“We never open a new business without doing a great deal of planning on the beverage program,” says Michael Babin, owner of Alexandria, Virginia-based Neighborhood Restaurant Group (NRG). “Beverage is never an afterthought. We believe that guests discriminate on the basis of quality beverage programs.”
Indeed, Babin’s business has developed a well-earned reputation in the D.C. market for offering cutting-edge beer, wine and spirits programs at some 14 diverse venues. The 17-year-old company has placed such a focus on drinks that it employs individual category experts to develop and manage each of its beer, wine and spirits operations: Greg Engert serves as the beer director, Brent Kroll is wine director, and Jeff Faile is bar and spirits director. “We’ve invested in some great professionals,” Babin says. “I encourage them to be ambitious and to think big.”
NRG’s concepts run the gamut from fine dining venues, such as the historic Iron Gate in Dupont Circle, to casual eateries like the nearby GBD (Golden Brown Delicious), which specializes in doughnuts and fried chicken. But each venue shares a commitment to its local community, whether it’s Evening Star Cafe in Alexandria, Virginia’s Del Ray neighborhood, The Partisan in D.C.’s Penn Quarter, or Bluejacket brewery and restaurant in the old naval yards section of southeastern D.C. The concepts range in size from the 840-square-foot B Side restaurant and bar in Merrifield, Virginia, to the 7,000 square-foot Bluejacket, located in a space that was formerly part of a ship and munitions manufacturing complex. Babin declines to reveal annual revenues for the company, but he says unit sales range from $500,000 to $10 million. NRG employs about 800 workers.
Babin’s first foray into the restaurant business came in 1997 with the opening of the 1,800-square-foot, 50-seat Evening Star. “At first, we didn’t have room to offer a great wine list,” he concedes, but in just two years, the restaurateur took over an adjacent convenience store and transformed it into a wine outlet. The addition of Planet Wine Shop, with more than 2,000 wines, was an “eye opener” into the potential that a good wine selection can bring to an operation and marked the company’s first step toward what he calls “a great beverage program.” Between 2003 and 2009, Babin unveiled a string of unique concepts in the D.C. suburbs, including Vermilion, Columbia Firehouse and Buzz Bakery in Alexandria, Virginia, and Rustico in Arlington, Virginia.
In 2009, Babin expanded into D.C. with Birch & Barley and ChurchKey, a downstairs restaurant and upstairs bar renowned for extensive artisanal beer offerings. For the past five years, NRG has debuted an average of two new venues annually in D.C. and Virginia. Those launches have included the reopening of the landmark Iron Gate and the company’s venture into brewing with Bluejacket—both in 2013—as well as the unveiling of meat-centric restaurant The Partisan next to its Red Apron butcher shop earlier this year. Babin remains owner and majority shareholder of NRG, although he has financial and operational partners within the company.
“A lot of what drives the projects that we undertake is the interests, passions and commitment of the operational partners in the group,” Babin explains. “Early on we decided that we wanted the restaurants to be staff-driven.” That passion has been rewarded with loyal customers. “It’s hard for people to feel an emotional attachment to a chain,” Babin admits, noting that because the company doesn’t open multiple units of single concepts, it doesn’t benefit from economies of scale on the management side of the business. Due to the varied nature of NRG’s venues, Babin declines to reveal the company’s overall food-to-beverage split or a breakdown of wine, spirits and beer sales. “It’s all over the map,” he explains.
