Food for Thought

On the first day, Bob Ferrando walked into the restaurant he bought on the west end of Dupont Circle and turned on the air conditioning system. It blew up. Without air conditioning, Ferrando’s new building was an inferno. With the help of his physicist brother, he began to rebuild the system. A 100-pound rotor, melted around the central shaft, presented a problem.

“I torched it. I pounded it. I pulled with metal rods and stretched them till they broke,” Ferrando said. “I had a Hell’s Angel down there (in the basement) pounding on it with a 16-pound sledge hammer.”

After two months of pounding in the 110-degree basement, Ferrando reached his limit. “You’ve got to allow the spiritual to take over, and I said `I allow.’ I took the sledge hammer, tapped the rotor and it fell off.”

Shortly thereafter, Ferrando opened Food For Thought, serving up vegetarian chili, pita lined with avocado spread and sprouts galore, and vegan peanut butter pie – food that was healthy and cheap.

With a handful of vegetarian burger options, a slow – and sometimes scary – wait staff, a bulletin board plastered with torn paper swatches offering car rides and housing, and a small platform stage that featured musicians usually ignored by customers, Food For Thought established itself as an unlikely D.C. institution. But after 26 years on Connecticut Avenue, it’s closing.

“We used to be the premier place for people to hangout, play chess, whatever you want to do,” Ferrando said. “Now there’s all sorts of neat places to go and hang out and it’s spread the number of people thinner.

“A lot of places could survive on 100 or 150 people a day because they have fairly high check prices, and you have to spend $25 or $30. At Food For Thought, you can come in and have a piece of lasagna, you can have half a piece, you can share a piece with somebody – you could just drink water. The average check price is only about seven bucks a person so you need hundreds and hundreds of people coming in every day.”

In a small cluttered office behind the shadowy dining area, Ferrando has handled the business end of Food For Thought since he tapped the rotor off the shaft in 1973. At first glance, Ferrando, topped with a head of reckless graying hair and clad in a faded Food For Thought T-shirt, seems the perfect counterpart to his restaurant, an aging throwback from the 1960s counterculture.

But a conversation with Ferrando shatters that initial visual impression and cancels the conventional wisdom that reduces the closing of Food For Thought to the mere collapse of Washington’s last hippie outpost.

In the end, Food For Thought’s quarter century success shows Ferrando more an enlightened businessman than an unkempt hippie.

“I want people to eat and to be able to afford it,” he said. “I want to be able to serve healthy food. A regular restaurant might have really nice fancy food and a chef to prepare it but they don’t even look at what’s inside it. (Other restaurants) consider the appearance, the taste and the quality so that the customer comes back. But it doesn’t even occur to them that they’re serving tons of chemicals and artificial colorings. Food should be food and not chemicals.”

Ferrando said cheap prices and a liberal menu coupled with high rent and utility expenses make Food For Thought’s economic survival a near miracle.

“We’ve survived because we cut every corner in the book,” he said. “Just yesterday the night manager said the ice cream cooler was broken. I found what was wrong with it right way and fixed it – it was a freon leak. No other restaurant owner is gonna crawl underneath a God damn ice cream freezer looking for a leak.

“They’re gonna call a repair man, throw away all the ice cream, and it’s not gonna matter because they’re making so much money. Most restaurant owners are businessmen and don’t know one end of a monkey wrench from the other.”

Ferrando said his idealistic operational approach to Food For Thought has produced bittersweet consequences. On one hand, Ferrando has successfully fostered what he calls a “vibe” that hovers over the staff, clientele and musicians.

“There’s a lot of places to go with good food and better service – I’m sure that’s one of the complaints here with waitresses spacing out a little bit,” Ferrando said laughing.

“But people will go to other restaurants and say `I went in and had dinner and everything was just fine, but I didn’t feel that same vibe,'” he said. “That’s because most places are oriented toward pleasing the customer, taking his money and moving on to the next customer. Food For Thought was something more than that. It’s hard to put your finger on but it’s some kind of feel.”

While Ferrando’s relaxed demeanor and idealistic business notions facilitated the restaurant’s trademark vibe, he also feels that lofty ideals contributed to Food For Thought’s closing.

“I have to do something that feels good, like I’m doing the right thing,” he said. “What Food For Thought did was not a very wise business thing. It ran a place that tried to spread some kind of comfortable feeling and in the process make money – I mean, that’s a roundabout way to make money.”

By featuring musicians on most nights, Ferrando created the vibe while forsaking potential profits.

“We said we’ll keep the music going, people will like it, and we’ll sort of make money incidentally,” he said. “Well, yeah, but only if you could keep three or four hundred people piling through the place (daily). We can’t do that anymore.”

With the restaurant’s closing set for the end of March, Ferrando is not bitter, depressed or highly sentimental. He plans to manage the kitchen at the Black Cat on U Street, which his son Dante manages.

“When I first went into business, I didn’t know I was gonna last this long,” Ferrando said. “It’s like if you’re a person that plays sports and you had a good career. It’s been 12 years and you say `I still could play some more.’ But If you do retire you feel satisfied because you played a good game. I feel satisfied. I played a good game here.”

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