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Grits and Determination: A Recipe for Success

September 4, 2006
By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 3, 2006; A01

To see and hear and smell how America works, go to the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Chesapeake Street NW and step into the Steak 'n Egg Kitchen. The Tenleytown diner is a round-the-clock crossroads for people from all over the world -- all colors and ages and religions and socioeconomic stripes. It's usually accepting, often accommodating, always unlocked.

The tiny place has a red floor, white walls and blue ceiling. There's a "God Bless America" poster on the front window. The menu offers T-bone steaks, corned beef hash, patty melts and breakfast. Everything is served 24/7.

You will also find other things that are not on the menu: the value of hard work, the power of positive thinking, an open-door policy that has functioned well for years.

The hole-in-the-wall diner -- with its 13 black-cushioned stools, a small outdoor patio and a grill not much bigger than your own stove top -- is known by many names: The sign out front says Steak 'n Egg Kitchen. The menu reads Osman & Joe's Restaurant.

But to most folks who know and appreciate the singularity of the place, this is the land of Oz.

It's owned by Osman "Oz" Barrie and Joe Vamboi, transplants from Sierra Leone who took it over in 1997. They didn't put their names on the menu until 1999. "We kept it secret," Barrie says, "being immigrants."

These days, Vamboi spends most of his time at another cafe he owns. Barrie, however, can usually be found at the diner, flipping turkey sausage, making ice-cream sundaes and mopping the floor.

Like America, there are bugs in the system -- and a few flies on the walls. But for the most part, the diner is an exultation of sights, smells, sounds and tastes. It's an eclectic parade of winners and losers with basic dreams and desires. It's slow sometimes; hectic at others.

And usually, it's full of surprises.


Welcome to America

On his first day in the United States, Osman Barrie was robbed at gunpoint.

It was 1990 and Barrie -- who had just graduated from college in Syria -- decided that he did not want to live in his native country, where civil war was erupting. A friend who had moved to Greensboro, N.C., invited him to come to the United States and work on a chicken farm. "They were looking to hire immigrants for low wages," says Barrie, a jovial guy with rounded features, wearing khaki shorts, a Hawaii T-shirt, black Dave & Buster's cap and black sneakers.

When he landed in New York, a cabdriver offered to take him to LaGuardia so he could catch a plane to North Carolina. Instead, the cabbie took Barrie to a dead-end street and pulled a gun on him. "The guy took everything I had," Barrie says.

Barrie called 911 and two New York City police officers took pity on him. They fronted him $100 and put him on a train to Washington so he could report his losses to -- and receive some aid from -- the Sierra Leone Embassy.

Once here, Barrie went to work as an ice-cream vendor. He says he was given routes in some of the city's poorest sections, but was able to succeed by extending lines of credit -- for $10 or so -- to the families. "At the end of the month, I made big money," he says. "I had maybe 30 accounts and only one person never paid me."

Because ice cream was a seasonal venture, he took other jobs. For a while, he worked at a car wash on Central Avenue for $4 an hour, plus tips, in the morning and sold ice cream in the afternoon. In 1993, he got a job at the Steak 'n Egg Kitchen, washing dishes. The manager, who liked Barrie because he spoke Arabic, told him to learn all he could about the menu so he could become a waiter. "All the food was new to me," he says. "A medium-rare steak! In my country we cook everything well done."

Eventually, Barrie worked his way up to regional manager -- overseeing six stores. When the parent company foundered, Barrie used creative ways to pay vendors and employees at the Tenleytown location. But there were still major problems. The diner's equipment had fallen into disrepair. "The health department was always shutting the place down," he says.

The Connecticut-based parent company of Steak 'n Egg gave up the ghost. In 1997, the local landlord handed the keys to Barrie and Vamboi, a cook at the diner. The landlord said that as long as they could pay the rent, $3,500 a month at the time, they could run the restaurant. Little by little, they purchased new equipment, painted doors, fixed toilets. They slept in their cars in the parking lot and worked 12-hour shifts.

In the nine years that Barrie has run the show, he has expanded the staff and the menu. He uses Montreal seasoning on his steaks. He bought an ice-cream machine for cones and milkshakes.

One day, he sent a gofer to get chocolate chips from the neighborhood CVS. The pharmacy didn't have any, so the gofer bought a bag of M&Ms. Barrie improvised with the candies and now M&M waffles and pancakes are hot items.

