It’s a rainy day in the District. I walk towards a door that proudly displays a sign of equality:
Hate has no business in any house of Jamie Leeds. Neither does unhappiness, unpaid vacations, or lack of health insurance.
“I have a lot of empathy for people,” Leeds says as we sit at a long, wooden kitchen table above the original Hanks Oyster Bar in Dupont Circle. The space was once Leeds’ old apartment. Now it’s been converted into an office loft filled with comforting noises of clacking keyboards and people enthusiastically running up and down the narrow staircase.
“I came from nothing,” Leeds continues. “My childhood was a struggle. My dad died at a young age when I was 11. We were on food stamps when I was a kid. So, I know what it’s like to come from nothing, pull yourself up and create a career for myself.”
And what a career she did create. The self-taught chef from New York has worked in restaurants all over the world for notable names like Danny Meyer and the Lettuce Entertain You group.
“Danny Meyer was a huge inspiration to me. He’s my mentor. He sent me to France and got me to the point where I wanted to own my own restaurant. I wanted to emulate him.”
Today, her restaurant group—Jamie Leeds Restaurant Group—employs over 300 people spanning six restaurants and a cocktail bar, with more concepts to come.
Her secret to success is creating a very different work culture from the one she was brought up in.
“The old school way never really worked for me. I never really felt comfortable with that. I know there’s no way I would be where I am without the people under me.”
Leeds translates her empathy into experiences for her employees. Over the years, she has:
- Paid for childcare when needed
- Helped employees go to school to learn English
- Provided paternal leave
“Right now, I do a lot on a case-by-case basis but I’m hoping soon to implement company-wide programs.”
Her existing company-wide initiatives are still far beyond what many around the country provide. Employees of JL Restaurant Group are provided with health insurance, paid vacation time (including for those who work on an hourly basis), along with incentive programs and further education.
“I always say I hire people that are smarter and more ambitious than me. I’ve succeeded in doing that and now they’re pushing me to grow.”
Leeds confirms that there are more restaurants in the works.
Coming soon, however, is an events catering division from the JL Restaurant Group that includes a 3,600 sq. ft. space along with, potentially, a rooftop deck and bar.
Like so many other women in the industry, Leeds is pushing forward all while also raising a family. “When my son, was born, I was working 24/7 as a chef. He’d always have to come to the restaurant to have dinner and spend time with me.” With regards to whether her fifteen-year-old son will eventually join her in the restaurant business, she is ambivalent.
“I wouldn’t recommend he follows in my footsteps. It’s very hard to succeed. The failure rate is in the 90th percentile.” She ponders. “This path chose me. If he feels the same passion for it, then by all means. But I’m not going to push him into it. It’s a hard road.”
Given her decades of experience, Leeds does have advice for those whom the path has chosen (the Force is strong with them…). Her biggest counsel is to have gratitude and patience.
“You can’t just go to culinary school and come out thinking you’re going to be a chef. You gotta pay your dues in this business. It’s not a bad thing; it’s gratifying to take those baby steps and learn. Especially if you’re a self-taught chef.”
Hanks Oyster Bar
1624 Q St NW, Washington, DC 20009
Open Monday-Friday from 11:30am-12am; Saturday/Sunday from 11:00am-12am