Julian Interviews Red Rocks Owner James O’Brien

rr2, originally uploaded by Prince of Petworth.

It’s hard to believe it but Red Rocks is about to turn one year old this weekend. To celebrate the milestone Julian sits down with owner James O’Brien and discusses the changes to the restaurant, 11th Street and the neighborhood in general. Congrats Red Rocks!

Red Rocks is kind of like a friend’s house – its around the corner, its warm and inviting, and no matter who is at the door when you step in, they’re always glad to see you. Red Rocks was designed for the people by the people, and you can confirm that warm feeling with anyone, from the patron sipping a glass of wine in one of the brick-framed windows to James O’Brien, the owner who, like his business, is very warm and inviting. The neighborhood pizzeria celebrates its year anniversary this coming weekend, and with a happy hour from open to close and specials that’ll turn your salivary glands on like a Pavlovian dog, you’ll be ready to move in.

I sat down with Mr. O’Brien today to talk about his one-year anniversary – the things he’s learned, the things he regrets (or doesn’t!), and about what makes Red Rocks such a hit. I had fourteen questions to ask, but cut it down to the twelve best. So without further ado:

Julian: For those readers who aren’t familiar with your restaurant, can you tell us a bit about Red Rocks (concept/conception)?

James O’Brien: Well, it is a neighborhood restaurant, definitely based on providing the best possible pizza experience. Many people don’t know about the pizza process, or they like what they like, and that’s it. Here at Red Rocks, we’re all about traditional Neapolitan pizzas. We use the best flour, which is caputo flour, and the best tomatoes – we use only fresh mozzarella, and for our margarita pizzas fresh buffalo mozzarella. Lots of people get it mixed up and put fresh mozzarella on margarita pizzas. The oven is also fired between eight-hundred and nine-hundred degrees. I get people in here from Italy who say they can only have our pizza. On pizza.com, we have people who say that we’re the second best pizza they’ve ever had! Unfortunately, we have people who grew up eating a certain kind of pizza. They equate pizza with lots of toppings or overflowing with sauce or cheese, but that’s not the best quality pizza. Neapolitan pizza is a balance between the taste of the dough, the sauce, and the cheese. The point is not to overwhelm people. Every good pizza maker needs to know that its quality over quantity.

Julian: What makes you stand apart from other restaurants or pizzerias?

James: To reiterate it, what we do differently is we use the top top ingredients – top flour, top tomatoes, top mozzarella. Before I was really doing this full time and really tasting pizzas all the time, I would eat pizza and not really taste the differences. I don’t think you can taste the difference, but now that I’m in this business, I can really taste the quality of the tomatoes, the temperature of the oven – the quality of the flour. The taste of a brick-oven pizza can’t be recreated in a deck oven. You cannot recreate that pizza experience. The brick oven is a key element to the whole thing. The difference is immense. As far as atmosphere goes, its all very subjective, because people feel comfortable in different places. We’re trying to make this as comfortable spot as possible, with friendly service, and good food.  Interview continues after the jump.

Julian: What is it that you do to attract new customers, and keep the ones you already have?

James: To keep the regulars, we believe in providing a great product, great food and great service so that they always feel comfortable and happy. To attract new customers, we are trying things out with flyers, mailers and by word of mouth. I noticed that when we first opened what a credible blogging presence there was in Columbia Heights and Petworth. People here really keep in touch with what’s going on in their neighborhood. The notoriety of what we were doing when we were opening got around fairly quickly. So that’s pretty much it – we rely on positive reviews by word of mouth, positive experiences, and the people who keep in touch with what’s going on in their neighborhood. We’re not doing any major advertising or anything like that. We’re … a neighborhood restaurant. People who want to eat downtown, we’re not going to be on their radar. I think that we have a good base here to make things successful for everyone. Its certainly a bit of a transient city, and neighborhood, so we have to keep reaching out to people because people come and go, but as long as we keep the momentum for the people who keep coming in, mailers and good feedback will help to draw them in.

Julian: What challenges has the restaurant faced that you did not forsee?

