The award-winning chef and owner on hospitality
Chef and Owner, Aaron Silverman at Pineapple and Pearls.
There’s no denying that Aaron Silverman is on a roll. From James Beard to Food & Wine to Bon Appetit, and many more, his extensive list of awards proves that his food and his restaurants, Rose’s Luxury and Pineapple and Pearls, are the real deal.
The Bento team recently had the chance to visit to Washington, D.C. and catch up with Aaron. As we sat in the beautiful back dining area of Pineapple and Pearls, watching the kitchen staff prep for dinner service, we talked with the laid-back owner about what got him interested in the industry, staff culture, and what hospitality means to him.
Warm Up Questions
What’s the last thing you bought online?
Everything for the restaurant we buy online. Our biggest supplier now is Amazon—it’s crazy. So it would’ve been an Italian coffee siphon last night at 2am, because three of them broke yesterday.
What do your parents do?
The short answer: they work here. My dad just fully retired and does all of our legal, fundraising and investor relations. He does a lot of business stuff for us. My mom does all the flower arrangements for both restaurants.
What are the apps on the first screen of your phone?
What’s the last thing you cooked for yourself at home?
I’m embarrassed to tell you. I made pasta with Sungold tomatoes… but, that was a year ago.
Kitchen staff at Pineapple and Pearls prepping for dinner service.
How did you get into the hospitality industry?
I originally went to school for accounting and political science because I thought that’s what I wanted to do. I did an externship program at Northeastern where you go to school for 6 months and then work for 6 months. But I was pretty miserable doing accounting and auditing, even though I was making a lot of money (relatively) for a 20 year old. It sucked.
So I asked myself what I would do if I didn’t have to work and figured maybe I should do that for a living. I knew I enjoyed cooking—I cooked with my Dad growing up. So I decided to try it. I went to work at a restaurant where the chef was a family friend called 2941, over my winter break in West Falls, Virginia, I loved it. So I went back to Northeastern to finish up my degree a year early and went to culinary school, L’academie in Gaithersburg.
Rose's Luxury photo via shopyourway.com.
Early on, you started building your staff with a lot of people you knew closely on a personal level. What were the advantages and challenges?
I started with a couple people I knew really well, but there weren’t that many. We started with 23 employees and now we’re over 100. But it’s been great working with them because the friendship and the working well together both developed at the same time. For me, it’s easier because I can communicate with those people so much better and connect on a personal level. I’ve tried to develop that across the company environment and culture.
What are specific cultural things that are important to be carried throughout your restaurants?
Empathy and communication. We’re a family. Without everyone here, the restaurants are nothing.
You allow your staff to comp dishes?
We do. The bigger picture of that is that we don’t micromanage them. The servers are adults, they’re smart and passionate. We want them to manage their own tables. We want to empower them and not have to run to a manager if there’s an issue with a table. We trust that they will make the best possible decision to take care of their table.
Pork lychee pasta at Rose's Luxury. Photo via theinfautation.com.
You’ve been using a prepaying system at the restaurants—how has that been working out?
It’s been really great. Not a single person has complained and a lot of people love it because they leave and there’s no check. You’re paying for it one way or another—either at the beginning of the meal or at the end. If you’re going to pay for it, why ruin the experience [in the moment]? If you go to a concert are you going to pay the bill on you’re way out? Not really. Buying the tickets at first isn’t fun, but then you have a great experience at the concert. So that’s kind of the idea.
Has prepaying changed the economics of the business?
It’s really interesting economically. You have to back out tax and gratuity, which is complicated. Our servers don’t work on tips, they’re profit sharing, so that can get complicated with overtime. We’re also only open four nights a week, which complicates it even more, we can’t upsell anything since it’s a set price, and finally, you’re collecting half of the money a month in advance so you’re sitting on money that you haven’t delivered upon yet.
People like it though, and make psychological associations similar to what they do with Uber and Amazon Prime: basically, thinking it’s free, even though it’s not. It’s about a feeling. We don’t have tips here, it’s all in the initial fee. We pay our servers a high hourly rate and then they also get a percentage of the profits.
So are you a supporter of hospitality included?
For some places, yes. For some places it doesn’t make sense. I like the idea… does it really make everyone’s lives better? Maybe. But you’re really just redistributing profits in a different way. It gives you more control, but I’m not sure how much it really evens out the playing field.
At the end of the day, the back of the house is still making less than the front of the house. In theory it makes sense, but you have to really think it through.
What would your dream restaurant be?
8-seats. One turn a night. Four nights a week.