We sat down with the husband and wife team behind the mixed-use Italian emporium in Georgetown, Via Umbria. Suzy and Bill Menard have been bringing a slice of Umbria to Georgetown for the past two years. We wanted to know how it all started, what it’s like to run a business with your partner, and why you should book your next flight to the green heart of Italy.
P.S.- Stay tuned for our travel review of their farmhouse rental property in Umbria this fall! (We’re lucky Bitches, we know.)
How did you two meet?
Suzy: Bill and I met in D.C. in 1984. We both worked on a presidential campaign together. We both have a background in politics.
Bill: Suzy was already working there–she was actually the first person I met on the job. We were both dating other people, but that ended quickly. We ended up getting married that year!
Where are you from originally?
Suzy: I’m from Iowa and Bill is from Florida, but went to boarding schools in the Northeast. I went to a summer program at Georgetown in high school and that was all it took—I knew Washington is where I was meant to be.
So, what do you love about the Georgetown neighborhood?
Bill: This is where we met–just up the road. Now 30 years later, we’ve settled in and spend most of our time in the same neighborhood where it all began.
Suzy: We’ve always lived in Washington and Georgetown has been a big part of our lives.
Tell me about Via Umbria and how you came up with the unique concept.
Suzy: We opened a little shop in 2003 in Bethesda, Maryland. We just sold lifestyle goods–such as pastas, sauces, ceramics, linens, etc. But our vision was always to open something that had a little bit of everything. At the time, we had four young children and it wasn’t an option. But with Via Umbria now, the timing worked out perfectly because all of the kids are out of school and we have the time to devote ourselves to the business. This is our new baby.
Bill: We’ve been in retail and importing products from Italy for years. We loved the products themselves and the artisans that create the pieces. We never really thought of ourselves as retailers–because it was more than that. It was sort of mission driven because we grew to love and form long lasting relationships with these artists over the past ten years. We want people to feel that love when they walk into Via Umbria.
Tell us what it’s like to own a business with your spouse. What advice would you give to anyone looking to work with their partner?
Bill: Don’t do it! No, but it certainly is challenging because it’s 24/7. It would be different if we were opening up a restaurant—there’s a template and a way of doing that. Here, we sort of created something that never really existed before, this whole concept of an Italian village under a roof. Every step along the way there were endless decisions, so we had to come to a conclusion about what we wanted to do first and then how we get there. So it’s 24/7 of numerous points for potential disagreement. But, the reward in it is that when we walk in here, like this past Sunday, this place was just hopping, there were 50 people in here, they were interacting with our staff and eating and drinking and creating a real community. When you see that you realize this didn’t exist two years ago. You hear people saying this is such an amazing place, such an amazing concept and you say to yourself, “I think they’re right!” There is a huge reward for it, you just have to weather some disagreements along the way.
Suzy: You have to make a conscious effort to not talk about work. Which is difficult, because it’s both of us, full time.
Bill: In terms of building our team, with hiring, I think we’ve learned that experience and expertise in a particular area, for instance the butcher counter, is important, but really a passion and personality is critical. You can learn about the products, but you really have to want to learn and be inquisitive.
Tell me a little bit about Umbria–why Italy?
Bill: That has to do with me and Georgetown Law. After my first summer of law school, instead of getting a traditional internship, I applied to a Georgetown program near Florence, Italy. We both lived there for three months and rented an apartment and became residents of this little neighborhood. We had our one-year-old there with us at the time. We both just fell in love with the rhythms, people, and culture.
Suzy: I fell in love with Italy because I had the best job! I was with my one year old son all day shopping, eating, and playing. And, once Bill came home, we would put Austin to bed and go out for the night. So it was really the perfect life. How could you not love it? After Bill graduated and passed the bar, we thought that our lives were over and we’d never be able to take another vacation. So we took our two kids and traveled for another three months in Italy with Bill’s parents. Over the years, whenever we had time, we would go back to Italy.
Via Umbria is a unique space–did you design it or was it like this when you bought the property?
