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August 31, 2006

Lynne Breaux fights for your right to 'eat, drink and be merry,' though she'll tell you she is nourishing your soul along with your stomach

Washington Business Journal - November 14, 2003
by Eleni Kretikos
Staff Reporter

The allure of the hospitality industry was something Lynne Breaux could not escape. Not that she wanted to.

In her teenage years, she dreamed of being an ambassador's wife so she could entertain and throw parties, and have her politics the way she likes: on the side.

Her college major was sociology, the study, she points out, of people and groups. As manager on duty at the Orleans Hotel, her first job out of college, she learned to think on her feet when she was called upon to handle customers who barked, "Let me speak to the manager."

In her mid 20s, she took her first trip to Paris -- a voyage she calls 'seminal' -- and fell in love with the sidewalk cafes and lively street scenes. She thought about staying, but "my family pull was strong."

Today, she's been in a job for two years that seems tailor made for her: executive director of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (RAMW), which now represents about 500 eating and drinking establishments in D.C. and five counties in Northern Virginia.

"I love representing restaurants," she says demurely. "A passion for most of my life has been hospitality."

Breaux has worked in nearly every segment of the hospitality industry, but most of her career has been in hotels and restaurants. She started her career in hotel management and later moved into catering. And always, she's thrived on political involvement. Sometimes, she's gotten paid to do it.

And other times, well, not so much.

At the same table

In college, she helped stage a "pant-in."

"Women couldn't wear pants to school," she says. "That was probably my biggest act of activism."

Of course, she'd rather that wasn't reported because it would show her age.

Like a fine wine, we say.

Breaux's range of experiences and tenacity have earned her respect and credibility within the industry she now represents.

"She's very, very responsive to members and really looks to the board to give her guidance, and she's a tremendous consensus builder," says Michael Sternberg, co-owner of Sam & Harry's, The Caucus Room and Harry's Tap Room and a member of the RAMW's executive committee. "She wants to make sure her position is representative of the vast majority of the board and the membership.

If they're "not in sync," Sternberg says, "she'll either put off that agenda or keep working it until she does get everybody on the same page."

Society at stake

Maybe she fights so hard because she knows how hard restaurateurs work and that recognition for them is often lacking.

She did it herself for 13 years, as owner operator of Tunnicliff's Tavern, across the street from Eastern Market on Capitol Hill. It quickly became known for its Cajun menu and its bodacious Halloween and Mardi Gras parties.

"It's very difficult to make things look easy; you can't express your frustration, at least not until you get in the kitchen," Breaux says with a laugh. "I think that's why people don't often realize how difficult it is."

She jokes that she was once on vacation in Hawaii, and had a thought that her staff couldn't find the garbage bags. She called in to check. Of course.

Ah, the restaurant business. A true 24-hour-a-day, 7 day-a-week life. And to Breaux, restaurants also are the gathering places that make up the fabric of society.

Tunnicliff's was a community gathering spot that attracted nearby residents, Hill rats as well as Eastern Market regulars and newcomers.

All were welcome. Breaux was a large part of the attraction.

But after 13 years, she decided to get out of the business because "the rent was going up; the place was falling down."

Her last day at Tunnicliff's was Feb. 29, 2001.

"Her pet cause is how restaurants fit into the fabric of life and a city," says Jim Melberg, a friend and former patron of Tunnicliff's. "In the Declaration of Independence, where it says 'pursuit of happiness,' she takes that to heart. Restaurants are supposed to be fun -- and why are there people out there who are trying to ruin that fun?"

Life lessons

Growing up in New Orleans -- or "Nawlins," as Breaux says with an elegant Southern lilt -- Breaux learned quite a few useful life lessons.

Keep good friends around you.

Stay close to your family.

Eat well.

Drink in moderation.

Throw a hell of a party.

Her father ran a chain of grocery stores, Breaux Mart Supermarkets. Her mother raised eight children; Lynne being the third born and the oldest of the six girls.

In high school, she was quite the jock, playing basketball, running track and swimming. And for as long as she can remember, she was aware of food and beverage and hospitality.

After Louisiana State University, she got a job at the Orleans Hotel in the French Quarter, and was promoted up the chain to catering director. She had already begun to read (and be influenced by) the writings of M.F.K. Fisher, considered by many the top food writer in the country.

In 1984, she moved to Washington to take a job at the Ritz-Carlton. She also was offered a job in Boston, but the chance to work in politics and hospitality made her decision easy. She also later worked as catering director at the Madison Hotel in D.C., and was often called to Capitol Hill to testify on a variety of legislation affecting restaurants. Breaux, who has also written incessantly on topics affecting the industry, served on RAMW's board since 1992.

She studies wines and menus and reads voraciously, devouring food books. She uses them as reference materials and quotes freely from some of her favorites such as Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's "The Physiology of Taste" and Ray Oldenburg's "The Great Good Place" (Tunnicliff's even has a chapter devoted to it).

"I love reading them because I feel these writers have an appreciation of the same things I appreciate," Breaux says. "Restaurants are fascinating because we're providing such a community service. We're not just feeding people.

"We're nourishing their souls as well as their stomachs."

Food fights

Now at the helm of RAMW, she's gotten even more involved in tackling the industry's topics at hand, which seem to be coming more and more from all angles.

Keeping taxation at bay.

Changing the alcohol beverage laws.

To smoke or not to smoke.

Requiring restaurants to include nutritional information on their menus.

It tees her off, today's litigious society.

If you don't want to go to a smoking bar, don't go, she says: "If you shouldn't eat a burger, don't eat a burger.

"I love the blame game," she says sarcastically. "No one has any personal responsibility."

She's coined several catchy sound bites for the RAMW and casually works them into routine conversations, especially with the media.

"Dine Out. Dine Often. Dine Deliciously."

"Hospitably. Responsibly. Profitably."

"Since 1920, RAMW has been fighting for the right to eat, drink and be merry."

Though Breaux is carefree, she is no pushover. A strategic thinker, she loves philosophical debates and at the RAMW, seems to have found the best of all worlds.

"She's trying to make people understand that the restaurant and hospitality industry is the industry of Washington," Sternberg says. "Beyond government, there is nothing else we have to sell than hospitality."