James: It’s the day to day duties – a lot of things can work better in theory – you can have a great staff, a great product, and a great atmosphere, but when it’s a day to day thing, there are always different variables you have to look out for. I mean, we had a power outage the other day. We were filled with people, and how do you deal with that? We have a brick oven to make food, but we had a POS system that didn’t work. We had to do things the old fashioned way. Its always things like, how do you get three servers to do the work of four, or two pizza workers do to the work of three? You can always be working with a great theory, but you don’t have perfect days. I think that’s where the challenge really comes from.

Julian: What changes have you witnessed in the neighborhood since you’ve opened last year?

James: Well, certainly, the restaurant is going in across the street. The developments on Georgia Avenue are really coming together. The whole DCUSA thing has come up within the year. What I did notice is that when we first came in I didn’t know what to expect, but I had a lot of friends in this neighborhood who I would visit to scope things out. Unless you work in the area in a public place, you don’t really have a sense of what things are like. I’ve been surprised at how communal people are here, how excited they are to meet their neighbors and be a part of Columbia Heights. The neighbors have really surprised me – they love to support small restaurants, and the people have really impressed me with their friendliness.

Julian: What are some of the pros and cons to being a new restaurant in an “up and coming” community like Columbia Heights?

James: I think [the pros] are that people really do rally around a place that has just opened up, and they have a sense of community and ownership over it. The people are really supportive, loyal and its very conducive to a warm atmosphere. People are friendly as long as you have friendly service, a great interaction between patrons and staff. I’m using this as an example of an opposite, but consider maybe a tourist attraction in which a group of people come in one time, and then they leave and never return. The people are so transient in places like that, but they’re not like that here. The cons are that we’re a little off the beaten path, so people don’t really like going out of their way to come see us. Also, if we’re having bad weather, then people don’t come out, and that’s hard, when you don’t have a strong DC base outside of the neighborhood. But it’s definitely my preference to be in a local community like this, and I would take this kind of location a hundred times over a busy strip in a downtown location. Its just not my personal preference to be that anonymous big restaurant.

Julian: How has business changed over the year?

James: It has steadily grown. Its improved because I think what we’ve done [here at Red Rocks] has improved, service and product wise. I think we’ve gotten more and more positive feedback. As far as how its changed, I can’t say there have been strange demographics of how people have shifted. We get mostly neighborhood people, but we definitely get other people from other neighborhoods who come in to see what we’re doing – people from Capitol Hill, Logan Circle. For the most part, it’s the neighborhood people who keep the business rising.

Julian: After one year, what would you do differently? Any regrets?

James: Well, early on, we had a bit of a problem with a lack of refridgeration. Also, when we first opened, it was difficult to deal with the reception – we had lines out the door, and a full house. Trying to prepare for that was hard because everything is working in theory: “You’re a good server, a good bartender, and a good pizza maker” – but once you put that into action, you have to see how it all works together. I wish we had done a little more of a soft opening to work out the kinks, but it all worked out. The building itself has come with multiple challenges, with the kitchen being below and servers having to go up and down stairs to get people food. I can’t say it’s a regret, but its something I do notice. There are obstacles to overcome.

Julian: With Columbia Heights dependent on positive influences (like restaurants and retail) to revive the neighborhood, to what extent are other restaurants competition, and to what extent are they contributions?

James: At this point, the fact that there are so few restaurants in Columbia Heights makes any new restaurants contributions. As far as other businesses go, I don’t see them as competition – this restaurant going in across the street is nothing but a contribution. Its going to bring safety, its going to make the neighborhood more of a destination. I look at it as positive. Now, if another brick oven restaurant went in across the street, I might have a different answer [laughs].

Julian: Considering all the changes happening in the neighborhood, how do you see the future of 11th street?

James: I see it growing, because I see so many people involved with its development. There are a lot of people in the neighborhood who want to see the 11th street corridor develop. There doesn’t seem to be any dissipation of enthusiasm for it. It is commercially its own street. It has a great neighborhood feel, and we’re all kind of building on each other’s success. I saw what was happening at Wonderland and I thought, “that would be a great place for a pizza place.” The community is supportive, and the neighborhood politics have been supportive. It has been, at least for me, and my establishment, a very positive experience. Other entrepreneurs will agree. To have that combination of factors is welcoming to a new businesses. That’s really the make or break of why places will fry. As long as the right businesses come in, I think it could grow.

