Mezcal Maven Kelly Phillips on the Art of Storytelling
February 1, 2022 @ 8:00am
Kelly Phillips is a writer, collector and sharer of stories. As cofounder and hospitality director of Destination Unknown Restaurants, Phillips is known for several new restaurants around the District including Espita, Destino, Taqueria Las Gemelas and Ghostburger. But it was storytelling that drew her to the restaurant business in the first place.
“I grew up in a big family and I remember gathering around the dinner table telling stories,” Phillips says. “Making meals for people, making people laugh, taking care of people, cleaning up afterwards — all of that’s always been a part of my life. That’s what I loved about restaurants.”
Phillips solidified her passion for food and hospitality through her foray as a journalist and food writer at the now-defunct Philadelphia City Paper. As a writer, she learned about different cuisines, critiqued meals and enjoyed the best seat at successful launches of Philadelphia restaurants.
She took a first date, a Philadelphia bartender-turned-consultant, on one of her restaurant reviews and barely remembers the meal — other than he ordered the veal while she was still a practicing vegetarian.
“I thought it was hilarious,” she laughs, fondly recalling that they lingered over that all-but-forgotten meal discussing their shared love of cooking and dining out at the buzziest new restaurants in Philly. The couple also learned of each other’s adventurous sides and willingness to take risks.
This June, Phillips and her now-husband Josh, who is the cofounder and president of Destination Unknown Restaurants, will celebrate twelve years of marriage.
Phillips credits her brief journalistic career to her true vocation. As a food writer, she was introduced to the intricacies of restaurants as a business — but admits she became more enamored with the dream of owning a restaurant than with writing about them.
“Being a writer opened doors for me and made me really interested in seeing what people do as restaurant owners and chefs, and how they become part of the community,” she shares. “But I don’t think I would have made the move to running a restaurant without Josh. He’s my partner in everything.”
“We complement each other fairly well,” Josh Phillips says of his wife and business partner. “We’ve learned to lean on each other a little more.”
The Master + The Mezcal
“There were a lot of machetes involved,” Phillips shares about her training to become a master mezcalier, a sommelier of the agave-based liquor. “Out in the fields, I could hear rattlesnakes nearby and it was just incredibly wild and fun.”
Josh introduced her to the now-ubiquitous mezcal before it became popular in the U.S. After a few sips, they were obsessed with the smoky, sweet flavor. In 2014, they traveled to Mexico, visiting palenques (mezcal distilleries) and learning the histories of their new favorite drink. In Oaxaca, where the drink originates and is still the dominant place of manufacturing, they studied under Douglas French, master distiller and creator of Scorpion Mezcal. The Phillips’ learned different agave varietals by cutting down the large desert succulents (hence, the machetes), learning the distillation process and making mezcal cocktails.
“With mezcal, it’s all about the terroir (the overall environment where the agave is grown) and the producer,” Phillips says, offering an insider tip to discovering the best mezcal. “There’s a very romantic spirit in mezcal and everybody always talks about the smokiness, but too much smoke is actually a bad thing. It shouldn’t be aggressive and depending on the agave plant, you’re looking for a tropical flavor — a certain richness. Right now, I love Mezonte which is made by the same producers as Don Mateo. I also reach for anything from Cinco Sentidos.”
In Oaxaca, Phillips got a tattoo of a hummingbird (colibrí) on her arm.
“Hummingbirds are always seeking the nectar, so it’s just a reminder to always look for the sweet things in life. Plus, Josh got this idea to open a mezcal bar and we knew we had to have food go along with it.”
Destination Unknown Lands in D.C.
Phillips has always felt connected to the food and culture of Mexico, even before her travels to savor and learn about mezcal. Phillips’ grandmother was from Nuevo Leon in Northern Mexico and her family settled in San Antonio where her grandparents met and fell in love. She grew up eating Mexican foods prepared by her mother using family recipes while sharing memories about her grandmother.
Kelly and Josh decided to move to D.C. in 2014, where their research indicated an opportunity to follow their dreams: to tell stories through their food and create community here.
In 2016, the Phillips opened Espita which serves Southern Mexican fare and mezcal in an industrial setting — dark woods, steel and concrete — in the Shaw neighborhood. Phillips describes it as a little punk rock, with Oaxacan street art and murals in vivid shades adorning the walls.
“If a table wants to order mezcal, I’m happy to go over to them and recommend one, find out what flavor profiles they’re looking for,” Phillips states about her desire to connect with diners over her favorite drink. “It’s really important to talk about the family that made [the mezcal] and I have been lucky to meet many of those families.”
The Little Pink Ghost Who Could
The casual mezcaleria was such a hit the Phillips looked into future ventures together. The couple, who live near Union Market, were already designing their next neighborhood restaurants when the pandemic struck and they pivoted on their current brand.
