Before the pandemic, restaurateur Ari Gejdenson‘s Mindful Restaurants Group had a robust portfolio of restaurants in different pockets of D.C. Some have subsequently closed, including Acqua Al 2 in Eastern Market, which served Italian food for a decade, along with its sidekick bar Harold Black. Ghibellina and Sotto also closed on 14th Street NW.

But Gejdenson wasn’t going to give up on his remaining restaurants, so he made an outside-the-box decision to dissolve his restaurant group and turn over the keys to the rest of his eateries to long-tenured employees of the company. He remains a silent partner and investor.

“It’s not realistic to have a restaurant group with a high level of overhead to do sales that have small margins,” Gejdenson explains. Having spent time in Italy, the former professional soccer player thinks the owner-operator model common in Europe is the secret to surviving the pandemic while keeping the most people employed. The idea is for a lean team to crank through tough times.

“I found the best leaders of the managers and the chefs to take over as owner-operators,” Gejdenson says. “The same person opens the doors, closes the doors, possibly makes your food and serves it to your table. When it gets busier they can readjust and rehire. We used to employ more than 200 people. This will bring us down to probably 40 to 50 people. Keeping 25 percent of people employed right now opens a pipeline to getting it back going.”

A handful of Washingtonians are now first-time restaurant owners at a time when leading a restaurant is harder than ever. They’re up to the challenge. “I’m confident,” says Francesco Farella, one of three new owners of Ghibellina, which reopened in Ivy City at 2000 Fenwick St. NE, where Via used to be. “I know who I am. I know how strong I can be. From now on it can only be better.”

Farella worked as a manager at Ghibellina’s original location before being promoted to the director of service for Mindful Restaurants Group. He has 32 years of experience in the restaurant industry and moved to the U.S. from his home city of Rome 15 years ago. Lady Abarca and her husband, Danis Blanco, co-own the restaurant with Farella.

The Ghibellina menu is relatively unchanged, and yes, you can still use scissors to cut your brick-oven pizza. Farella added cacio e pepe to the array of freshly made pastas as a hat tip to Rome. There are also a couple of dishes from Acqua Al 2 for regulars who miss meals there.

Currently, Ghibellina’s hours are Tuesdays through Thursdays from 4 to 9 p.m. and Fridays through Saturdays from noon to 9:30 p.m. Farella says the Ghibellina reincarnation will soon be on all of the major delivery apps.

While they’re welcoming a small number of diners inside the restaurant for dine-in service, Farella misses the kind of customer service he’s accustomed to. “I don’t know about you, but I like to hug people,” he says. “Enough is enough.”

(Gejdenson notes that there will soon be a Ghibellina in Annapolis, Maryland, that will also be owner-operated at 18 Church Circle. It will be larger, at 120 seats, and there will be a Harold Black in the basement.)

The rest of Gejdenson’s Ivy City restaurants —La Puerta Verde, Dock FC, and Ari’s Diner—are now in the hands of Raymundo Oliva. Similar to Farella, Oliva has worked for Mindful Restaurants Group for nearly a decade. “It’s a challenge right now during COVID trying to operate the restaurants by myself and a few staff,” he says. “I hope we can get back to normal like before.”

Oliva has a favorite. “The diner is a great place where you can see families and kids coming in and feeling like it’s home,” he says. “Kids love the pancakes.” His 8-year-old daughter likes when her dad brings home dinner. Ari’s Diner is currently offering takeout and dine-in service Mondays through Thursdays from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sundays from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Soccer bar Dock FC has shorter hours. It’s only open Fridays from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sundays from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Meanwhile, La Puerta Verde hasn’t reopened yet. “To walk in and see it closed brings such feelings,” Oliva says of the Mexican restaurant. “I want to reopen, but because of COVID we’re on hold for a little bit. I’m floating everywhere trying to keep the businesses going. Restaurants can’t survive without working harder than ever.”

 

Finally, Dominic Prudente is the new owner of downtown subterranean cocktail lounge Denson Liquor Bar. He’s worked for Mindful Restaurants Group since 2015. Most recently he served as both the general manager of Denson Liquor Bar and the beverage director for the whole company.

Prudente says he plans to reopen Denson Liquor Bar in the next couple of weeks. Summer and early fall are typically the bar’s slowest months because they don’t have a patio. It didn’t make sense to open until now.

“As soon as it turns cooler, sitting inside and having a whiskey or delicious cocktail becomes the thing to do,” Prudente says, adding that he’s used the downtime to put COVID-19 safety protocols in place for his team of about five employees. He also looked for ways to control costs to position the bar for success.

This is Prudente’s first go at being a business owner. His favorite thing about his bar is the vibe.” When you’re in a place with good lighting, the tunes are prefect, and you get to look around and see people enjoying themselves,” he explains. “There are no TVs down there. It’s about the people you’re with.”

Gejdenson hopes his strategy of passing the baton pays off and the majority of former Mindful Restaurants Group restaurants pull through. “The analogy I keep using is when Forrest Gump, during the hurricane, took the boat out to sea, allowing them to survive the storm,” Gejdenson says, referring to Tom Hanks‘ eponymous character in the 1994 classic movie. “Right now we have to do something to survive. Hopefully when the storm’s over, there’s still room to play.”

(Laura Hayes, Washington City Paper)