Meet Karl Johnson.
Karl owns Pound the Hill in Eastern Market together with his partners Khalil Ghannam and Frank Rinaldi. Originally a coffeehouse, Pound the Hill recently launched a new expanded menu that includes an impressive wine list and gourmet bistro fare. We were able to catch Karl for a few questions amidst the hustle and bustle of his restaurant.
From left to right: Chef Jonathan Taub, Khalil Ghannam, and Karl Johnson of Pound the Hill. Photo credit: Meg Smith
1. What brought you to the District?
I’ve spent most of my life in the DC area and grew up originally in Harpers Ferry, WV (technically in the DC metro). My only time spent living outside of the DC area was Seattle, where I worked for 4 years and spent lots of time soaking up the coffee house (and drive thru espresso stand) culture. I’ve been inside the District for the last three years, wanting to live in the hood where I opened my shop.
2. Pound the Hill has been successfully serving standard cafe fare for some time — what spurred you to throw caution to the wind and expand your offerings?
I definitely wouldn’t say we threw caution to the wind! We took a risk for sure, but when you’ve built a unique and fun space that people love during the daytime as a casual, neighborhood spot… why not try and find a way to let them love it at night too! It’s not a secret that coffee shops are dead at night, so we decided to keep with our local/international vibe and expand out into boutique, small-batch wines, craft beers and gourmet bistro fare inspired by our travels around the world.
3. It’s clear you have a passion for wine. How do you share that passion with your guests?
I love good wine and love sharing good wines with others, but I would never consider myself a wine snob or expert. I share, describe and sell wines to customers the same way I choose what I drink myself; drink what tastes good regardless of anything else. My favorites on our list change every few weeks or so, but there are always two or three bottles that get me really excited and I can’t wait to recommend and discuss when a customer asks for suggestions. Aside from the business aspect of it, it’s a hell of a lot of fun to see a customer absolutely love a wine that you talked up! It kind of validates your existence in a small but happy way.
4. Give us a glimpse behind the scenes: is running a coffeehouse-by-day, restaurant-by-night everything you wanted it to be?
It’s freaking hard. Running a coffee shop is way harder than anyone who has never done it could ever imagine. And then running a restaurant is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Add in that running a (legitimate) small business in DC is nearly impossible. Put those three together and I’m surprised myself, my partners or our management are still standing! I don’t really know what I wanted it to be exactly, but I do get a ton of pride out of walking in and seeing a packed house of happy neighborhood people. It’s even better when you can see happy people slurping up nutella lattes by day and cute couples enjoying a delicious red wine by candlelight at night.
5. If you could have any three guests around the dinner table, who would they be?
Anthony Bourdain, Barack Obama and my Dad. Bourdain because I just really want to grab a beer with him (and find a way to kill him, assume his identity and steal his job). Obama because, not only do I find him a fascinating guy and think he will be a prominent figure in the future’s history, but if he came to dinner at Pound The Hill, we’d never have to worry about filling up reservations again. And my Dad, because he taught me everything I know about business and work ethic but left this world far, far too early. It may sound cheesy, but I’d gladly give those first two dudes the boot to have my Dad over for dinner at the restaurant just one time and show him what I’ve built. And then later ask him to go over some P&L’s with me and show me what I’m doing wrong.