Founders & Principals, KNEAD Hospitality + Design
KNEAD Hospitality + Design, founded by seasoned restaurant operators Jason Berry and Michael Reginbogin, is an award-winning Washington, DC-based multi-concept / multi-unit family of restaurants providing hospitality and design under one roof.
Founded in 2015, KNEAD has quickly expanded with ten concepts, an estimated 20+ locations by 2023 and more than one thousand teammates. Their unique restaurants offer a variety of experiences, from elevated casual dining showcasing cuisines spanning Mexican, Southern, French, American and Steak, to fast-casual featuring bakeries, burgers, taco, and pizza concepts.
KNEAD has become a leader in restaurant design, concept development and operations, celebrating the philosophy that guests “eat with their eyes.”
Michael Reginbogin is the Co-Founder & Principal of Washington D.C.-based KNEAD Hospitality + Design. Additionally, Michael serves as KNEAD’s Design Director. A California native and USC graduate, Reginbogin cut his teeth in the restaurant industry with the Hillstone family of restaurants, which he considers the foundation for the career path that followed. He went on to obtain leadership roles at respected restaurant groups across the nation including the TAO Group, BR Guest Restaurant Group, Samba Brands Management, Dream Hotels and more.
Jason Berry was raised in Los Angeles with a passion for cooking and dining. From a young age, he gravitated toward the restaurant industry where his love of all things food could be combined with a deep respect for genuine hospitality. In over three decades in the restaurant business, Jason has worked with a wide variety of concepts from Wendy’s to California Pizza Kitchen and Houston’s (Hillstone) in both front and back of house positions. In 2004, he joined Rosa Mexicano as Regional Director of Operations, overseeing the company’s growth from three to nineteen locations around the world. He was named Chief Operating Officer in 2011. In 2014, Jason moved to Washington, D.C. and formed KNEAD Hospitality + Design with his partner Michael. Together, they have collaborated on the design and creation of what is now the KNEAD family of restaurants
For those who don’t know you, can you share a little bit of your background before you came into the industry?
Jason Berry: I grew up in Los Angeles and I’ve been in the industry since I was 15, so I have truly been in the food service industry most of my life.
Jason, can you talk about what sparked your interest in food and hospitality?
Jason: From the earliest age, my father took me to a wide range of restaurants. As an attorney, he worked long hours, but he loved to eat and didn’t have time to cook for me often which is why we would go out to restaurants frequently. I got to see a world that a lot of kids don’t see at such a young age. I was exposed to different foods and restaurant styles. Plus, I think hospitality and taking care of people is just in my nature. Those aspects combined blend really well for the foundation of a career in hospitality, and restaurants happened to be the path that fit me best.
You mentioned being fifteen and working in restaurants. Walk us through what happened next.
Jason: I worked in fast food in high school at a place called Pioneer Chicken, which was like a local version of Chick-Fil-A in California. After that, I worked at Wendy’s. I started in the drive thru and got promoted to cashier, which is a role I was much more comfortable with. I waited tables throughout college at California Pizza Kitchen, Jerry’s Deli, and all sorts of places across Southern California. After college, I joined a company called Houston’s, today known as Hillstone. I was trying to find my career path at that time, as many people do, and I really liked the structure, elegance, casual sophistication of the company and the way it operated.
With that focus, what did your path look like?
Jason: I received my MBA from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and dabbled in consulting. I didn’t love it, so after my first year I reached back out to Houston’s, which had just become Hillstone, and asked if they hired MBAs. I figured maybe they’d be interested to test out if somebody with a master’s degree could be better at operating restaurants than somebody with an undergrad degree.
What led to the departure from the structure that Houston’s/Hillstone offered?
Jason: At the time, Houston’s had approximately 50 restaurants. I knew I had a good future with them, but the people that had been in the regional and/or vice president roles had been there forever and didn’t seem to be moving on anytime soon. So, I started putting feelers out and I found a small restaurant company that had three locations called Rosa Mexicano. It gave me the chance to learn from one of the best in the business for the next ten years: Howard Greenstone.
What did you learn from him?
Jason: Everything–the guy is one of the most talented operators I’ve ever worked with. What Howard exposed me to was the concept that there’s a lot of money out there and there’s a lot to be made in the gray area. What I mean by that is, where I came from was black and white. I think one of the reasons Howard liked me is because I had all this structure and experience in the details from working at Hillstone. Rosa had three locations, and they did things that I didn’t do in my past like reservations, private events, different day part menus, different experiences, Chef dinners, all the things that smaller, independent, aggressive restaurants participate in. I didn’t get to do any of that prior to joining Rosa. I was able to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. When I began as a regional manager, we had three restaurants. When I left as COO, we had grown to 19.
What was the next step in creating your own “thing”?
Jason: When my husband and partner, Michael, who was also in the restaurant industry, said: “You know, maybe we should try and see if we can do this for ourselves instead of doing it for other people. More risk, more reward.” It got me thinking. We ended up moving to Washington, DC which felt like a smaller “big” city, and easier to make a name for ourselves in. Not to mention, we liked DC a lot. So, we opened our first restaurant, Succotash, right outside of DC in National Harbor, Maryland in 2015. It’s been a wild success. And we did that with Chef Edward Lee, who’s our culinary director and an acclaimed celebrity chef.
What is it that made Succotash successful?
Jason: A mix of things. The fact that it was the right cuisine for the right environment. At the time, there was no Southern representation in National Harbor. If there’s a cuisine that is American, it’s Southern food, and we wanted to do a casual fine dining restaurant that could showcase some of the south’s greatest hits, but from Chef’s unique Asian-Southern point of view.
National Harbor is also a very transient area. It has 3,000+ hotel rooms, an MGM Casino and is on the Potomac, which lends to us hosting a ton of private events. Our key to success is the right cuisine, the right design and the right price point for this area.