Instead of making three-egg omelettes the way the old Steak 'n Egg company did it, Barrie uses four eggs. "This country likes large portions," Barrie says. "People who come in here, many never finish their omelettes."

Advisers told him he would lose money selling larger portions. "What do I know," he is fond of saying sarcastically. "I'm a dumb African."

He adds, "God bless America."

'The Whole United Nations'

It's lunchtime on a recent weekday and Oz is at the grill. Business is brisk. He works fast, scrambling eggs, building sandwiches and greeting a swift flow of customers.

He smiles a lot and why not? At 36, he is happily married, has three kids, lives in a four-bedroom house on River Road and drives a Mercedes. He is an owner of two restaurants and employs 18 people at the Tenleytown location.

"God bless America." He says that a lot.

Another thing he likes to say: "I don't speak English, I speak American."

He is so fond of that phrase that he has plastered it on T-shirts and caps that have become popular with students from American University and nearby high schools.

A shirt hangs on the wall. So do posters -- of a mythical diner and a morning-coffee still life. There is a photo of the diner in 1931, and the counters and refrigerator look exactly the same. It has been called Steak 'n Egg Kitchen since the mid-'70s.

To lots of people, this timeless diner is an entryway into -- and a refuge from -- a complex and ever-morphing world.

Chris Ravenscroft, 24, is taking orders, fixing sodas and collecting money while Barrie dispatches with one meal after another like a triage nurse. Ravenscroft has been coming to the diner for years. He graduated from nearby Georgetown Day School and spent a couple of years at Ohio State University.

He came back to Washington to work in restaurants. Barrie hired him and Ravenscroft says he loves his job. "I spent more time here than I did at home and school combined," he says. "Oz even came to our high school graduation."

At the counter, Carmen Jones, 21, is chowing down on a massive, messy Smoky Mountain burger. A graphic designer who creates the signs that immigrants first see at border crossings, Jones says she usually comes in during the early morning hours. She likes it because she feels safe. "Everybody's pretty cool here," she says.

Francisco Debarros, who works at the Brazilian Embassy, stops by nearly every day. "For myself, I like steak very well," he says. "Osman -- he's number one."

At the Steak 'n Egg, you have front-row seats for the extravaganza that is existence. You can see up close the specialties and speciousness of the species. "You see prostitutes sitting next to Secret Service agents next to a 12-year-old kid who has run away from home for a while," Barrie says about his counter. "You have the whole United Nations sitting there."

There are sober and not-so-sober moments. Lots of late-night habitues have been drinking and "just want something to soak up the alcohol," Barrie says. "You'd be amazed at the number of people who just order toast!"

It's a Circus Maximus on a minimalist stage: stools, counter, food, Tabasco sauce.

The scene can turn edgy at night after people have been carousing. Barrie likes to head off any problems. He gives every customer a menu immediately and gets them engaged in the social contract. I feed you; you pay me. There are security cameras here and there, and most of the employees look as though they can take care of themselves in the ring.

Barrie says it also helps that he knows many of the people who come in.

On a recent morning, his wife stops by. Barrie likes to tell the story of how he met Victoria -- a blond, Jewish, divorced mother of two from California -- on Bourbon Street in New Orleans.

They struck up an e-mail courtship and saw each other when they could. But as the romance grew more serious, Victoria told Oz that there was no way her parents were going to let her marry a black Muslim from Africa.

Barrie had a similar problem. "My father had picked out a wife for me," he says. But Barrie was persistent and eventually the two got married in 2004. (Barrie says that he has a work permit and that he is still working on obtaining his U.S. citizenship.)

"We talk about politics," Barrie says, "but we don't agonize. We differentiate between politics and family."

When his family expanded overnight, Barrie realized he needed a much bigger house, but he wasn't sure he could afford it. "You know what is wonderful about this place?" he says, waving a hand in the air. "Any time I need something, big or small, somebody who eats here is there to help me."

Customers helped him find and buy a house big enough for everyone -- including the couple's 8-month-old son, Noah, born on Christmas Day.

4,000 Eggs a Week

Frizzy-haired David Iscoe, 19, a student at Columbia University, is on his dinner break from Hudson Trail Outfitters, where he unloads trucks during the 5 p.m.-to-1 a.m. shift. "I'm trying to figure out a way to get a steak without paying a lot of money," he says.

