Hotel Guest Turned Owner-Chef Alan Pyles
Not everyone who starts a restaurant wants to own an empire or create a culinary sensation–just as not every diner seeks a revelation on their plate.
Alan Pyles didn’t pay much attention to dinner until he became a road warrior for his real-estate services business. But crossing the country from hotel to hotel on presentation after presentation had taught him to use evening meals for recharging. “And when I slowed down,” he says, “I started observing the service. Why did the waiter stand over there? Why this particular plate? I began to pay attention to the wine, and the food.” Then came the revelation: “And when I did, it tasted better.”
Pyles continued for years to build his mental library of tastes, dishes, meals, and their more than 3,000 dining-room contexts. He noticed, for example, that black tablecloths didn’t shed white lint on a dark business suit, but did give white dinner plates a visual pop. “It was a mind game for me,” he insists. “I maintained zero aspirations of going into the restaurant business.” But one day 11 years ago, having recently sold his real-estate services company and looking for his next endeavor, Pyles happened to open a newspaper showing an inn, with a restaurant, for sale.
Pyles remembers himself in 2005 in the greater Washington, D.C., area as “post-Julia Child yet pre-foodie.” When he and his wife, Kaye, looked around, they saw Applebee’s and Cracker Barrel on the one hand, four- and five-star restaurants on the other, and little that was dateworthy in between. His own travel experience affirmed his belief in a “silent majority” of diners who wanted comforting, well-executed meals with straightforward, uncompromising flavors, dishes that Pyles himself “could spell and pronounce.”
Finally, Pyles had learned from his father, a builder of lower-end properties, not to ignore the less-crowded business space. “A chef would have wanted to open the next Inn at Little Washington,” he explains. And most non-chefs would have sought out something lower-risk, like a sandwich-shop startup. Pyles saw the beauty in Stanardsville, Virginia’s Lafayette Inn, and bought it.
The previous incarnation of the restaurant had offered five wines in what Pyles calls “battleship glasses.” He threw them out, brought in 75-100 wines and local beers, and hired a handful of recent grads from Johnson & Wales and the Culinary Institute of America. Several of the dishes they and Pyles initially developed remain strong sellers on the menu today, but it didn’t taken long for Pyles to realize that while he could learn the young cooks’ culinary technique relatively quickly, it would take them years to acquire Pyles’ experience in tasting and dining.
“The chef has to understand both sides,” he says. “Not only how to create the food, but service things, like pacing. Culinary schools only train on half the equation.”
Of course, no hired gun can ever share an owner’s concern for the bottom line. And no owner can afford to pay attention to food costs alone, Pyles says. “There are items we don’t make enough of to make efficiently, either in terms of food costs or labor costs. They’re the first cut.” Even under the force of the recession just a few years into their new business, the Pyles’ kept their balance. They hosted travelers from D.C. who would in better times have gone, for example, to Nags Head, Pyles recalls, “so that over time, as the economy went down, our reputation went up.”
“At the Inn,” he says, “we cook a lot of stuff the way you might in your home, except we give you more choices, and we do the dishes.”
Choices and dishes, yes. But a little black-tablecloth magic, too.