How did your first hit with Succotash turn into this empire with multiple concepts?
Jason: It really just evolved. There was great real estate we couldn’t turn down and opportunities we just couldn’t pass on. We now have 19 locations with 10 concepts.
Is that true that you have opened a restaurant in one of the old Rosa Mexicano spaces?
Jason: We have a new Mi Vida in the former Rosa Mexicano space on 7th and F Street, across from the Capital One Arena. I had always loved that space and I had jokingly told our broker: “If that space ever becomes available, and we don’t get a shot at it, you and I are over.” When the space finally became available and he presented it to us, just months into the pandemic, the deal made great sense.
You seem to have this incredible knack for being at the right place at the right time.
Jason: There are always ups and downs, but we did have some incredible luck over the past few years. We partnered with Swingers, the mini golf concept from London, for two of their DC locations. We opened a standalone version of Mah-Ze-Dahr Bakery at National Landing, where Amazon’s East Coast headquarters is located. We landed a couple of great COVID deals that led to a Tex Mex restaurant called Mi Casa in Dupont Circle, which was a location that we coveted for a long time. At the Wharf, we took over the old Dolcezza space, and created a French concept called Bistro Du Jour right next to our other Wharf concepts, Mi Vida and The Grill.
You make this sound way too easy. How do you know what concept is going to work in which space?
Jason: Our strength is that we’re really creative. We look at the neighborhood and figure out what is needed in the area. For example, when we were first looking at the Wharf, DC’s premiere waterfront destination, we knew both tourists and locals would want a Mexican restaurant. So we created Mi Vida. Later on, we pointed out to our landlord that the Wharf had no higher end American concept. They had Shake Shack, but they didn’t have a sit-down American restaurant. So we asked ourselves: “What is missing, and is that a cuisine that we think we can bring and do a little better?” We took the open kitchen, the wood burning grill concept, and applied it to the kinds of things that we wanted to see that have a little more international flavor than your traditional American restaurant. We used this incredible Josper grill from Spain and created what is now called, The Grill.
We’ve talked about the food and the concepts. What about the team? How do you build a team to make this thing move?
Jason: You kiss a lot of frogs. The truth is almost everybody interviews well. The key is dislodging the good ones from where they work now and hoping the company we created is attractive enough to bring people over. You do that by building a good name in your community and in this very tight-knit industry. It took us eight years to build that reputation. Nobody knew who we were. But now they know who we are because we’re the fastest growing restaurant group in the city…and that makes things a little easier. We have been fortunate to hire some amazing people, and there are still plenty more great people that are finally returning to the restaurant industry we hope to attract.
How do you keep them?
Jason: We built very unique benefits programs. We have a lot more benefits than the typical restaurant company of our size, including a program called KNEAD Life + Style benefits which provides specific reimbursement for expenses that will make your life better. We offer bonus programs, 401k and more. We have also been testing a program called 4Days@Work!, which is a variation on the four-day workweek. We’re testing that in a few restaurants, and about to roll it out in a few more. Having these unique benefits allows us to stand out among the competition in terms of attracting and retaining teammates.
How are you going to make a four-day workweek in a restaurant?
Jason: Well, that’s the challenge of it. You pay a lot more money in salaries. For example, a three-manager, three-chef restaurant now needs four managers and four chefs. So that adds about $150-175,000 a year. But, if you reduce your turnover and increase your institutional knowledge with teammates who leave less often, the regulars see the same people all the time and the staff see the same good leaders all the time, then the turnover is reduced and the quality of the experience for the team and our guests is consistently better. Revenue should then increase, and your P&L should improve because you’re able to squeeze more efficiency out of a restaurant with longer term staff than one with a brand new staff that cycles in and out.
Curious with the structured backgrounds you come from, do your chefs have any culinary freedom?
Jason: Frankly, we believe there’s a lot more to be said for doing the same thing every day, consistently, than changing up an entire menu every week. I used to live near Momofuku in DC, and I would go there probably once a week. I’d find a dish that I loved, and the next week, it’d be gone. I would think to myself, “Why are you doing this?” Hillstone is a great example of why consistency makes money. If people find something they love, they keep coming back time and time again. That consistency creates repeat business. If that French Dip or Thai Salad is just as good as the last time I ordered it, more often I will spend my money on a reliable dining experience vs. one that is new and/or inconsistent. While the menu may stay the same, it’s important to always be poking, prodding and improving what’s on the menu. Can this dish be improved? Always try to make something a little better than it was before: “Should we bake our burger buns? Should we make our own bread? Should we make these desserts or outsource them?”If you keep trying to be better, it will be motivating and rewarding to your team.
What is your approach to signature cocktails and creating a beverage menu that pops?
Jason: Our beverage director is strangely good at everything. She’s a wine nerd and sommelier who also knows a lot about spirits and beer. It’s rare that you find somebody that’s talented in all areas of beverage.
We taste everything, and she knows what’s trending, what’s interesting, or what’s selling. And the fact that most of our restaurants are either American or Latin gives her a canvas to create things that we’re all familiar with. The Grill has a focused martini program, Mi Vida and Mi Casa are all about margaritas, and Succotash is all about bourbon.
Look into the crystal ball, what’s next? What do you see?
Jason: Michael and I are trying to diversify. We have a hotel opening this summer in DC where we are responsible for F&B, in room dining and banquets. We’re also looking at two airport licensing deals as well. Lastly, we are opening two new locations outside of DC in early 2025. Growth for us is outside of the DMV at this time.
ALL PHOTOS courtesy of KNEAD Hospitality + Design unless otherwise noted
Learn more about Jason Berry and Michael Reginbogin and KNEAD Hospitality + Design at their website