“I thought I was just going to have my one little spot,” says Chef Jamie Leeds, owner of Hank’s Oyster Bar. “It kind of grew organically and then people just keep pushing me, like from the roots of a tree. They just keep pushing me and pushing me.”
The encouragement has manifested itself into an ever-expanding empire: Over the past year, Leeds has doubled the size of her staff and nearly doubled the number of Hank’s restaurants, with the addition of a critically acclaimed Italian eatery in Alexandria and a trendy cocktail lounge in D.C.’s Petworth. By the end of 2017, the JL Restaurant Group will add a fourth seafood-focused outlet on the Southwest Waterfront. Will the company expand to include more Pasta Bars? “Possibly,” she says. How about more Oyster Bars? “Possibly.” Is Leeds considering expanding to other markets beyond D.C. and Alexandria? “Yes.” She understandably declines to tip her hand on the specifics. “Nothing’s signed yet, but there are talks.”
Still, it’s her signature brand Hank’s, named after her father, that has cemented Leeds’ status among local foodies. She takes pride in the fact that each Hank’s location has its own personality, largely derived from its neighborhood. And she throws regular signature events to help further solidify a sense of community, whether it be annual Oyster Fests in Dupont and Old Town, or Hank’s Battle of the Bars in Petworth, a cocktail competition, launched in January, that Leeds intends to make semi-annual. She also plans to start a monthly Ladies Tea at Hank’s Cocktail Bar, her Petworth location, modeled on the popular lesbian-oriented mixer she’s thrown for years in Dupont. “We get over 200 people here,” she says. “We usually do a specialty punch and then all happy-hour prices and half-price raw bar.”
The Dupont location is the original Hank’s. It opened in 2005 and, in 2010, doubled its size. As Leeds explains from her office above her Q Street venue’s “Yacht Room,” all the change and growth hasn’t altered her motivation for getting into the restaurant business in the first place — “the creation of something out of nothing. The excitement of being able to provide great food at a good value to the people that want it. To be able to provide jobs [and] to provide a source of giving back to the communities.” And give back, she does. All of her five establishments will donate 25% of its dinner sales to Food & Friends, during the organization’s annual Dining Out for Life fundraiser, next Thursday, April 6.
Leeds has come a long way since her first restaurant job, at Popover Cafe in mid-1980s New York City. “I just took to it instantly,” she says, “but there were no women chefs, really, at that time, as role models.” With help from key industry figures — such as mentor Danny Meyer, of the famed Union Square Cafe and Shake Shack empire — she forged a path. “I found my way, and I got different jobs along the way and it kind of picked me,” she says. “I fell in love with it and I just couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else.”
METRO WEEKLY: A lot has changed in the seven years since you were last featured on the cover of Metro Weekly. Yet Dining Out for Life and your involvement in Food & Friends is as strong as ever, with Hank’s participating every year.
JAMIE LEEDS: Every year since we opened. It’s an incredible organization. They do such good for people, and I feel very strongly about giving back to the community and helping to support an organization that is doing the hard work that they’re doing. It’s a great way to help them by offering percentages of our sales. I have five restaurants. We do 25 percent from all five restaurants. So it’s a substantial amount of money, and I’m very proud to be able to do it.
The philanthropic aspect of my philosophy is a huge part of the Hank’s culture. I really feel a responsibility to give back. We’re a neighborhood restaurant, so we’re very involved in the neighborhoods that we’re in, and we try to support as much as we can. We do a lot of fundraisers — March of Dimes, Heart’s Delight, Zoofari. You name it, we do it.
MW: In February, you announced plans to donate to several progressive organizations.
LEEDS: Yes. We’re donating one percent of our sales from all the restaurants to Planned Parenthood, ACLU, NAACP and HRC. I felt that I had to just do something, especially with the immigration laws. We closed for the Day Without Immigrants to support our staff, standing in solidarity with them. I just think it’s important to do what you can.
MW: Do you host political meetups or organizing activities?
LEEDS: I’ve done a couple of things, but no. I’m not a political person. I’m not trying to make political statements. It’s more about the human condition and being a human being and being inclusive. And just having inclusivity being a part of our statement. I try to do what I can do to support the organizations that are doing the hard work to make things right.
MW: Have you shown support to staff, particularly those that are immigrants, in other ways? I know you attribute much of your success to staff loyalty.
