After six years, the Old Town Alexandria bistro-bakery-butcher shop-cafe-market is figuring out its new identity with new owners.
“I need to take that sticker off,” Nadine Brown says as she looks at the barcode on the wooden stand holding menus. “I think that’s how people knew it was going to auction.”
Society Fair is off the auction block, at least for now.
When the inflow of money stopped, co-owners Nadine Brown and husband Dan Fisher started the process of selling tables, chairs and equipment, piece by piece.
“She wasn’t talking to me,” remembers Fisher, or if she was, it was more like, “Screw you, we’re not closing.” That was during those tense days of trying to figure out how to keep the business together, or break it down.
The business was already in trouble when the couple took it over from Cathal and Meshelle Armstrong. The market, bakery, butcher shop, cafe and bistro opened in Old Town Alexandria six years ago. At one time, the Armstrongs operated much of what was delicious in the neighborhood: Restaurant Eve (closed), Majestic (new owners), Virtue Feed & Grain (new owners) and Hummingbird, PX and Eammon’s (all still open).
In 2017, with the Armstrongs building a high-end, pan-Asian restaurant on DC’s newly developed Wharf, they handed off Society Fair to Fisher, already a partner in Society Fair and the opening chef, who had been in the kitchen at both Eve and Majestic, and Brown, an award-winning wine professional, who recently left her job at Charlie Palmer Steak in the city.
This was the first time the couple worked together in about 20 years, when they originally met at Bistro Bis on Capitol Hill. Fisher, who’s from Virginia, was 21 and a line cook, and asked out Brown, eight years his senior, who grew up in Jamaica and Puerto Rico. She moved from host to manager to finding an interest in wine and taking French classes to learn how to pronounce labels. Their first date was a Sade concert. They now live in Alexandria’s Belle View neighborhood with their two kids.
“What I enjoy about working here,” says Fisher, “is the breadth of things you’re asked to do.” He butchers meat, simmers Indian butter chicken as a to-go entree for the market’s cold case, bakes cakes. This is also the downfall of the operation.
There’s four separate businesses under one roof, and the couple never ran their own business before, let alone one as varied as a restaurant with a retail shop and a catering side, too.
And things need to change.
Brown remembers spotting a barista watching a movie on her phone. But that was the least of their problems. They cut $20,000 in labor and food costs last year, but it wasn’t enough.
“My father has been keeping us open,” says Fisher. His father, Carl Fisher, helped them hire a consulting firm to dig into their books, hire a new general manager and cover payroll. But, says Brown, the “numbers weren’t changing fast enough.” He told them to shut it down.
Brown admits they were slow to make changes. “I’m done. You guys need to close in nine days,” Fisher remembers reading in his father’s email.
He told his son to close in late January and he would provide all of the employees with two-week severance pay.
Fisher himself is a lower-level Society Fair investor, and will only make money once everyone else has. Or as he says, “Don’t invest in restaurants for a return in money.”
But they were not giving up, and they needed everyone to know.
“2018 was a difficult year to say the least,” she wrote. “December and January with the government shutdown and record-breaking temperatures were like a final one-two punch. This is an unforgiving business at times and we have made mistakes.”
Local media outlets picked up the plea for help, employees, says Fisher, “brought me envelopes of cash.” They came to work not knowing if they’d be paid.
Their landlord has deferred rent for two months while the couple creates a new business plan and meets with potential investors. They’re searching for vendors to offer online ordering. They might ditch the butchery. They might ditch the bakery, or double-down and expand with new wholesale clients and a push for pizza delivery.
In the meantime, instead of streamlining, says Fisher, they’re “casting a wide net.” It is “the nature of this beast that we have a lot of things going and there’s no easy way to reel it all in.”
“We did not focus on the fun, there was no time left,” says Fisher, after a year of dissecting numbers, replacing key staff and reinvigorating the work culture. “People absolutely engage when we do interesting things.”
Now, they host “unplugged night” where families hide their devices and play board games in the bistro; a bourbon book club; wine dinners. They are toying with upending the menu every few months to celebrate a different city around the world, like the restaurant Cities, where Cathal met Meshelle in the 1990s.
It’s been almost a month since Society Fair wrote publicly, “Without help our doors will close at the end of service on FEB 8. !!!”
As of this week, they raised $7,770, though it cost them $5,000 to cancel the auction. They’re still out there, hunting for more money and more customers. Trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be.
Brown took on the job of social media and has been inviting her Facebook friends to like Society Fair’s page. Phyllis Richman, the longtime, revered restaurant critic at The Washington Post, wrote back and asked, “What kind of food do you have?”
“It was hard,” says Brown. “What do you say to Phyllis Richman? I don’t know what kind of food it is.” // Society Fair: 277 S. Washington St., Alexandria
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