As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Ivan Iricanin.
A native of Trstenik, Serbia, Ivan Iricanin relocated to the United States in 2005, and was hired to help with the opening construction efforts at Zengo in Chinatown. Iricanin was later tapped by Chef/Owner Richard Sandoval to work at the newly opened restaurant, graduating from food runner, to bartender and later taking on the bar manager role at Zengo.
In 2007, Washington Wholesalers asked Iricanin to become an event specialist for the company and after five months, he was promoted to field manager, overseeing a team of six sales representatives. He once again excelled in his role at the company while maintaining good ties with Sandoval. Iricanin returned in 2009, to assist with the opening of Richard Sandoval’s Latin-Asian small plates concept, Masa 14. He went on to become a restaurant partner with Sandoval and Chef/Owner Kaz Okochi, expanding the restaurant, under his direction, with a new rooftop deck. Then in 2011, Iricanin partnered with Sandoval again for the opening of El Centro D.F., a Taqueria and Tequileria offering Mexican comfort fare just steps away from Masa 14.
Next Iricanin had the idea to bring the diverse cuisine from his homeland of Serbia to the internationally savvy dining audience in Washington, DC. In January 2013, he opened Ambar, bringing Balkan cuisine with a modern twist to Capitol Hill. The restaurant became an immediate success with its Balkan experience set-price dining and popular bottomless brunch.
In September 2012, a month after opening Ambar, Iricanin took on a new corporate position, being promoted to the national director of operations for Richard Sandoval Restaurants. In this new position, he orchestrated the day-to-day operations for Sandoval’s 35 concepts spanning Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New York, Virginia and Washington, D.C., as well as in Dubai, Mexico, Qatar, and Serbia.
Then in September 2013, Iricanin and Sandoval partnered again to open a second El Centro D.F. in Georgetown, with an expanded selection of 270 different types of tequila and mezcal, handcrafted margaritas, and house-infused tequilas.
Iricanin left his position within Richard Sandoval Restaurants to focus on expanding his own restaurant company, and in October 2016, he opened a second Ambar in the Clarendon neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia. Six months later, in March 2017, Iricanin opened the 56-seat bar BABA, located just below the popular new Ambar Clarendon, with its own separate street entrance. The menu at BABA showcases features a section of Balkan-inspired appetizers, pastas, veggies, meat, and seafood items that are designed to be consumed with one the restaurants creative craft cocktails. Unlimited weekend brunch and dinner in the evenings with DJ entertainment makes it a fun gathering place.
Since bringing his Balkan concept to Washington in 2012, Iricanin’s restaurants have been named “Best Brunch” and “Best Restaurant When You Pay” by the Washington City Paper in their annual Best of D.C. awards, and was second place in “Best Small Plates and runner up for “Best Happy Hour” in 2019. Ambar has been ranked number one out of 2,600 on TripAdvisor.com, since November 2015 and is featured in MICHELIN’s Bib Gourmand guidebooks for 2019 and 2020. Ambar Clarendon received “2.5 Stars” (out of four) in The Washington Post in November 2016 and 2017. The restaurant was also awarded among the top three for “Best Restaurants in Virginia” and “Best Brunch” in Washingtonian magazine’s annual Winner’s Circle of Reader Favorites in 2019 and awarded “Best Brunch” by Northern Virginia magazine in September 2020.
In March 2017, Iricanin launched a new company, Street Guys Hospitality, https://streetguyshospitality.com/, an international restaurant group, which owns and operates ten concepts, as well as employing 400+ across two continents, which he currently oversees. Concepts currently include Tacos, Tortas & Tequila (TTT) Clarendon, TTT Silver Spring, AMBAR Belgrade, AMBAR Capitol Hill, AMBAR Clarendon, BABA, Mala Fabrika Ukusa, Burrito Madre Belgrade, Burrito Madre Karadjordjeva and Burrito Madre Bulevar.
Mexican-inspired Tacos, Tortas & Tequila (TTT) Silver Spring opened in April 2018 with two floors showcasing a casual, contemporary venue and fare. With the company’s rapid successes in the DC Marketplace, Iricanin was selected for the cover of the Washington Business Journal’s annual Book of Lists in January 2019. This issue celebrated immigrants and their contributions to a thriving business community. Arlington Magazine also lauded sister concepts BABA for offering the “Best Cocktails” and Ambar as “Best Restaurant” in the area in the January/February 2019 issue.
In March 2019, Iricanin opened a second location of Tacos, Tortas & Tequila (TTT) in Clarendon. This Virginia location, situated across the street from Ambar on a prominent corner, showcases three floors. The restaurant’s expansive rooftop, complete with a retractable ceiling, offers long-range views as the crown jewel of TTT Clarendon. As of June 2020, the menu served in both TTT locations provides guests with affordable, fun choices to build their own tacos, burritos, enchiladas, salads, and bowls. Plans are underway to expand the menu to offer 64 options to mix and match, with eight proteins and eight different styles to build one’s menu at TTT.