LEEDS: I’ve talked to my staff multiple times, and they know that they have my support. And we’re all about protecting them, as much as we can. I have people that have been working with me for years and years. Since we’ve opened. I have a very committed, passionate, honest group of people working for me.
I always say that I try to hire people that are smarter and more ambitious than I am so that they really drive me. I’ve developed a corporate office in this past year. I’ve hired a Director of Operations, I have a Director of Human Resources now, a Director of Marketing, and an assistant. My bookkeeper is now the CFO. We’re building a structure to support all the growth that’s happening for the brand.
MW: How many people currently work for you?
LEEDS: Over 260. I doubled the size of the company last year, which is a huge feat.
MW: Part of that growth came from new ventures, including Hank’s Pasta Bar in Alexandria. What inspired that departure from the seafood that built the brand?
LEEDS: I’ve always wanted to do Italian, and I had an opportunity to get the real estate. It was a good location for an Italian restaurant. I felt like there was a real lack of freshly made pasta options in the area, and there’s nothing like a good bowl of fresh pasta. It’s just been a hit ever since.
MW: You also opened Twisted Horn in Petworth, but rebranded and relaunched it as Hank’s Cocktail Bar at the end of the year. Why the change?
LEEDS: People didn’t realize who we were, and the Hank’s brand carries good recognition. Literally, we changed the name and our sales doubled overnight. It really speaks to the strength of the brand.
The concept is creative cocktails made with fresh juices, homemade infusions and tinctures. We increased the amount of food that we’re doing — we have burgers and sandwiches and tacos, so it’s a much more substantial menu. We also lowered the prices a little bit just to be in line with what the market wanted, listening to the neighbors. And we lightened up the place. We have a local artist come in every month and hang their art for sale. We have a projector now that shows movies throughout the night. It’s just a little more playful.
We do a great brunch, too. The beauty of the place is that we have 40 seats outside in the back, the summer garden, and it just twinkles at night because we’ve hung stringing lights across and we have a living wall back there, and we’re doing wine on tap back there and cocktails on tap as well — sangria usually, or a punch. It’s a lot of fun.
MW: You’re also building another Oyster Bar on the Southwest Waterfront. How is that coming along?
LEEDS: Well, we’re starting to build next month. I’ve been working on it for over a year. I signed the lease almost two years ago. It’s been a long time coming.
I’m really excited about the design. It’s going to be really hot. Maggie O’Neill from Swatch Room is designing it. We’ve had many meetings about the different nuances — she has an artistic side to her that I really love. It’s going to be beautiful. Sixty seats inside, a seventeen-seat bar, a six-seat oyster bar, and seventy-six seats outside. The front is going to be all sliding glass doors so you have more of an indoor/outdoor feel when you’re sitting there. We’re going to have an outdoor bar so that you can sit outside but order from inside through an open window. We’re going to have a takeout window where you can just walk up and take box lunches to go.
We’re also going to have a permanent awning with gas heaters and fans and the drop-down sides so we can deal with the weather. Because the weather is definitely going to be an issue down there. You never know with the wind, the rain.
MW: The whole Wharf project is exciting, especially with all the restaurants to come.
LEEDS: Yeah, the whole thing is going to be great. It’s going to be teeming with people. I feel very honored to be amongst the other restaurateurs — Fabio Trabocchi, Cathal Armstrong, Todd Thrasher, José Andrés, Nick Stefanelli, Mike Isabella. All the big players.
MW: In the 12 years since the original Hank’s opened in Dupont, the local restaurant scene has grown in size and national stature. How has it changed from your vantage point?
LEEDS: It’s still very friendly — there’s a lot of camaraderie. Everybody’s a lot busier because we’re all growing. And then there are the newer kids coming in that I don’t know as well because my position has changed. I’ve grown professionally over the years. I’m not in the trenches anymore, I’m overseeing everything, I’m just taking care of everybody. I’m kind of like the mama bear. So if anybody needs something, they come to me, which is great. I love taking care of my people. This is a people business before it’s a food business for me. I think that, all the chefs that I’m friends with, we’ve all remained friends and friendly. I’ve talked to Jen Carroll, she’s going to be doing Requin, one of the restaurants at the Wharf, not that far from me — “If you ever need anything, just come on over. If you need napkins or whatever.” It’s very friendly.
MW: And you’ve accomplished it all while out and open about it.