Julian: Do you have any advice to people who are interested in starting businesses in this area – some knowledge you’d wish you’d known when you first started?

James: Certainly do your research – make sure there is a market for your product, which can be anything from government databases of graphics to literally walking around and asking people on the street: “Would you like to see this kind of place to come in here?” You should see if people are generally receptive to your product. Get to know the local political scene to see if there are any problems having to do with permits and licensing or whatnot. Probably most important is to have the kind of perseverance that can allow for flexibility and for problem solving along the way. I think people don’t realize how much red tape there is involved with opening a business and how much you have to prepare for any sort of scenario – its all part of the process. If you really believe in what you’re doing, then know you have to do what it takes to get it done. People are overwhelmed with the worst-case scenarios running around their head. You have to have faith in yourself and your product to make it happen.

Julian: Are there any changes in the future, whether it be on the menu, or events, or anything of that nature? What can Red Rocks patrons look forward to?

James: In general, we have summer specials going on right now. We’ve added four new pizzas – a four-cheese pizza, a pineapple pizza, a sun-dried tomato pizza. We’ll also have beer summer specials. And this weekend, we’ll be celebrating our one year anniversary starting on Friday, with happy hour all day, and a special with our number one pizza – 6.50 for pepperonis!

25 Comment

  • See y’all there on Friday!

  • Congrats on a year in the area! Redrocks is the model for what a neighborhood business should be.

    My only minor nit: it would be nice if they put a few finishing touches on the exterior now that they have some capital to work with: fix the broken / dirty roof tiles, get rid of the ugly old awning, trim the Redrocks sign so it actually fits in the pole and fix the paint job on pole / sign, do something to make the freezer and/or pole less of an eyesore, add some more vegetation … just the little things that show the business is here to stay and cares about how it looks!

  • Yep.. the killer is in the details and getting _consistency_. I’ve had the best pizza ever in Red Rocks, but also a few times when the middle of the pizza is completely soggy.. I guess the oven wasn’t quite the 800 degrees that day.. Anyway, over all, a fantastic place to have so close.

  • I thought the pizza at RR was just average. My other problem with them is that their wine glasses are too small. I felt like i was being ripped off.

  • GforGood hit the nail on the head, consistency is the key, and if you are going to charge an arm and a leg for pizza it better be top of the line every time, not just 20% of the time. People give places like Red Rocks a lot of rope because they are local and we all want to see local businesses make it, and we all appreciate the hard work and money people like James have sunk into making a viable business in DC. But when you have inferior products or inferior service (Colorado Kitchen, anyone?) then you’d best be cheap at least.

  • Nasty, overpriced pizza and equally bad service.

  • I have been there twice, both times carry out, both times they got my order wrong, pizza was soggy, tiramisu was a mess and just not worth the money. I love to support local businesses, but only if they are worth they money – especially in tough economic times. I can’t just throw away my money in order to keep a local business afloat.

  • M, never ever order a neapolitan pizza to go, unless you plan to open to box within 100 feet from the restaurant.. 🙂 It is too thin etc. to survice a steaming box treatment. Having said that, the soggyness in the middle has happened to me too even when eating there, so that’s a separate issue.

  • the good beer selection they have doesn’t make up for soggy pizza. maybe one day i’ll check ’em out again.

  • Red Rocks is great when they’re on, crappy when they’re not. They’re simply inconsistent. But I do like having them a block and a half away. It’s nice to have locally owned and operated businesses popping up along 11th Street as a counter to the corporate blah that is 14th Street.

    For my money though, I’d go the extra distance to get to Moroni and Brothers for my pizza, I’ve never had anything less than a perfect pizza there. Radius is a bit more consistent than Red Rocks too even though I don’t’ think it’s brick oven.

  • When are you going to clean up the outside? I think that it looks dumpy. I have also been curious, is the broken fence / missing fence and stone on the patio something that will change / be fixed? And is the refrigerator going to be removed at some point from its location next to the street? I also see garbage around, and now chairs stored on the curb side. Do you have plans to fix this too?

