The Player: Lynne Breaux
CLICK HERE to see live footage of the interview
There’s the tireless advocate for the restaurant industry who has raised the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington – and area restaurants - to a sky-high profile. There’s the RAMW president who is passionate, effective and likeable as she works with the DC Council and Congress.
Then there’s the girl who feasted on her grandfather’s fish eggs and crawfish and still loves pigs in a blanket. The former model whose entree into the hospitality industry came through being noticed on a rooftop in a tiny bikini. The woman who posed in Playboy, albeit fully clothed. The woman who got married in Vegas.
Will the real Lynne Breaux please stand up?
When she speaks up, Bob Madigan and I realize that aside from the occasional drawn-out word, she’s the fastest talker of all our Players. She’s a clear blend – marrying the Louisiana love of fun, food and hospitality to an energy and political drive decidedly DC.
Now at Ris restaurant, she’s talking about the June 26 RAMMY award gala themed Carnevale da Cuisine.
“It’s about the crazy colorful diversity of the industry now in all different price points, all different neighborhoods in the city and the region – the upper end, lower end, a mix of the above,” she pauses. “It’s just been this carnival.”
The RAMMY awards’ visibility has shot up as the DC restaurant scene exploded during a decade under her association leadership. Restaurants are in our face with the food network and focus on cooking. DC restaurants – and, by extension, the city – have thrived. It’s in no little part due to dining, says Breaux.
“I wrote a story once about the five Rs - restaurants beget retail beget residential beget resurgence beget revenue,” she says. “Look at U Street, Gallery Place, H Street right now - restaurants start it and then the rents go up and the buildings go down and the restaurants find another place, which is what happened with me.”
Breaux owned Capitol Hill’s Tunnicliff’s Tavern from 1988 to 2001, a Cajun place with wild Mardi Gras parties that drew politicians and celebrities in the pre-cell phone era. She remembers then maps fell off at 1st St. SE, excluding Eastern Market and Southeast DC.
Now the restaurant scene is extending its vibrancy and reach. Chef Geoff’s opened in Virginia and PassionFish in Reston while a Virginia-centric restaurant group opened up ChurchKey and Birch & Barley. Suburbs and city alike compete actively for a slew of awards celebrating their appeal, excellence and staff.
It wasn’t always so. Breaux became executive director in October 2001, announcing her anxiety in a board meeting three weeks after 9-11. “I said I had nightmares last night and you’d think it would be about bombs and planes but it was about membership,” she laughs. The membership was surprisingly fewer than 200 restaurants versus the over 700 today.
RAMW raised the profile of both restaurateurs and restaurants through catchy award phrases and ritzy events, established New York’s popular restaurant week as a success in its own right, expanded member classes, and, of course, organized powerful lobbying efforts.
Breaux also raised DC dining’s profile, surprising top magazine writers with the richness of Washington’s options through the RAMMYs. She’s worked with embassies to promote their food, pumping up trade of Icelandic and Chilean exports.
Her personal life has also thrived. Two years ago, she married Ford lobbyist Peter Arapis after seeing him for 13 years with a surprise 8 a.m. Las Vegas ceremony followed by a not-so-fancy brunch.
You’ve come a long way, baby.
Breaux earned her degree in sociology from Louisiana State University. She emerged with two valuable skills - understanding group dynamics and speed dating. She goes to numerous functions, but rarely eats at them these days. “You’ve got to look good, you represent the industry,” she laughs. Instead, when she goes to events, she quickly meets the people on her list.
Her New Orleans background also gave her direction through an unusual un-PC start. “I was swimming on the rooftop [of a New Orleans hotel] in a teeny bikini and someone said you ought to apply for the job of assistant manager on duty and I did,” she reminisces. “A light bulb went off: hospitality was what I wanted to do.”
But New Orleans wasn’t quite the speed of this fast-talking southerner. “That’s one reason I left there,” she laughs. “My mom would say patience is a virtue.” Breaux hits the table like a frustrated teenager, saying, “Mooom.”
And then there’s the type of exhaustion many of us can only fantasize about. “You can only eat, drink and party so much.”
She moved to Aspen for a year working in a restaurant, where she was asked to pose in a men's magazine and did so – but fully clothed, in an article titled “What Kind of Man Reads Playboy?” Then she returned to New Orleans only to transfer from her position as catering director at the Royal Orleans hotel to work at DC’s Ritz-Carlton in the same capacity.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Issues and Trends
But it’s not all parties and galas for the RAMW head.
“Probably my highest priority at this point is keeping Metro open til 3 a.m.,” she says, citing the constituents – diners and revelers, yes, but also employees.
One highly emotional issue? Food trucks, which flip out restaurateurs. “When the trucks park in front of a restaurant, it doesn’t matter if same type or it’s a different type of food, it impacts business,” she says. “RAMW has been portrayed as anti-truck but we’re not anti-truck we’re for a fair and balanced regulatory environment,” she says, citing taxes as one issue.
As for obesity, she thinks nutrition education should start in schools and exercise should be emphasized, a la “Let’s Move”, but also that the industry should embrace a proactive stance. DC’s options have expanded to include a simple Chipotle championing humane treatment and a proliferation salad and high end places touting food quality, local ingredients and sustainability.
Breaux is also concerned about profitability, which fell from 4 percent in 2009 to 2 to 2 ½ percent today, and, by extension, taxation.
Issues are challenging, but the restaurant spokeswoman also remains on the bustling forefront of DC dining where she sees lots of exciting trends.
“For years hotel food was fantastic. You would go to hotels for the dining experience. Then it was like, ‘Oh that FNB? [food and beverage] is costing way too much money, let’s just sell the rooms,’” she recalls. After seeing in the potential of weddings to bring in room revenue, places like the Kimpton Group decided food was a winner. Poste, Watershed and Maestro represent some excellent hotel options.
A not so new trend? Tapas that sprung from Spain but developed into diversity of dining options at places like Masa 14, Cava, and Kushi. “Small plates,” says Breaux. “That’s going to stay around forever.”
A third is unfussy and unglamorous street food, she says, citing a recent article about healthier hot dogs. And though she’s dining on a salmon salad she indulges her food fandom. “I happen to love pigs in a blanket which sounds so tacky,” she jokes before defending her choice “A delicious mini-sausage with a perfect mustard and a crispy crunchy wrapping – there’s nothing better.”
As she leaves to work on gala planning, we sharpen our forks in anticipation of more delicious DC dinners.