Kroll, who joined NRG in January 2013, says The Partisan, Iron Gate and Vermilion are among the group’s most wine-focused restaurants. Wine by the glass is a big driver of the company’s program, so he strives to offer guests a broad selection. At The Partisan, for example, some 40 wines are typically available by the glass, generally priced from $7 to $45. The venue’s bottle list can stretch up to 700 selections, with prices starting at $35 a 750-ml. bottle and going up to $641 for the 2011 Domaine Coche-Dury Meursault-Perrieres Premier Cru Burgundy. Vermilion, meanwhile, serves modern American cuisine and features about 130 wines priced from $28 to $175 a 750-ml. bottle, with 30 selections by the glass ($7 to $20). At Iron Gate, the wine menu highlights indigenous varietals from southern Italy and Greece, such as the 1999 Kir-Yianni Ramnista Xinomavro from Macedonia ($30 a glass; $120 a 750-ml. bottle). The D.C. restaurant features about 250 wines by the bottle
($32 to $300) and 32 wines by the glass ($8 to $40). But even Bluejacket brewery has a solid wine list, with bottles priced from $35 to $110 for the 2011 Larkin Cabernet Sauvignon, while glass offerings range from $8 to $12. Kroll adds that he updates the wine lists at many of the venues seasonally.
NRG has built a reputation on its beer program since launching Rustico in Alexandria in 2006—the same year Engert joined the company (a second Rustico location opened in Arlington, Virginia, in 2010). At the time, Rustico featured one of the most extensive beer programs in the region. But Birch & Barley and ChurchKey have since emerged as benchmarks for beer-focused eateries around the country. The two venues share the same selection of 50 draft brews and five cask beers ($6 to $14 a pour, depending on the serving size), along with a bottled beer and cider menu of more than 500 offerings, with prices ranging from $6 to $200 for a 3-liter bottle of New Holland Dragon’s Milk stout, which is aged in Bourbon barrels. The beer list at The Partisan features 17 drafts ($6 and $13) and 70 bottles ($6 to $70) and leans toward sour beers and saisons—styles that match well with the venue’s meats and charcuterie. While Engert is charged with creating and maintaining the frequently changing beer lists at most NRG locations, as well as staff education and organizing beer-focused events, his duties grew dramatically last year with the opening of Bluejacket. Engert oversees three brewers in the creation, recipe design and tasting of every beer produced. The brewpub offers 20 drafts and five casks ($6 to $9, depending on pour size) and 10 hand-bottled brews (around $10 each). The beer menus are organized according to flavor profile, including “crisp,” “hop,” “malt,” and “fruit and spice.”
Faile is the newest member of what Babin calls NRG’s “beverage dream team,” having joined the company a year ago after making a name for himself as a premier mixologist at D.C’s Fiola restaurant. So far, he has developed the cocktail programs at Iron Gate, The Partisan, Bluejacket and B Side. “In D.C. now, the focus is on cocktails,” Faile says of bar trends. “If you want a successful restaurant, a good cocktail list has to be part of it.” While prices vary by venue, well drinks generally start at $9 and signature cocktails are priced between $12 and $13. Among the company’s more popular signature cocktails is The Partisan’s Sailin’ On ($13), comprising Old Overholt rye whiskey, Cocchi vermouth, Los Amantes mezcal, chili oil-infused Averna amaro and Fee Brothers Aztec Chocolate bitters. Faile emphasizes fresh ingredients in his drinks, seeks to vary offerings depending on the season and works closely with restaurant chefs to complement flavors coming out of the kitchens. “With so many different locations, I really like the cocktail list to reflect what the restaurant itself represents,” he says.
NRG is a big supporter of the communities in which it operates. Four years ago, Babin founded the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture, a nonprofit organization that works through a network of local farms to get affordable fresh food to underserved D.C. neighborhoods. “It’s doing really good work all over the city,” says Babin, who serves as the group’s chairman.
The restaurateur reveals that he would like to grow his holdings in coming years beyond the nation’s capital and surrounding areas. “I think expansion is next for us,” he says, with initial development likely to occur along the Eastern Seaboard. But whatever the market, Babin maintains that the bar will continue to play a huge role. “The beverage program for any of our locations isn’t ancillary to the main thrust of the concept; it’s integral to it,” Babin says, noting that any future NRG concepts will include serious drinks programs. “Beverage is core to what we do.”