Suzy: When we bought it, it was a consignment shop. We were both giving each other secret looks because we didn’t want the real estate agent to know how much we loved the space. During that initial walk through we just immediately saw where everything would go and how we would lay it out. They originally had shoes in the wine room–and we were thinking, “This room is just calling for wine!”
Bill: The challenge was that it was two floors of wide-open space. We knew we were going to have to deal with a lot of permits and paperwork dealing with all the different components of Via Umbria as well as a lot of renovation. That was a major, major undertaking. Getting the plans, having it laid out, figuring out what we wanted to do–and then getting Georgetown to approve it all was a full-time commitment.
Suzy: When we told people our plans, we said, “Don’t tell us no. We’re not going to change our minds, so just tell us how to get there.” There were a lot of “no”s along the way. We knew it could happen.
A lot of the inspiration came from what we do in Italy. When we’re in Italy, we all sit around the table and invite friends and neighbors to come and join us for a meal. We want to recreate that here in D.C. If anyone comes with us to Italy, then they’ll feel that parallel structure when we’re over there and that’s a really special thing. The kitchens over there are so incredible–they’re small but they accomplish a lot, they’re efficient.
Bill: A friend of ours–a sort of high-end, amateur chef–who we’ve brought over [to Italy] five or six times, became good friends with our chef friends. He asked our chef friend in Italy if he could come over and work for him. The Italian chef said, “No. I’m sorry, but you’re too big to fit in our kitchen.”
Speaking about the property in Umbria, tell us how you came across it.
Bill: When we started the business initially, the idea was to bring guests over to Italy and have them meet our friends and network. In 2008 we finally did it. We chose Umbria because we knew a lot about the region and were already importing a lot of goods from the region. A lot of our pastas, linens, ceramics, and olive oils were from the area. We found someone who was interested in partnering with us and would manage the property. We looked at a bunch of properties and found ours eventually–we had to go twice before Suzy declared that, “This was it. This was the place.” As far as renovations go–you have to respect the cultural differences and understand that things aren’t going to get done the same way they do here.
Suzy: It was actually the first location we visited and ended up picking it in the end. We thought that it would be the easiest property to turn into exactly what we wanted. It had all the bells and whistles. It just needed us to tweak the tiniest things. We had some nightmares, but they weren’t large scale.
We also didn’t want to be “the Americans” living in town. We wanted to fully embrace the area, culture, and people and fully immerse ourselves in the day-to-day life. We’re really lucky that in the small town of Cannara we have great relationships with the business owners and people of the town. There’s a good energy. We haven’t changed what they do–we’ve built ourselves into it.
For someone who hasn’t been over there–describe a typical day at the farmhouse.
There’s always food and wine.
Suzy: It really has something for everyone. It’s the perfect place for people who want to get out first thing in the morning and go do something. We have chickens, so we go get the eggs and make these spectacular egg dishes for breakfast. There’s an easy walk into town through the countryside. We have some bikes with baskets that people love to take into town. We are in the center of Umbria, so it’s easy to get anywhere.
You can do just about everything and anything: walking tours of the nearby cities, visit some of the several surrounding wineries, white water rafting, take a cooking class, go truffle hunting, or just plain explore.
Bill: You can take it easy and hang at the property–go swimming, walk around the farmland or garden. We’re centrally located to do all sorts of day trips and excursions. The sky’s the limit. You can get anywhere you want to go in 15, 30, or 60 minutes.
Tell us about the truffles.
Bill: We import our truffles from a producer not far from the house. We take groups over to do a truffle hunt which is an amazing experience. We’ve done it about 50 times–but it never gets old.
There are a lot of foods and specialty items that come from little towns all around us of which we’re so thankful for and proud of. The local menus and fare are so incredible. The area is very diverse, so there are a lot of different markets. There’s everything from tobacco fields to white water rafting nearby. Oh, and of course vineyards and olive groves.
Brunch is very American, but not very Italian. Talk about how brunch is received in Italy.
Bill: Breakfast in general is not very Italian; they will have an espresso and maybe a croissant, they typically don’t eat much in the morning. But we have an incredible network of Italian friends and neighbors and we hosted an American brunch for them—they were scratching their heads a bit, but they enjoyed it! The brunch we prepared is 100 percent more food than they would ever eat in the morning. We made bacon, which you can’t really get over there—it was more pancetta, waffles, orange juice, etc.