LEEDS: Oh yeah, I’ve been out my whole career. I’ve never had a reason not to be out. And I never had a problem.
MW: How old were you when you came out?
LEEDS: I was 23. I was living in New York City. I came out to my best friend — we had gone to college together, and we were sorority sisters. We moved to New York together and I came out to her and then she came out to me. So we were each other’s first, which is really special. And that was in my early 20s in New York City, and I kept it from my mom for a long time — my dad passed when I was 11. When I told her, she said, “Honey, it’s fine, I just want you to be happy, and I’ve known anyway.” Because I was living in a studio apartment with my girlfriend at the time, and my mom would come over and I would tell her that I would sleep on the pullout couch, which was obviously not true. [Laughs.] She was very supportive. My whole family, it was never an issue. One of my sisters is gay. She’s seven years older than me, so she came out first.
MW: I wanted to ask about your health and appearance, which has changed dramatically in recent years.
LEEDS: Yeah. I had weight-loss surgery three years ago. I was close to 300 pounds, and it was really affecting my arthritis in both knees and my feet and I could hardly walk up the stairs. I couldn’t run with [my son] Hayden. I couldn’t do anything. I was just in chronic pain for years and on the way to diabetes and I had high cholesterol. Everything was going awry, and I just had to go and become horizontal. I just was in so much pain and I had done everything I could. I tried to lose the weight. I couldn’t lose the weight. So I had weight-loss surgery. And I lost 145 lbs over a course of two years. I eat a lot of food but little amounts throughout the course of the day.
The surgery that I had is called a DS — a Duodenal Switch. It’s the kind of surgery where you can’t gain the weight back. My stomach is only eight ounces, so I can only eat a certain amount of food, I can only eat so much. I take a lot of vitamins so I stay healthy. I get checked every year. But all of my pain is gone. I’m totally pain-free. My cholesterol is gone. All of my levels are good. Blood pressure, everything is back to normal. I wish I would have done it sooner.
MW: It was a big step to take.
LEEDS: It was a huge decision. My doctor had suggested doing double-knee surgery, so I was going to have to get knee replacements. And I was so heavy that the recovery would have been really difficult. I had a good friend that had done the weight-loss thing very successfully, so I said, “Let’s do this instead and see what happens.”
MW: I imagine your biggest reservation was the fact that you’re a restaurateur — food is a constant in your life.
LEEDS: That was the problem. That was an issue. I wasn’t sure if it was going to change my taste buds. It hasn’t at all. It hasn’t done any of that. And it’s totally changed my life around. I’ve done a complete 180. I would not have been able to grow my business if I hadn’t done this. I would have stopped. Because I had no energy.
I have so much more energy and I can do so much more. At the beginning, the first year, I was hardly sleeping. I had so much energy coming out of me and all these ideas and the guys were getting texts at four in the morning. “Is everything okay?” “Oh, yeah, I just have an idea and I had to get it out of my head.” And then meeting Tina was a huge thing, and falling in love. I had just no social life at all before.
MW: Talk a bit about Tina and your family life.
LEEDS: I met the love of my life at an HRC event on February 15th two years ago — it was a Valentine’s Day thing, and I wasn’t going to go out. I was over it. My friend said, “Got to get out.” So I said, “All right, I’ll go to this.” And there she was, Tina McDaniel. And just instantaneously we fell for each other. We got married last year — in May. And then we had a baby in November. We have a little girl, Hazel Grace Leeds.
It’s funny because we talked about having children early on. Tina really wanted kids, and so we started talking about names on our second or third date. We had her name picked out way before it happened. The H is for my dad, Hank.
MW: Have you found a good balance between work and parenting?
LEEDS: I’m pretty involved. This is my second — it’s been 13 years since Hayden was born, so it’s a little different energy-wise and with everything else. But I put her to sleep every night. We play a lot. We have a very good, solid connection with each other. I’m very involved in helping out. Bathing her, changing her, the usual. We switch off. We have a schedule of sleep, so we can both get some sleep. She’s up like every two hours.
She’s kicking around a lot. She’s a mover and shaker. She’s constantly moving. I feel like she’s going to do somersaults and cartwheels before she starts walking.
MW: Do you still live in Columbia Heights?
LEEDS: No, we bought a house in Chevy Chase. After we got married and we were going to have the baby, we wanted to have some more room. And we have a nice big yard for her. She’s the master of the house.
