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Sam & Harry's - 2003 Fine Dining Hall of Fame - a discussion of the Washington D.C. restaurant - Company Profile

When Michael Sternberg and Larry Work were drawing up business plans for their proposed steakhouse in 1989, they hit upon the idea of naming it after their respective grandfathers, Sam Wenig and Ellis Work.

Satisfied with their decision, the partners didn't give it any more thought and returned to the development of their upscale restaurant in Washington, D.C. But then one day, as they were on their way to mail the completed plans to prospective investors, Sternberg remembers suddenly turning to Work and exclaiming, "We can't name the restaurant this!"

When a puzzled Work demanded to know why not, Sternberg told him to say the name of the restaurant out loud.

"Larry said, 'Sam and ... oh my gosh! It's food poisoning!'" Sternberg recalls. "Sam & Ellis is food poisoning!"

Thirteen years later, having narrowly averted inflicting the worst name ever on their restaurant, the two partners--who decided instead to substitute the more benign name of Work's uncle--have built the 275-seat Sam & Harry's into a Washington institution. Robert Shoffner, wine and food editor for the Washingtonian magazine, referred to it as "a classic American steakhouse," while Phyllis Richman, former restaurant critic for The Washington Post, wrote in the newspaper's magazine, "Here's the kind of steak that made America great." A DiRoNA award winner, Sam & Harry's also has been presented with the Award of Excellence by Wine Spectator.

Even competitors speak highly of Sternberg and Work. "I think they're super," says Alan Stillman, chairman and chief executive of the New York-based Smith & Wollenksy Restaurant Group, which operates an outlet of its high-end steakhouse chain less than a block away. "They run a great restaurant. They're great people to have next door."

The success of Sam & Harry's has allowed the two restaurant veterans to extend their culinary reach throughout the area as well. Their company, Sam & Harry's Restaurant Holdings, operates a second Sam & Harry's in Tyson's Corners, Va., and The Caucus Room, an upscale steakhouse that is co-owned by top district lobbyists Tom Boggs and Haley Barbour. They also plan to open Harry's Tap Room, a more moderately priced concept in Arlington, Va., later this year.

In addition, the company has management contracts for Nathans of Georgetown, a casual chophouse in the District, and Independence Brew Pub in Philadelphia.

But while the partners have parlayed their plans for Sam & Harry's into a flourishing multirestaurant company, the early prognosis for success was anything but reassuring. "People thought we were crazy at first," explains Sternberg, who had been working for a local restaurant company when he and Work hit upon the idea of opening the steakhouse. "First, we opened in April 1990, during a recession. The market was slow, and companies were going under. Other high-end restaurants were downscaling."

Second, he adds, "we opened up across the street from The Palm [steakhouse], which was already well established in Washington."

Nor would the development stage be easy for the two men. Both Sternberg and Work were forced to take other jobs to support their families in the months leading up to the restaurant's debut. Work, a new father, held four jobs simultaneously. He was a server at the Tower Club in Virginia and a sous chef at the Inn at Glen Echo. In addition, he sold wines for a local liquor store and lasers for knee surgery for Pfizer.

The fifth job was working on the restaurant, he says, adding, "My son was a baby, so I wasn't sleeping very much anyway."

After eight months of nonstop toil, Sam & Harry's was completed, and the restaurant debuted with a soft opening in April 1990. "Mike and I held off opening several times," Work says. "Finally, when we had all of our ducks in a row, the staff was trained and we had all of our product in house, we walked over and unlocked the doors. No announcements."

The first couple of months were difficult. "The market was slow--summertime in Washington is notoriously slow anyway," Sternberg observes. Adding to their anxieties, the food press in 1990 loudly was proclaiming the death of steak, alleging that nobody wanted to eat red meat anymore.

Beyond that Sternberg says he doesn't remember too many specifics about the first year. "It was just a blur," he says. "Larry would be the first person in the door at 7 in the morning and would go home around 10 o'clock at night. And I would come in at 10 in the morning and be the last one out the door at 2 or 3 in the morning. We did that for a year."

Over time, however, business began to inch upward. Then in January the Gulf War broke out. "In early 1991 it seemed almost inappropriate to be dining out in fine-dining Italian or French restaurants," he continues. "But what was wrong with steak and potatoes? So traffic began to climb."

By 1994 business was stronger, and when the optician next door vacated his office, Steinberg and Work took over that space. They added a private dining room and a jazz club called the Evening Star Jazz Bar. The club "was crowded every night, but the demand for private dining space was constantly growing," Work says. "And we realized that our time and energy were better spent converting the club into two more private rooms and picking up a large public dining room."

Nevertheless, music continues to be reflected in the jazz-theme artwork placed around the restaurant. One painting shows Work's uncle playing guitar as Steinberg's grandfather holds a stand-up bass.

Private dining, in fact, was emerging as a major portion of the steakhouse's business. Beginning with two private dining rooms, Sam & Harry's now has six, with parties accounting for 30 percent of the restaurant's total business.

"The restaurant's big evolution has been through the private-party business," Work notes. "Concierges across the city know that we can handle groups at the last minute, so we get calls constantly for parties of eight or 10 or 12."

He opens the reservation book to the dinner page for a cold, rainy Tuesday night in early April and ticks off the larger parties. "Thirty, 8, 10, 10, 8, 6, 10, 12, 12, 8, 13, 6, 8," he reads. "And that will double or triple before the night is over."

To handle that business, the partners employ a full-time events-planning manager. "One person today does nothing but book private dining rooms," Work adds.

The 9,900-square-foot restaurant's configuration--two main dining rooms and six private rooms--also allows the owners to cater to group business more easily. A series of custom-milled French doors and room dividers can be opened or closed as the requirements for each room dictate.

To accommodate larger groups, nearly every table at Sam & Harry's can be opened to handle additional seating. Four-tops can be increased for six, while others can handle eight or even 12 diners.

But while the restaurant has evolved to cater to parties and larger groups, the menu itself has not undergone many revisions. "We haven't changed the core concept much," Work says. "Dinner is so focused on doing large parties, we like to keep the menu consistent."

The partners' original dream had been to establish Sam & Harry's as "more than just a typical steakhouse," Sternberg says. "We wanted the plate presentation to be better. We wanted to do seafood better than the typical steakhouse."

The core menu consists of a 12-ounce and 18-ounce New York strip; a 9-ounce filet; a veal chop; and a 14-ounce bone-in filet. The bone-in filet, which is not particularly common in steakhouses, was added six years ago. "We did some testing of steaks with the bone in, comparing them to the bone-out product," Work says. "And we thought the flavor was better with the bone in. So we added a bone-in sirloin and then a bone-in filet, which sold like hotcakes."

The best-selling steak item at Sam & Harry's, in fact, is the tenderloin, which sells equally well with the bone in and the bone out. All beef is prime except for the filets, which are Choice. "We tested both and couldn't tell any difference between the two," Work explains.

Beef accounts for about 65 percent of all food sales at Sam & Harry's. All steaks are wet-aged for 26 days and purchased from a small, family-owned meat company in Chicago. "Michael and I have been there six or seven times to check on quality and cuts and talk about new things," he continues.

The menu also features a porterhouse steak; a Delmonico steak, which is similar to a prime rib; and a stuffed pork chop. Seafood selections always include grilled salmon, Maine lobster, grilled tuna and a fresh fish of the day.

All food preparation is headed up by executive chef Matthew Parilli, a five-year veteran of Sam & Harry's. He oversees a kitchen staff of about 25.

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