This is The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite impossible-to-get tables.
Tory Keomanivong is the GM and partner at Fond, one of the best restaurants in the city. Keomanivong has been colleagues and friends with chef Lee Styer for years before they opened their little-BYOB-that-could on East Passyunk Avenue. After three years of a packed dining room and tons of critical acclaim, they moved into a brand new space that's much bigger and boasts a shiny new liquor license.
Keomanivong is a big reason that they've had so much success, and is often listed among the top front-of-the-house people in the industry. Eater chatted up Keomanivong about the new space, being a service rockstar, and Fond growing up with the neighborhood around them.
How long have you been working with Lee Styer and Jessie Prawlucki?
Lee, I worked with him for four years at Lacroix. We became good friends while we were there, and do family dinners at their house almost once a week. Three years ago, though, we found this project, Fond, and have been doing pretty well.
I've been working in the business almost 20 years now, actually. I used to work at the Bellevue-Stratford in a restaurant called Founders. XIX is there now.
It's Saturday night at 8:00 P.M. What's the wait for a table?
Maybe a half hour. Not too bad. We can usually get people in by then.
Any tips for people trying to score a reservation on short notice?
We always have a waiting list. And it's first come, first served. We suggest reservations should be made about two or three weeks ahead of time. Especially on the weekend.
Do you have regulars at Fond?
Most of our clientele is regulars, actually. People who are BYOB fans usually stick with BYOBs when they go out, so we have a lot of people who come here on a regular basis. That's why, even though we just got a liquor license, we don't charge a corkage fee during the week. And it's only $10 on the weekend.
Who are VIPs at Fond?
In my eyes, everyone should be a VIP, and that's how we treat them. Everyone gets VIP service. All that matters is guests leave happy at each visit, and that's what we try and do.
What's the weirdest request you've ever gotten from a guest?
Oh, someone once said they wanted a pig's face, and Lee did it. He de-boned the thing, and made it up, and it was amazing. And it was the craziest thing anyone has ever asked for, and that guest came back and ordered it again.
What are the most challenging aspects of running a restaurant with friends?
Well, nothing is ever perfect, so you have to handle challenges the way you would in any other situation. You're going to have unhappy guests some times and there's never a perfect way to handle it. But, that's the restaurant business in general. The one thing that works to our advantage is there isn't much separation from the front of the house and the back of the house, and we keep good communication.
What celebrities have been to Fond?
Hmmm. Oh, Linda Fiorentino ate here. That was pretty cool. And there have been football and basketball players here, but I don't watch sports and couldn't really tell you who, but our staff recognized them.
You just got your liquor license. What will be the biggest changes for the restaurant?
Well, we hope to get more weekday business (laughing). It's hard to get people in on the weekdays on the avenue.
When people talk about the best GMs and service people in Philly, your name comes up. What do you think makes for good service. Are there any specific things you do?
It sounds silly, but being yourself is actually the best move. Not being stuffy, no matter if you're in fine dining or not, making the guest feel comfortable and happy is the key. Even if the food is fantastic, bad service can ruin a restaurant experience.
Do you think Fond is considered fine dining or casual?
Fond is definitely fine dining, but we make sure that you can feel comfortable dining here no matter what you're wearing, which I think is very important. The fine dining service aspect is something we focus on, and all of our guests deserve the same treatment. So, we definitely straddle that line of fine dining and casual. You can get top-level service at a diner if the server tries, you know.
What's the next big step at the restaurant?
Well, we love doing Fond, and we're growing, and we just opened up the new location. So, it's kind of a new Fond, and we have to make it great for our regulars and new guests. There aren't any plans for a new restaurant yet, but, sure, I would love us to expand. But, there's nothing planned yet. As a team, though, we're doing well, and that's great, so we are sticking together.