Touted by the press as the “All-You-Can-Eat King of DC,” in Washingtonian magazine’s February 2020 coverage, Iricanin is renowned for doing the impossible regarding unlimited experiences with quality fare. In 2014, when Ambar introduced unlimited dining it was priced at $35 per person. In 2020, Ambar’s Balkan Experience for bottomless dinner is still $35 per person.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I arrived in the United States from Serbia in 2005 and my first job was bussing tables. In the subsequent years I moved up the ladder working every single job in the restaurant including upper management. It was a time of fast growth and learning. I fell in love with food and the unique opportunity to positively influence people’s lives through hospitality.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
In 2008 when I changed careers to work in the liquor wholesale industry, I was hired on the basis that I was familiar with basic computer programs. The truth is that I was very UN familiar with any basic computer functions at all. There were many nights where I stayed after hours in order to get my work done. One particular night stands out where I was struggling to format and print a promotional flyer. I had never used a commercial printer with so many buttons before. I got the flyer wrong so many times. When I finally got it right I pressed print. I ended up accidentally printing hundreds of copies when I only needed a few. I couldn’t stop it. I pressed every button on the machine and it only made it worst. In the end I just grabbed all the excess paper and shoved it in my car and took it home and hid it in the closet. I had scrap paper for the rest of the year. I eventually conquered the necessary computer programs AND the printer. I guess the moral of the story is fake it till you make it.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Setting the Table by Danny Meier influenced me heavily. Reading that book helped me to understand that the most important commodity that restaurants have to offer is the “experience.” It’s a total package. The way people feel when they leave your space is just as important as the food you serve.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
When I arrived in the United States, I quickly realized that most American’s perception of where I come from was centered around the war in the Balkans in the 1990’s. While this was certainly a part of my reality growing up, it is not the whole story. I wanted to share the most positive parts my culture and change people’s perception of the Balkans through hospitality. We are a celebratory, warm and hospitable people by nature. We love to entertain, to eat, drink and to be merry despite any hardship. It seemed like my calling to bring that spirit to US.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Consistency. It’s all about managing expectations. This is something that can be applied to all aspects of running a business. It’s important for me to be a stable and emotionally consistent leader when addressing my staff. It’s important that when guests arrive to my restaurants that they know their experiences will be consistent upon multiple visits. It’s important that my decisions are consistent with my long-term goals and values. It’s a matter of staying focused. This is the “number one principal” that keeps me on track through the ups and downs, and in this business there are many.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Where do I begin. 2020 has been an emotional roller coaster for us all. My wife has been pregnant during the entire pandemic, and the added pressure of keeping her safe has been a challenge. We have dealt with having our 7-year-old at home and the challenges of distance learning. We have cancelled a trip to Europe to see my family whom I haven’t seen for over a year. There is no way to address these challenges other than to be open minded and flexible. As a family we try to focus on the positive side of things as much as possible.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
In March we closed all of our restaurants spanning the DMV and Serbia and were forced to lay off nearly 700 employees. This was one of the most difficult decisions of my life. There was a lot of uncertainty and fear spreading at the time. It was important that we immediately set up systems of communication with our staff that showed we were prioritizing their health and well-being. We also needed to give them confidence in our eventual recovery at the end of the storm. We did this by setting up weekly check ins with management staff via zoom, and regular email updates with hourly staff. We used the last of our funds to continue to offer health insurance to all employees, and we were able to serve daily meals for employees and their families throughout our entire closure.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I think that now more than ever we need to be careful about how much and what information we are consuming. It can all get very overwhelming. Take breaks from media, and make sure that the decisions that you make and the emotions you give into are based in truth and facts. Focus on what’s important today and try not to worry about things you cannot change in the past or future. I’ve been through some difficult political times in my home country. I think it’s important to remember that there is always an end to every situation. Nothing lasts forever.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
I can answer this question as it pertains to the restaurant industry. Pre-pandemic one of the biggest complaints I heard among peers was how difficult it was to find good workers. Post pandemic this will no longer be a problem as there will be less opportunity and a larger work force looking for hire. The unfortunate reality is that many restaurants have already closed and many will continue to do so. This will leave an abundance of vacant spaces likely available for lower rent. This could be seen as an opportunity for brands that have the capital to expand. The biggest savings will be in construction costs as these second-generation spaces are already built out with kitchens and restaurant infrastructure.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live? It already has, hasn’t it?
Today we are seeing all the different ways that we live move into digital space, but I don’t think anyone wants a world where we have entirely replaced face to face human connection. I hope that post pandemic we find a healthy balance between the two.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post- Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
Let me start by saying that surviving this pandemic alone has been a huge feat. We are proud that we have been able to pivot and adjust our menus and concepts in order to fit into the new normal that we have been thrust into. Since re-opening our restaurants are slowly inching towards our pre-pandemic sales numbers. We hope to use this upward growth trajectory and our ability to innovate and rise to new challenges to prove our worthiness to investors. Although we already had plans to expand and grow our business pre-pandemic, our expansion will now take on new confines. We are asking ourselves, how do we grow, but simplify? How do we provide great quality food, but also great value?
How do we fit into the expanding digital arena? These are new questions that have arose and will guide our growth strategy.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Find a way to tap into your core offering that sets you apart from the rest and build upon it. Look for operational savings and cut cost as much as possible without effecting your final product or your client or guest experience. Think outside of the box, and outside of your industry’s standards.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“A warrior cannot complain or regret anything. His life is an endless challenge and challenges cannot possibly be good or bad. Challenges are simply challenges.” — Carlos Castaneda
This is how I live my life. It’s important that I don’t get sucked into the “why is this happening to me?” emotion. It is useless. I always find a way forward and onward. There will always be challenges. Resilience is key.