Knowing tacos could turn soggy when they traveled too far, Phillips says they went back to their Pennsylvania roots: decadent Philly cheesesteaks, double and triple decker smash burgers and loaded fries — the perfect comfort food for those staying home at the height of the pandemic.
In August 2020, they invested just over $1,000 to launch Ghostburger inside Espita’s kitchen with Executive Chef Robert Aikens at the helm.
“I honestly doubted it would work, but we agreed to give it a shot,” Phillips admits. “No one will fault you if your pop-up doesn’t succeed.”
Instead, Ghostburger — identifiable by its hot pink ghost emblem — received the 2021 RAMMY Award for Outstanding Ghost Kitchen or Pop-up Concept. Phillips credits storytelling to the success of Ghostburger.
“People eat with their eyes,” she says.
Phillips says in the darkest of days, her work gave her a reason to get dressed, get out of the house and write up some witty captions for their Instagram account. But not only was it work to be done, keeping her dream of owning a restaurant alive and staff employed, it was also fun — and brought joy to others.
“Leah Judson, who was a friend with a camera and is now our creative director, took amazing photos of the food,” Phillips says. “I launched our Instagram account and just had fun with it. I think it was a combination of the photos, the voice and the branding. We were very consistent with that. We wouldn’t give up.”
The expectations for the ghost kitchen’s sales were modest.
“We thought we might make 50 burgers a week but on our first day we sold 150 burgers. The next day we sold out. And it’s still doing really well. People still have their jobs because of the burgers.”
Biden Their Time
When Covid-19 hit in February 2020, the Phillips had already signed a lease to open a taqueria and a second TBD concept restaurant at La Cosecha, the Latin American marketplace located just a block away from Union Market. Many investors pulled out, but Phillips knew their reputations and livelihoods were on the line. Buoyed by the success of Ghostburger, they were able to pitch to new investors, giving tours of the space and sharing menus.
“The pandemic taught us to not be afraid to take risks,” Phillips says. “You really have to be fearless. You have to think quickly.”
Taqueria Las Gemelas opened in March 2021 and two weeks later they opened the restaurant portion, which was rebranded as Destino in December.
The taqueria is “fast fancy.” The food is inspired by what you’d grab at a casual taqueria in Mexico City. A modern, bright space, the beautiful pink tile and lightwood seating makes for a beachy color combination. There is outdoor seating as well.
On Cinco de Mayo, President Biden visited Las Gemelas and Phillips took the call that the President wanted to try their most popular tacos. Phillips also shared that Destination Unknown Restaurants had received a Restaurant Revitalization Fund, the first public announcement of this needed grant.
“It’s really funny because he’s exactly how you think he is,” Kelly states. “What a great person to come in. It was an amazing, special moment.”
Destino is the fanciest of their restaurant concepts, but still breezy and welcoming. Raised on a dais at La Cosecha, it’s tucked into a corner but feels very spacious with high ceilings.
“This is where you would go for a date night. We’re known for cocktails, but we carry a great selection of wines from Latin America and a lot of sustainable and organic or natural wines.”
Not Ghosting on D.C.
The Phillips share they have set their roots deep into D.C. and plan to stay here, investing in future restaurants and the communities they have grown to love. They are currently scouting a location for a standalone Ghostburger, as well as crafting a vegetarian burger option. They hope to partner with D.C. designer Chris Cardi on uniforms at some point.
Josh Phillips says, “I am the one who has the crazy ideas and she is the one to reign them in and execute them. She’s a great team builder and she empowers the team to be excellent.”
This empowerment includes trying out different wage models, shifting all full-time employees to salaried and providing training so staff have experience and confidence as managers.
Kelly Phillips, too, dreams of her perfect post-pandemic day in the District, riding her electric moped to Georgetown to order from Green Almond Pantry, leisurely dining by the canal while reading a book (she’s currently into Megan Noland and Sally Rooney), and in the evening, hosting friends over for dinner while sharing laughs and stories over great food and mezcal.
“Storytelling remains a part of what we do now. Every time we open a restaurant, I’m thinking: ‘What is the story? How do I relay this to my team? How do we share this story with others?’”
Learn more about Destination Unknown Restaurants at destination.restaurant/about, and be sure to check out the restaurants’ mouthwatering menus.
Destino: 1280 4th St. NE, DC; destinodc.com // @destino
Espita DC: 1250 9th St. NW, DC; espitadc.com // @espitadc
Ghostburger: 1250 9th St. NW, DC; ghostburgerdc.com // @ghostburgerdc
Taqueria Las Gemelas: 1280 4th St. NE, DC; lasgemelasdc.com // @lasgemelasdc
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