Bethesda restaurateurs and brothers Alonso and Alvaro Roche are not novices when it comes to the trials and triumphs of running restaurants. During the past eight years, they’ve opened four establishments in Bethesda, including Bold Bite and TapaBar, and locations in downtown Washington.
And they are well aware of the right of a restaurant critic to visit and opine about a restaurant’s offerings.
But when it comes to a recent negative review by Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema regarding R Family Kitchen, their latest venture in downtown Bethesda, the brothers are crying foul.
They say the critic visited the restaurant just days after it opened, while the cooks and staff were still in training and some menu items hadn’t been rolled out or perfected. The article, labeled as a “review” and published online Feb. 2, had an immediate negative impact on business at the family-style restaurant, the brothers said.
“It just killed it,” Alonso Roche said during a recent interview. “We had cancellations immediately.”
While the brothers don’t disagree with Sietsema’s conclusions, they said it was unfair of him to visit so early, especially considering that he came during a soft opening.
“I’m the first to say the sandwich should be perfect, the chicken should be perfect,” Alonso Roche said. “Give us some time.”
Sietsema, however, said in an email to Bethesda Beat the restaurant was fair game for critics as soon as it opened.
“My thinking is, if the doors of a new restaurant are open, and the owners are charging full price, I think it’s fair to visit,” he said.
Plus, the opening had been reported by local media, including Bethesda Beat, “so clearly, it seemed to me, the owners were eager (if not ready) for business,” he said.
The brothers opened R Family Kitchen at the corner of Fairmont and Norfolk avenues in late January, less than three weeks after closing TapaBar, the tapas place they had opened in the same space in September 2016. Though TapaBar drew customers on weekends and received a good review from Sietsema and Bethesda Magazine, there was not enough overall traffic to sustain the restaurant, the brothers said.
They decided to change concepts to a more affordable eatery that would provide family-friendly comfort food and an eclectic menu including “sizzle plates” of steak and chicken, pho, and spring rolls.
Sietsema said he chose to visit R Family Kitchen because he had enjoyed eating at TapaBar. “In the case of R Family Kitchen, I had a positive earlier experience with the restaurant, when it was TapaBar, and owned by the same people,” he said. “I was surprised by the switch in themes; I thought the Spanish cooking there was generally good.”
He also noted that his “piece on the restaurant was a preview, an unrated First Bite, and not a starred review, for which I typically visit a place three or so times.”
The Post publishes previews on Wednesdays in the print edition and full critiques appear in the Sunday Magazine, Sietsema said. “Both are labeled ‘review,’ a design decision. But the fact one is unrated and the other is, helps distinguish between the two,” he added.
The brothers said their dispute with the timing of Sietsema’s visit highlights the uneven balance of power between influential critics and restaurateurs without the deep pockets of larger establishments.
As small business owners, the brothers said they didn’t have the luxury of taking weeks or months to perfect their concept and train cooks and staff before opening because they had bills to pay and food that would spoil. Plus, they had other restaurants to run and wanted to keep employees from departing.
“We’ve invested a lot of money in Bethesda,” Alonso Roche said. “We have four restaurants here. We had to stay open. We didn’t have the luxury of closing for a month.”
“We’re a small company, but they all pull each other,” Alvaro said of the brothers’ eateries.
Plus, they decided to quietly open R Family Kitchen without fanfare to get a sense of what customers might want. They only learned of the coming review when a photographer called to set up a time to take photos. They then realized that Sietsema must have visited the restaurant sometime during the week it had been open.
Once the review was published, business slacked off and the brothers began to worry about the impact on their small company. The night of Feb. 13, they sat down after an evening that saw just four customers dine at R Family Kitchen and tried to figure out how to rebuild their customer base. They have been planning this spring to open another restaurant, TacoArepa, a Caribbean-Latin America concept, that will be located next to their 202 Donuts & Coffee on Fairmont Avenue.
Now, instead of expanding the hours of operation at R Family Kitchen, the brothers said they may have to cut back.
“For the first time in eight years, we’re looking at each other and saying what are we going to do?” Alvaro Roche said.