Suzy: They like the maple syrup! If you think about it, there’s only a few things you would take to Italy, right? Italy has everything—we want all the stuff they have! But maple syrup, barbecue sauce, and pecans, that’s what they want from us.
Bill: We’re often having our neighbors over for dinner and of course, we have an Italian chef cook for us, we don’t pretend to know how to cook their cuisine better than them. For instance, we threw a Fourth of July party over there with hot dogs and hamburgers and a neighbor friend of ours came over with a housewarming gift. He opens the trunk of his car and there’s a box in there with two live turkeys! Only in Italy do they bring poultry as a housewarming gift. It was also the wrong holiday, but they think we eat turkey for every holiday!
Suzy: They all want to have an American Thanksgiving.
Tell us about Via Umbria’s new chef, Liam LaCivita.
Bill: He was a neighbor of ours when we were in Bethesda. We didn’t serve any food at that point, but I had lunch there every day for years. He left there and worked at Liberty Tavern and Bar Civita in Woodley Park (recently closed).
Suzy: We both bought our cheese from the same person. And our cheesemonger, Fergus, said to him, “you have to go this place, you’ll love it!” And he came in last spring and we got reacquainted and he said “Fergus kept telling me I needed to come in and now I know why!” At the time we were revamping our kitchen and had a guest chef here from Italy, but she needed to go home to her husband and children eventually, so he came on board while she was here to get to know the kitchen and what we were doing. But since then he’s taken over and has gradually made the kitchen his own, while keeping true to the vision Bill and I had and the vision that our chef friends bring when they come over here from Italy.
Bill: When you talk about hiring the right people and building the right team, personality wise, character wise, and skill set wise he is the perfect fit for us because it’s a small kitchen, it’s a small staff. We basically run the food service as they would a small trattoria in Italy. It’s pretty lean and pretty authentic. We designed the kitchen and this whole business to run that way and it’s not for the faint of heart, or chefs that expect there to be a hierarchy. He’s unflappable, he improvises, he gets on great with everyone that works here. He’s a great spokesperson, which is important when he’s interacting with our customers on a daily basis.
Suzy: He’ll say, “Order me some goat milk, I want to make fresh ricotta or sausage for this dish!” He’s really looking to crank up what we make in house, we’re going to be making much pasta in house. We’re making doughnuts on Saturdays and Sundays in house, and were going to be making house made bread. It’s all super exciting for us because we’ve always believed it could be done, but it was finding the right person to execute it.
Via Umbria isn’t a typical full service restaurant, describe the concept behind the dinners, brunch, and events.
Suzy: We’re open Tuesday through Sunday at 7 a.m. with breakfast and lunch foods made to order in the kitchen and a new happy hour menu, which includes the most amazing fried seafood I’ve ever eaten. There’s always food available here either to eat in or take out. The breakfast sandwiches are phenomenal; my favorite is the one with smoked salmon from Ivy City Smokehouse and a poached egg. It’s dynamite.
Bill: We’ve been doing the special dinners for a while, we call them now “Dinner at the Chef’s Table,” but basically the dining room upstairs is in the kitchen, the chef is working behind the island and there’s a large communal table. It’s a fixed menu, but always with a vegetarian option. You’re right there with the chef, watching things being prepared, among a community that is also interested in food. The brunch is a similar concept, it’s a more unique experience than dining at a restaurant.
Speaking of brunch, do you prefer a Bloody Mary or a mimosa?
Suzy: Bloody Mary.
Brunch in or out?
Suzy and Bill: Brunch out.
Favorite dish to cook?
Bill: Handmade pasta, no question.
Suzy: This is hard! I’ll say steak, I could eat steak everyday.
If you could invite anyone to brunch who would they be?
Bill: Barack and Michelle Obama.
Suzy: Definitely Michelle Obama. Nora Poullion of restaurant Nora, and Lidia Bastianich. But, it would be a very boring brunch because I would just be speechless and in awe!
BitchBiz: Bitches Who Brunch partnered with Via Umbria on this post.