From Cecile Oreste at danceDC and Matt Rhoades
Editor’s note: We met Tony Lucca during the annual Dog Days Sidewalk Sale on August 7 when he set up his 1905 restaurant promo table next to Borderstan. We learned that Lucca was the owner of the restaurant–and was only 28-years-old. We were intrigued by what drives someone to take a risk on their own business only a few years out of college. Lucca offers up a few suggestions for entrepreneur-wannabes, especially for those who think owning a restaurant is all fun and hanging with the customers.
After graduating from college in 2004 Tony Lucca worked as a consultant for a real estate development firm in DC. He began a successful climb up the company org chart, but realized that an office job was not going to be enough. The lure of owning his own business, always on his mind, was calling. During a visit home to Cape Cod in early 2009, Lucca was able to step back to gain some perspective and also talk with his mom:
“My mom brought up that many of my friends were spending $100,000 or more going back to grad school to get their JD, MBA, etc., and compared their choices to what I was considering. Her point was that if I sunk my savings into a business and after a few years it failed, I would walk away with far better real world experience, without any of the debt. I also realized that at my age and without a family to support, this was the ideal time to take a risk of this magnitude.”
Why a Restaurant?
In the fall of 2008–at age 26–Lucca started brainstorming and working on business plans, and eventually decided to take a leave of absence from work to clear his head and chart a course. Upon returning from his time at home on the Cape, he began networking with local entrepreneurs to identify business opportunities. He focused on nine neighborhoods in DC and researched each one. Lucca looked at several different types of business, including real estate related ventures. He even considered moving to the Pacific Northwest and starting a bus company and went so far as to write a business plan for it. Lucca said the process of writing the plan helped him figure out that he wanted to go with a restaurant:
“I worked in restaurants during high school and to pay my way through college. I chose a restaurant over other industries because it incorporated my real estate development background with my affinity for networking across social and professional platforms. I’m a people person and have always loved bringing people together for a cause. Getting to do that every night in a beautiful space is special, a rare opportunity.”
Lucca got his chance in June 2009 with the opportunity to take over 1905 from two of the previous owners.
“You Have to Be There”
1905 was struggling, especially with overall food quality and service and the upstairs location on 9th Street NW remains a challenge. “I got deeply involved in the daily grind of the business. You have to be there and do anything that needs to be done. It started to pay off after a few months,” said Lucca.
Lucca said that about 10 days after taking over 1905, one of the restaurant refrigerators died (actually it had just been unplugged); an inventory of spoiled fish was left behind. Staff threw the fish in the restaurant dumpster, but neglected to put it in trash bags.
“Nobody on staff would go near it, so after a few days, I went back there with a shovel, a big bucket, a lot of bleach, and got to cleaning. It was a great way to show the staff that I wasn’t going to be an absentee owner who was afraid to get his hands dirty. In the end, it set a precedent and example that remains today.”
Lucca said his hours vary, but average 65 to 75 hours per week: I’m on the 1905 floor Tuesday night through Saturday night for most or all of service, which is six to seven hours each night. That’s the fun part though, being with the customers. It’s all the work that goes into getting the place up and running each night that is not so glamorous.
European Comfort Food
In addition to daily operations, Lucca’s other big challenge was to redefine 1905’s identify with Chef Matthew Richardson. He calls the revamped menu, “unique renditions of European comfort food.” He kept the cozy decor, done by interior designer Mick Mier, which is in the European bistro style.
” The previous menu mixed Latin American, Italian, Asian and European food along with some New Orleans inspired dishes. “There wasn’t a concise vision that linked the restaurant’s atmosphere with the food and drinks,” said Lucca.
Rooftop Deck in Works
The big project underway now at 1905 is the addition of a rooftop deck that will double the restaurant’s seating capacity during good weather. Lucca hopes the growth of the 9th Street corridor and an improving DC economy will also be catalysts in the long-term success of 1905.
After 15 months, Lucca said he is “getting back to a place where I feel more real. And I’m a lucky man to have stumbled upon two business owners who took a risk on me.”