Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Alley and Thally

1316 9th St NW, Washington, DC 20001
(202) 733-3849

Tally-Ho was a British fox hunting riders' "cry to hounds". It was also the name of the type of coach that was available for hire from the massive 1883 Tally-Ho Livery Stable (1300 Naylor Court) immediately behind Thally Restaurant. This building is now part of the DC Archives. You can still see the horse-head-height windows on the second floor levels of the building. 

The author of preservingDCstables recently chatted with Sherman, the owner of Thally, to explore his reflections on the past 8 months since opening his restaurant in the Naylor Court Block of Shaw. 

He is pleased that he opened Thally in Shaw when he did and is enjoying being part of the "boom on 9th Street". We discussed several of the basic principles of success in any business - especially restaurant businesses. We also discussed his personal philosophy and how Thally reflects the history of the Naylor Court alley and the neighborhood. 

Know and understand your neighborhood

Soft spoken and unassuming yet always thinking, Sherman has many layers. One alter ego is hinted at with his 1976 straight-pipe shovel head Harley Davidson that once served in the Secret Service. Before committing to the space for Thally, he spent hours observing the neighborhood by just watching people from his parked car across the street like a stakeout. He came at all times of the day and stayed for hours. He visited Azis' Coffee shop, talked to people and took the temperature of the neighborhood in terms of readiness for his new venture. I suppose one could make an analogy to cooking where the right timing, the right ingredients and the right temperature are critical. Danny Meyer the successful NYC restauranteur describes a similar strategy whenever he contemplated opening a new restaurant. (see the wonderful interview with Charlie Rose)

Have a sense of timing
Many businesses in the Shaw neighborhood have quietly come and gone in the last five years for many reasons. However one reason really stands out and that's timing. It's extremely important to "catch the wave of change" at just the right time otherwise you and your dreams can drown. Many seem to have been launched far too early. Sherman recognizes the value of timing and feels comfortable with how his business is positioned in relation to all of the new growth and vibrancy in the community.

Sherman also realizes the value of creating a restaurant business that is invested in the long term. He is interested in providing a single high quality restaurant experience and not the least tempted by suggestions of expanding. Geographic over-expansion has proven fatal to a number of restaurants that were comfortable with 70 seats and out of depth with 300. Sherman's idea of expansion is within the business itself through gradually expanding hours and offerings. He is a firm believer in organic growth and consistency. Foot traffic and drop-in customers will grow along the 9th Street Corridor as will Thally. 

Hire and partner with excellent people
Sherman is clearly proud of the people with whom he partners and who work for him. He acknowledges that this has been pivotal to his success. He is delighted with his chef (Ron Tanaka) who has a powerful and impressive resume of past experiences. 

Be responsive to customer feedback and continually learn
Young people seem to eat a little less today than in the past but perhaps drink a little more. So there was an incentive to be able to offer a choice of plate sizes and wide option of beverages. Sherman wanders amongst his customers listening to their stories about what their enjoy. He also hears many tales of what "life used to be like" in this neighborhood when customers lived here decades ago. Recently he made a connection to the classic DC book "Tally's Corner" through a customer. Changes in the menu reflect Thally's dedication to creating an authentic neighborhood restaurant that is competitively priced, where people enjoy the experience and want to come back.

Win recognition 
Thally was deservedly awarded the "Best New Business in Shaw" award this past year. Recognition has also come through a solid 4 star rating on Yelp. Thally has made the conscious decision not to advertise, preferring to grow through word of mouth, one customer at a time. 

Consistent excellence
Consistency was a word that Sherman used several times during our conversation and it plays an important role in the evolution of Thally. Just as word about excellence spreads rapidly through social media and word of mouth so do words about inconsistency. The Thally experience needs to be able to speak for itself. 

Work within your expertise and grow from past successes
Sometimes in business people are tempted to wander outside of their expertise or "comfort zone". In attempting to please many they end up pleasing few. Sherman's restaurant reflects who he is and his philosophy. His many past experiences as well as the counsel of his senior partner have informed his path to owning and developing Thally. He sees a healthy mix of dining options along 9th Street that don't conflict with each other - another organic symbol. 
    Thally is probably the only restaurant in the city that offers cider and mead (7 types) as part of the beverage menu.

The personal touch
Perhaps one of the most important elements of a successful restaurant is the presence of the personal touch of the owner and manager. People care that Sherman cares and is visible. For example, if a customer happens not to finish a dish, Sherman will gently ask if there was a problem with it and try to better understand that customer's expectations. This is an infrequent occurrence. One patron was so happy with her plate that she was observed to be quietly licking it clean! Very few "to go boxes" leave Thally.
     Once a bartender, Sherman understands how to talk to people but even more importantly how to listen. Today he has made the transition "across to the other side of the bar" but still knows how to roll up his sleeves. During our conversation he paused to graciously accept a phone booking and another time to accommodate a walk-in request to cater an evening for a local political candidate and their supporters. 
    Many years ago when DC was in serious decline a Naylor Court artist wrote about The Death of a Dream. Times change and life cycles back again organically like the changes in the rebirth of a burned out forest. Dreams are important and drive all of us. The images of the Tally-Ho Livery Stable and past dreams are hauntingly captured on the restaurant walls. The newly constructed building in which Thally lives was once a Salvation Army Store with a rear 1863 stable (razed) but has arisen to enable Sherman and Thally to create new community memories for the future. 


A Dream Realized  (from the Thally Website

Thally is the brainchild of two good friends who have been talking about opening up their own casually elegant restaurant in Washington, DC for years. Chef & Co-Owner Ron Tanaka and General Manager & Co-Owner Sherman Outhuok finally found the perfect place, on a burgeoning block of 9th St. NW near the DC Convention Center, and Thally was born. Our name pays tribute to our Shaw neighborhood as well as our families: “Thally” refers to the Tally-Ho Stables (built in 1883) located in Naylor Court directly behind our restaurant, as well as to Thalia, Sherman’s daughter. (Thally is pronounced without saying the “H”, as in Tally-ho.) Thally was conceived to be a comfortable and inviting neighborhood restaurant, as well as a destination worthy of Washingtonians crossing the city to 9th St. NW to discover our mouthwatering cuisine. 

 Start at the 26:48 mark
(start at the 26:48 mark) 

"Causal, foodie heaven! Love, love, love! Simple American fare with a twist :-). Let's start with the simple, rustic decor, nicely spaced tables & booths and interesting abstract art on the walls. The menu is chef-driven, seasonal and fun. 

For a mid-spring tour of the offerings, my group opted for rabbit, duck, pork and fish... Everyone thought their dish was the best and indeed they were all packed with flavor without being too precious or overly done.  A super nice cocktail, beer and wine list compliment the robust dishes. And Thally doesn't disappoint with a small but delish dessert menu and interesting post-dinner drink list including house-made "cellos" as in limoncello.

And the location .. in the uber hot Shaw neighborhood. And lucky for the BF and I, waking distance from home." 

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