground—something Stern says will be even more helpful as Chaia grows.

Stern, who formerly worked in the nonprofit world, knows how crucial it is for operators to delegate responsibilities to a team.

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help [or] seek out help. Don’t be afraid to share your business with others. You need other people; you can’t do it alone,” she says, pointing to another D.C. operator who makes a great product but tries to do it solo. “She’s never going to be able to move past that if she doesn’t sweep some other people in and be willing to say, ‘OK, I’m going to give up some of my control.’”

Chaia is still getting its bearings, but the owners plan to grow its local presence, and Stern points out that it’s the kind of concept that can work in D.C.’s varied food scene, from “Georgia Avenue to Georgetown,” as she says. After that, the brand could look to hot markets like Los Angeles and New York, or second-tier cities like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“I feel like our business could work in a lot of places,” Stern says. “Nobody is doing what we’re doing, thankfully.”

By Nicole Duncan

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