Q&A with Bettina Stern of D.C.’s Chaia
The chef and co-owner talks staffing, tech, hospitality, and more
Walking into the bright, 27-seat Georgetown shop your eyes immediately jump to vibrant vegetable tacos, grilled corn tortillas, fresh green juices, and local wines flowing on tap. It’s hard not to look around with wonder and amazement. What started out as a small farmer's market taco stand has transformed into a beautiful restaurant called Chaia. The farm-to-taco concept is run by Bettina Stern and Suzanne Simon, which offers seasonal and artisanal food at an affordable price.
As we sat in the secluded, airy dining space, Bettina greeted us warmly and sat down and immediately dove into a conversation on hiring a team, Slack, and more...
Co-owners Suzanne Simon and Bettina Stern.
Warm Up Questions
Where did you grow up?
Stern: Greenwich Village, NYC and moved to Park Slope when my son was born. A year later, we moved to Washington, D.C.
What was the last thing you bought online?
Stern: A pair of clogs. Sexy t-strap clogs.
What’s the last thing you cooked for yourself at home?
Literally the last thing I cooked for myself at home? Two organic farm fresh eggs with some sheep’s milk feta, cooked in butter with a little hot sauce on top. That was my breakfast.
What apps do you have on your phone’s home screen?
Asana, HotSchedules, Slack, Yelp, and Snapchat. Danielle [Chaia’s general manager] brought [Slack] to us - it was a great introduction. It’s still a text message, but it’s channeled. So when you’re looking for something, it’s much easier to see the thread of conversation. When we were writing back and forth it wasn’t so streamlined. Now our texts are more streamlined. We have everything from kitchen ops, to recruitment, to menu, to financials, to staff.
Tell us a little bit about your life before Chaia and what got you interested in hospitality.
Stern: I grew up in NYC and have always loved food, going out, and being surrounded by music and people. Ever since I was young that’s been a passion and interest of mine. I also always wanted to do something that was a startup- something entrepreneurial, but I didn’t know what that would be. I did have two criteria: a communal space where people share working together and the fact that you could have fun at your job as well. I think that’s something that people today think more about - millennials are always looking for that work life balance. I’m not a millennial, but I always wanted that.
In 2007 Suzanne and I started a food blog. There weren’t really many food blogs at that point. But, it started us cooking together and conceptualizing business plans together. The initial plan was a food truck, but we changed gears, started the food blog, taking classes, and writing about the food scene [in D.C.], local food, and feeding your family. Over time, we started making connections [to people in the industry]. In 2012, when we were asked to be part of a startup kitchen competition, we jumped right on it. Soon after, we were approached to test out our idea in a farmer’s market. A month later, we opened up at the White House Farmer’s Market and the rest is sort of history.
How many people do you have on staff?
Stern: Currently with full-time and part-time we have somewhere shy of 25.
What do you guys look for when hiring? The cultural things you look for?
Stern: If you’ve ever read anything Danny Meyer has ever written, we are definitely hiring for the 51 percenter. We’re hiring for the people that are going to bring us something too. They have an interest somehow and we all work symbiotically together, so we can be pretty picky about who we take on and why we take them on. We look for that reaction when we hire them.
If you were ever going to open up a new restaurant with a new concept, what would the style be?
Stern: We don’t know quite where we are going, but we are gearing up to scale up [Chaia]. I have not been thinking of another style of restaurant, but I have been consulting with my brother and he seems to be rejecting my idea - I think it’s a good one though. He lives in Denver, which is another potential Chaia location. But, he has a method of growing mushrooms from when he lived in Seattle and I have a concept that I keep telling him to do [with that method].
Can you tell us a little more about the concept?
Stern: I don’t want to say yet because it’s a really good idea!