Osman Barrie has gone home and Lawrence Rawlings, 30, is running the show solo during the slow time. Rawlings suggests that Iscoe forgo the side orders of hash browns and bread and just focus on the beef. Iscoe orders a steak, medium well, and a cup of black coffee. He says he started coming to the diner as a student at Wilson High School.

Rawlings watches Iscoe's steak as he takes orders -- burgers and hash browns -- from a couple of German-speaking men. Someone else wants eggs. The cafe sells about 400 burgers and 4,000 eggs a week, according to staff calculations.

Iscoe is so hungry that he eats his steak British-style, not shifting his fork from left to right hand. "I got sushi for dinner before 5. It didn't fill me up," he tells Rawlings. "I need a lot of coffee."

Iscoe finishes his steak and orders another one. The room is hazy with grease smoke. "The second steak was better," he says, finishing the last bite. So much for diminishing marginal returns.

There are good things about working alone, says Rawlings, who is wearing a black T-shirt and cap. He keeps all the tips and he gets to experiment a little with the menu. He makes a Blue Smoky Mountain burger, that mixes bleu cheese with the barbecue sauce. As a bow to history, he writes "S & E" in sauce on the cheese of each cheeseburger, for Steak 'n Egg.

He likes the food and he likes Oz. "The dirtiest job in here, Oz will do it," he says.

And he likes the pressure. "You drop it, they see it," he says. "And you burn yourself, you can't go off screaming."

Each of the cooks has the same scar on his forearm -- from the waffle iron.


Well-Oiled Machine

As Rawlings's shift winds down around 10:30, business picks up. Students in baseball caps order waffles and ice cream. A silver-haired man in a blazer and gray flannels orders two eggs, sunny-side up. Sike Sharigan, who gives his age as "62 or more," likes to stop by on his way home from a night of socializing at his favorite downtown watering hole, the Prime Rib. "If I don't have dinner there, I have it here," he says. "People who work here are very industrious."

The energy rubs off on others: The guys who run their coffeehouse in the bottom of Politics & Prose bookstore honed their business plan while meeting at the diner.

So does the ease: Erika Eckstrom, 21, and Jon Smith, 20, are having a late-night meal together. She works for the Peace Corps; he's an Army sergeant stationed at Fort Myer.

God bless America.

There is a drunk woman at the counter talking Rawlings's ear off. She asks if any celebrities ever come in. Rawlings says Mike Tyson once showed up and ate two Smoky Mountain burgers.

Just before 11, cook Kevin Naylor and waiter Malcolm Magwood arrive. They immediately pitch in. Naylor hands menus to three customers; Magwood empties garbage. The transition is seamless.

Both men wear the informal Steak 'n Egg uniform -- black T-shirts and caps. Naylor has wire-rims.

The sounds: the kuh-lank of clean plates going back on the shelf, the scrrrrippp of the spatula scraping the edge of the grill. The ssshhhiiissshhh of vegetable oil on the grill and the boom-she-boom of hip-hop songs on the radio.

At 1:20, a cop comes in and Naylor fixes her some hash browns. Ten minutes later, steak lover David Iscoe is back, with four friends in tow, for some chili-and-cheese hash browns.

The patio is closed tonight. If people want to sit outside, they must order their food to go. Magwood explains this to a young brunet woman who asks for a root beer float. She is wearing a blue T-shirt that reads: "If you love him, set him free. If he doesn't come back, he's with me."

Magwood tells her that the outside is closed.

"Even for strippers?" the woman says, lifting her T-shirt and flashing Magwood and Naylor in the doorway.

Somehow, Magwood finds a way to deliver the root beer float and other food to the patio.

"Welcome to the night shift, dude," says Naylor, returning to the grill.

The stripper sits with a cop who says he's not hungry, he just wants to watch her eat.

It's 3:05 a.m. and the place is hopping. There are 15 people in the diner, ordering and eating. Naylor is in the zone -- flipping hash browns, laying down the bacon presses, snatching buns from a bag and cheese slices from a stack. He applies liberal amounts of vegetable oil to just about everything. Ssshhhiiissshhh !

Before you know it, the sun is up. Eventually the next shift will arrive. If all goes according to plan, they will follow Barrie's philosophy of industry, ingenuity, generosity. They will keep pouring the coffee, poaching the eggs, using the lulls to prepare for the onslaughts and -- from this one small place -- they will keep their world spinning.
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