Dr. Kostas Daskalakis recently sat down and had lunch with Patch at his office - a window table at the Fireside Grill. The Lorton restaurant opened five years ago and business is steadily increasing, Daskalakis told Patch over a bowl of fettuccine and meatballs.
In fact, Daskalakis, who was born in Athens, Greece, also owns Hopsfrog Grille in Burke. He is currently scouting locations for a second Fireside Grill. He is married, has two children and lives in Fairfax.
Patch: How's business?
Daskalakis: Business is not bad. Things have slowed down in the last couple of weeks and I believe it's a general fear with the economy. It's slowed down for lunch and picked up at dinner, which tells me that people are saving their money during the day.
We're up five percent from last year, which is not meeting our 10-15 percent goal. Given the uncertainty of the economy you really don't know how the next few months is going to go. I've been talking with financial advisors and they claim the economy for the rest of the year is going to be pffft. I think they are right.
Patch: Are you considering raising the prices of items on the menu?
Daskalakis: No. Food costs are going up. You see that. You go to the grocery store. That means that we need customers and an increase in income, but we won't raise the prices because people are already broke. The money that we do make - it's an interplay between all these factors - and you have to figure out where it should go.
But my industry is never going to go away. People want to go out. They like to do it or don't know how to cook, but they're also used to getting more for less. Thirty years ago, food was very plain, simple. You wanted good food then you went to a French restaurant or an Italian restaurant. Today, you can get excellent food at a casual restaurant like this.
Patch: How much do people want to spend for dinner?
Daskalakis: That's tough, because the actual litmus test is whether people find value for what they are paying. The more they pay, the better the environment, the service and the food have to be. It depends on your client base and their incomes. We've got to give them something they consider valuable. Is this a better steak than they can get at home? I look at myself and I see that I'm not that much different than the people living around here - not very rich, not very poor.
Patch: What did you do before you got into the restaurant business?
Daskalakis: I was a chemist for 20 years. I got my bachelor's degree in Greece, and my Ph. D at the University of Maryland College Park. I worked for the Department of Commerce as an environmental chemist. I liked it, but I wasn't crazy about working for the government. It was a little bureaucratic.
I was exposed to the food industry when I came to the states from Greece in 1983. My uncle, who was married to my mother's sister, was the chef at the Greek Embassy for 25 years. I started working for his private catering business and became a decent cook. We would cater two or three parties over a weekend. I was still a student, but he trusted me enough to run things.
Patch: What's the toughest thing to master in your business?
Daskalakis: Consistency. It's the name of the game. Changing recipes is no problem. I can do that all day. The question is how I can do it with consistency. Our approach is very scientific. the chefs never deviate from making a dish according exactly to the recipe. We're going to be making videos to show new cooks in training so that they get things exactly right.
Patch: How would you describe your leadership style?
Daskalakis: I like to look at all things, put my hands in everything. I give responsibility to people, but like to make sure they're following the plan and then I give them the freedom to work without an immediate supervisor and then I go back to them with a clearer vision of how to handle things.
Patch: How many people do you employ?
Daskalakis: Thirty full and part-time staffers. I built this place, you know. I got a Class A contractors licence so that I could build it. I'm pretty good with that sort of stuff. The family business in Greece was in construction and I spent a lot of time with it. The interior was designed by me and my partner.
Patch: Are you planning on opening more locations?
Daskalakis: Yes. In the beginning, we wanted to make an upper-casual restaurant. We knew it would be a little more upscale than Lorton wants, but the idea was to build it for the restaurant so that you can set up other locations elsewhere with out changing any details. So, I've been looking at places recently. The economy crashing put a stop to any thoughts of expansion. Everybody pulled back, even us. It was not a time to risk everything, it was a time to hold back.
Patch: Fill in the blank - Fireside Grill serves (BLANK) food.
Daskalakis: American. But what is American these days? It's a melting pot."