Coffee With Mango Mike Anderson
Alexandria's long-time restaurateur/community activist describes his successes (and a few misses) in the very competitive Alexandria restaurant business.
“As we get older, you need these things—you need to constantly challenge your mind, keep things sharp, and learn something new,” said Mango Mike Anderson, almost certainly Alexandria’s only newly-qualified 68-year-old pilot, “Flying is one of those things that you’ve got to dive into. You can kill yourself if you don’t know what you’re doing so the impetus to really learn it well is pretty strong.”
One of Alexandria’s leading restaurant operators, Anderson has piloted 15 restaurants in the city since 1979. He is the Chief Executive Officer of Home Grown Restaurant Group which operates Holy Cow, Pork Barrel BBQ, Sweet Fire Donna’s, Whiskey & Oyster and Tequila & Taco. More information on all of these is available
Another restaurant, formerly The Sushi Bar in Del Ray, has been converted into a series of pop-up restaurants that change about every three months. It is currently Bartanical. “That’s going to run until mid-May, or the end of May, when it will become an 80’s bar with a Miami Vice theme,” he said.
Anderson became known as Mango Mike at the insistence of Ralph Capobianco who operated King Street Blues. His reputation grew when, in the early 2000’s, Mango Mike’s was a highly successful operation in a 9,000 square foot building in front of 4600 Duke street. The location was formerly occupied by the Bombay Bicycle Club. Anderson went all out with truckloads of sand and palm trees and a huge aquarium to emphasize the restaurant’s tropical theme. An Aldie’s grocery store currently occupies the site.
According to Anderson, the difference between a hit restaurant and an unsuccessful one is, “You know, magic dust—you can do everything right and still not be successful.” He pointed to the failure of Tres Hermanos, “a complete bomb” he said, in the space formerly occupied by Mango Mike’s. “If I knew [the secret], I would be Bill Marriott,” he said.
“With the competition nowadays, you’ve got to get all the basics right. You need the right pricing, the right menu, the right staff, the right location, the right look, and then you hope the magic dust kicks in,” said Anderson, “The magic dust is starting to kick in here at Whiskey & Oyster, but it struggled for the first three years. Of course, Covid didn’t help.”
Anderson’s 2021 announcement of a $15 per hour starting wage made news and reduced employee turnover. He said that in the late stages of Covid, “Our guys were working really hard—during Covid was really a tough time for our staff.” The $15 per hour wage, and the generous tipping for takeout food during the height of the pandemic, provided relief for dishwashers and other entry-level restaurant workers and reduced employee turnover. He said that now $15 per hour is “pretty much the norm.”
Anderson thinks that most people do not appreciate how hard restaurant staffers work and how often customers are unreasonably demanding. “These guys work really hard and a lot of time it’s not their fault if something happens with the customer’s meal experience,” he said, “I wish people would just sit back and relax and appreciate how hard these people work.”
In Anderson’s decades-long view, Alexandria’s leadership and business climate has changed for the better. “I’ve probably applied for more special use permits than anyone besides [lawyers] Cathy Puskar and Duncan Blair,” he said, “Back in the 80’s, if you wanted to do a restaurant in town it was a hard, uphill battle. You had a lot of push back from citizens’ associations and neighborhood groups. It was just really hard.”
“I don’t mind the process, because I think the process works” he said, referring to the city’s requirements on new businesses or business expansion, he said, “We’re really lucky to live in Alexandria.”
Anderson said, “I think now that, especially [after] Covid, Alexandria residents have a better appreciation for their restaurants. I think they now see them as a real amenity in their neighborhood. The parklets have been a huge deal. I give a ton of credit to the City Council and Mayor Wilson for enacting that—they made that happen on the turn of a dime. That was huge for the city.”
Anderson believes that the Carlyle development, where Whiskey & Oyster and Tequila & Taco are located, is misperceived as a commercial development. “Half of it [Carlyle] is apartments and condos and these parklets have brought a whole new dimension,” to the area, he said.
Anderson credits Charlotte Hall of the Old Town Business Association, the Chamber of Commerce, and Stephanie Landrum of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership as advocates for restaurant operators. He sees the city’s building and zoning regulators as stepping up enforcement in the post-Covid environment and said that parklets in front of two of his restaurants will be rebuilt to meet the city’s requirements.
Anderson firmly believes that the 11 percent food tax (six percent goes to the state, five percent to the city) should be repealed. “We get people commenting, ‘How come we’re paying 11 percent tax?’ as well as a tip. We get a lot of push back about that. Restaurants almost went crazy a couple of years ago when the tax was raised from four to five cents. They [customers] do notice.”
He points out that in the mile on King Street between the Potomac River and the King Street Metro station there are 90 restaurants, although the identities of many of them have changed. “You’ve got to be a good operator,” he said.
Anderson, a Living Legend, has been a mainstay for numerous charitable causes. He also developed the innovative charitable designation system at Holy Cow.
He has been approached about running for City Council but says, “I’m a restaurant guy—in your DNA you want everybody to love you. When you’re a City Council guy, you always have 25% of your voting base pissed off about something—I can’t have that.”
Some of the Home Grown Restaurant Group’s employees have worked in its restaurants for decades. “It’s really nice when you enjoy going to work, not that every day is easy. The restaurant business is great because you get immediate feedback,” he said, “Everybody knows the shift went great, the food came out great, customers are happy, staff made a lot of money, the IRS didn’t shut us down—it was a great day.”
“My partner Bill [Blackburn] always says that it’s like running a pirate ship because [the staff] is in it because it’s not a 9-to-5 kind of thing,” he said, “If they are working on the floor or as bartenders, they’re kind of independent contractors—if they are on top of their game they are going to do better than if they are mediocre.”
Anderson’s wife, who is the actual Sweet Fire Donna, has stepped back from active participation in that restaurant. His daughter, Danielle, who started at age 12 in Mango Mike’s prep kitchen and gained extensive restaurant experience in Michigan, is now Director of Operations for the Home Grown Restaurant Group.
Of Danielle and her husband, Dave, Anderson said, “They are doing a great job. I think she may be a better restaurateur than I am. She’s had more training—I was pretty much self-taught— and she’s brought some new systems into our places and she’s got the passion for it.”
As advice to young people, Anderson said, “This is used so much, but I would talk about follow your passion. Don’t follow the money, follow your passion. I think I’ve always tried to do that in the restaurant business.”
Thanks for reading About Alexandria! Subscribe for free to receive new posts.