MW: Do you think you’ll have more kids?
LEEDS: No. We had talked about it at one point but no, we’ve decided that we’re just going to stick with Hazel. I think she’s going to be a handful.
[callout]A Complete Guide to Dining Out for Life 2017[/callout]
MW: Other than your own, any particular restaurants you’d want to call out as favorites?
LEEDS: I love Izakaya Seki, the Japanese place [in the U Street neighborhood]. It’s run by a father and daughter. He’s behind the counter doing the sushi and she runs the front of the house. It really feels like you’re transported, and I love places like that. I also love Sushi Taro, just around the corner. I love Japanese food. For a higher-end experience, I love The Source. Scott Drewno is a great chef. He’s leaving there now, though, but he’s fantastic.
MW: Danny Meyer was your mentor. Have you stayed in touch?
LEEDS: Yeah, I’m still in touch with him. I get a lot of advice from his people. And once in a while I talk to him.
MW: Two years ago, Meyer made a big splash by announcing plans to do away with tipping at his restaurants. Are you considering following his lead on that?
LEEDS: I don’t know if he’s implemented it in all of his restaurants yet, but he was supposed to start it this year. I’m very mixed on the whole subject. The thing about the Hank’s brand is that we’re a good value restaurant. So I keep my prices low — lower than most other seafood restaurants. In turn, I have a higher food cost. But I do that because that’s what we’re about and I want to be able to provide people with a delicious, fresh piece of fish without having to pay $38. In order to take off tips and put everybody on salary, I’d have to raise my prices substantially. And I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to raise my prices, because I think the perception will be off. I’m not sure that people will really understand. All of a sudden the prices are raised and yes, you don’t have to tip your server but still, I think it will be perceived as more of an expensive restaurant, and I just don’t want that. Our system is fine now and our servers make a good amount of money. I pay my people well, so I don’t think it’s necessary right now.
Also, people don’t realize the labor it takes to get the food on the plate in front of you. We have people coming in here at eight in the morning that start prepping so that we can be ready for dinner service at 5 o’clock.
MW: Shucking oysters in and of itself takes a lot of time and effort.
LEEDS: Yeah. I feel very lucky, I have some great oyster shuckers that have been with me for a long time. We go through about 10,000 to 12,000 oysters a week at each location. So each of the guys are shucking 600 to 700 oysters a night, if not more.
MW: You’ve helped many customers, including myself, develop a taste for oysters.
LEEDS: We get a lot of oyster virgins here. We have a wide variety of oysters. One that we have is named after my son, Hayden’s Reef. It’s more of a mild oyster, a good starter oyster. And then we have the Salty Wolf. My father’s middle name was Wolf. That’s more of an East Coast briny oyster.
MW: You’re Jewish. Has running a shellfish restaurant ever caused conflict?
LEEDS: Well I’m not really practicing. It’s pretty funny, because I also eat and cook a lot of pork. You’d never think a Jewish girl is running a restaurant that’s shellfish and pork-driven.
MW: When not eating seafood — or pork — what do you go for?
LEEDS: That’s a tough one, because I like everything. Whenever I go out to a nice restaurant, I always order the duck. Because I get so much seafood all the time. I love game. I love squab, duck. I love livers, hearts. I love all that stuff. I eat it all.
MW: Do you have much of a sweet tooth?
LEEDS: Oh, yeah. Big sweet tooth. Ice cream. I love ice cream.
MW: Do you make it yourself?
LEEDS: [Laughs.] No. I’d rather just buy it and eat it.
Hog Island BBQ for Broiled Oysters
Reduce white wine with shallots, garlic, and thyme. Season.
Add Tabasco and bring to boil.
Whisk in butter by adding 1 pound at a time, otherwise it could separate.
Finish with parsley.
Cool down in ice bath promptly.
The next Ladies Tea is Sunday, April 2, from 3 to 5 p.m., at Hank’s Oyster Bar, 1624 Q St. NW. The 10th Annual Hank’s Dupont Oyster Fest is Saturday, April 22, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tickets are $90 per person. For more information, as well as full details on all five current Hank’s locations, call 202-462-HANK or visit hanksoysterbar.com.
Dining Out for Life is Thursday, April 6. Each Hank’s location will donate 25% of their dinner sales. For a complete list of participating restaurants, turn to page 34, or visit foodandfriends.org/diningout.
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