    Can the owner please respond. I think that it would be reassuring to the community to know if and what you are planning to do about the outside appearance.

    And I know that folks will say that it is better than it was, which is true, but not in my mind the relevant point of comparison at this point.

  • damn, ive never had a bad experience there… we had a holiday brunch party upstairs in january, and everyone was SO nice and attentive..james hooked up a dvd player for us so that we could watch a prepared slide show, the service was accurate and fast, and everyone loved the food… ive been back several times and have had smiling (and might i add attractive) servers/bar tenders that seemed happy to be there and happy to serve it up… my only complaint is the crowd thats always waiting to get in! happy bday, hope you have many many more

  • They went through an inconsistent period, definitely. But the last few months I’ve never eaten a bad pizza there.

  • i went one time about a month after they opened. the pizza was expensive for what we were served, small and had barely any toppings (if i order a spinach pizza it should have more than 5 small leaves on it). the waitress got our food wrong and 2 rounds of drinks almost all wrong. overall… it made me sad. i had hopes…

  • Moroni and Brothers all the WAY, by far the best pizza in the area. Well said DCDireWolf

  • The pizza has definitely improved in terms of consistency since the first few months of operation. The margherita is really tasty and I get that one often. Interested to try the new pineapple.

    I do also wish they would address the exterior (ugly old awning that never should have been kept, I hate the huge black pole they kept for the sign although the sign itself is nice save for the splattered paint and being uneven, definitely the huge fridge and now the pile up of unused chairs as eyesores, and the roof needs some repairs / touch-upds). For a relatively modest sum and with a little ingenuity it could look a lot nicer on the outside. Although it is certainly as noted a heck of a lot better than what used to be there.

  • And Moroni delivers.

    The diavola pie rocks… while probably not an authorized, brick-oven Neopolitan selection, I say you can’t never eat enough jalapenos.

  • New2CH: There are probably some patrons of the former establishment that might disagree with you. Finding a reliable whorehouse can be difficult. 😉

  • Good to hear consistency is better now. Have to go again soon. I love Moroni too, so boy am I lucky: two of the some of the best pizza joints in town so close by! 🙂

  • I also like Moroni. And Pete’s, I think, is actually the best of the three, although all are very different and it depends on my mood.

  • I have also had only good experiences there. I have gotten both sit in and take out. The pizza, sandwiches, salads and drinks have all been excellent as well as the service. The servers have always been friendly and even funny. So yes, Happy Birthday Red Rocks!

  • I went on the second day that RR was open, and while our pizza ended up being good, our order got snafued _big_time_, and took just over an hour to arrive. We had ordered at the bar to go, and the bar keep kept checking, checking, checking. Yet, they made it all good with a freebie and good company, and kept us as customers.

    While it has not been perfect, what ever is? I love Moroni, and eat it more than I should, but have had thieir delivery forget my salad or pupusas on occassion. RR has improved, and though still suffers from periodic pizza and service problems , it has kept business up and is often full or with a wait, so they have certainly tapped into an open and willing market.

  • I went to Red Rocks with a large group of friends the week it opened, and I have enjoyed going back to it, regularly.

    It is really nice to see a new small business succeed–especially in these tough times.

    Congrats to O’Brien and his crew….

  • We’ve had consistently good service and consistently good food at RedRocks since the day they opened (ok, it was a little insane opening night, but who cares). I love that place.

    That said, I agree with the nitpicks about the signage. Seems like it would be easy to fix, and it does sort of detract from the attractiveness of the place without being the type of thing that gives it character.

  • I agree consistency is something of an ongoing issue. I’ve been three times in recent months. The first two times everything was great. The last time, last Friday, the house-made fennel sausage tasted nothing like it usually does. It was way over-spice and over-herbed, and didn’t taste good. Service (outside, esp., which I know is not always easy) was pretty rocky. I had to ask for utensils, and eventually went inside to get my own red pepper and cheese condiments because the waitress was overwhelmed.

    I want to see Red Rocks succeed. When they are “on”, their pizza is some of the best in D.C. (in fact, my favorite overall). But they need to schedule more servers, esp. on the weekend, and be more careful with consistency of their pizzas. The Caesar salad is fantastic.

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