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April 9, 2022

Famed Inn at Little Washington has big plans

Luke Christopher for Foothills Forum
General Manager Robert Fasce and Proprietor-Chef Patrick O’Connell, left, and some of the Inn's 225 employees in front of the main and original building in Washington.
General Manager Robert Fasce and Proprietor-Chef Patrick O’Connell oversee operations at the Inn at Little Washington. (Luke Christopher for Foothills Forum)
Proprietor-Chef Patrick O’Connell and team in the Inn’s kitchen. (File photo by Luke Christopher)
By Tim Carrington
For Foothills Forum

Rappahannock County’s largest private business, the renowned Inn at Little Washington, is working to translate its dazzling culinary success to a broadened hospitality and retail enterprise focused on what its ever-inventive leaders think of as “life-affirming experiences” – all the while expanding the options for delicious food.

Proprietor-Chef Patrick O’Connell, 76, and General Manager Robert Fasce, 54, are mapping the Inn’s next chapter, the latest addition being the $1 million acquisition of the Middle Street Gallery next door on Warren Avenue; they’re now analyzing just what to do with it. The Inn is growing with no master plan, no board of directors, and no executive advisors. The expansion and diversification drive – the campus of Inn-owned structures now stands at 25 – builds on a continuous conversation between O’Connell and Fasce, a chef himself who is on his third stint at the Inn.

“Things come onto the screen,” Fasce explains, and while not all ideas ripen at the same pace, he and O’Connell – manager and artist – talk multiple times during each day to discern which innovations are likely to entice new, well-heeled guests to the Inn and convince established patrons to stay longer. As O’Connell sees it, the collaboration with Fasce is ideal. “He's able to embrace and implement many of my ideas which others might regard as unrealistic,” he says. “He has learned to believe in the impossible.”

Here’s what’s on the current menu of priorities and possibilities:

•The Inn would like to add as many as 10 meticulously decorated rooms, in addition to the current 23.

•E-commerce sales of branded Inn at Little Washington items, which exploded last Christmas, will shift to a fulfillment center to be built on 11 acres of commercially zoned land the Inn owns opposite the Quicke Mart on U.S. Route 211.

•The successful launch of Patty O’s, designed to be a more affordable dining experience, has sparked exploratory conversations about establishing replicas in high-dollar destinations like Palm Beach and Aspen.

•A specialty food shop in the Town of Washington’s former Health Department building on Main Street will offer cheeses, olive oil and just-roasted coffee beans, among other items.

•A pool, fitness center and spa, possibly offering memberships, would advance the goal of making the Inn about more than food, while giving guests a reason to spend another night. (Because rooms are significantly less labor-intensive than meals, overnights are desirable.)

•A new event space would add to the capacity for weddings and conferences. This project was sidelined during the pandemic but now may be revived.

•Early deliberations could lead to a long-shot real estate venture involving cottages designed, built and managed by the Inn, for guests seeking regular access with few maintenance burdens.

“They’ve ramped up the dreams,” observes John Fox Sullivan, Washington’s former mayor, who served with O’Connell on the Town Council.

The addition of more rooms emerges as a near-term priority. Most of the accommodations reserve for more than $1,000 a night, with the capacious, two-bedroom Craig Claiborne House listed for $4,425 a night. Guests apparently aren’t deterred by the rates, reserving months in advance, and Fasce figures that new rooms won’t sit empty. Meanwhile, a meal for two at the Inn – after a bottle of wine and payment of state and county taxes – tops $600.

Within the O’Connell-Fasce collaboration, O’Connell sometimes channels the archetypal corporate strategist, while Fasce, trained at the Culinary Institute of America, can play the perfectionist chef. With respect to the enterprise’s wide-ranging ambitions, O’Connell states: “We believe that a business such as ours is either growing or dying. Standing still is not an option.” Meanwhile, Fasce brags about sampling more than 50 hamburgers for the Patty O’s menu before selecting the winning recipe.

Naming the culture

Running through the blizzard of ideas is an intense focus on the Inn’s particular culture. The enterprise is O’Connell’s invention, but it succeeds and endures only when others understand it. Asked what defines The Inn at Little Washington, staff and patrons agree on a few core concepts: It’s about hospitality on steroids, uncompromising commitment to beauty – but tempered by humor and kindness. It’s about going beyond the strictly necessary at every turn, transforming eating and sleeping into art forms. The goalposts are never anchored, and each achievement opens onto a new aspiration, whether it’s mastering the art of “supreming” an orange, or refining a new tactic for attracting and indulging guests from the upper echelons of business, politics, sports and entertainment. At the Inn, when accomplishments lead to complacency or repetition, the adventure turns stale.

O’Connell says Fasce “has a perspective of our culture which can only be achieved over a long period of time.” For his part, Fasce, who held senior chef and management positions with clubs and restaurants in the Southeast, says the Inn is about more than good meals and big profits. “It’s not a normal business,” he states. A recent documentary features O’Connell about to sample an offering from a nervous sous-chef seeking approval; the fork poised mid-air, a smiling O’Connell says, “It’s either art or it’s garbage.”

O’Connell has no plans to retire, but while avoiding discussion of succession scenarios, he and Fasce think seriously about the future. Fasce declares: “The universe needs an Inn at Little Washington,” a respite from ordinary time and an escape from the stresses of success. Many high-end hotels emphasize self-conscious luxury, while the Inn fashions an identity that is both therapeutic and theatrical. Humor keeps the atmosphere more friendly than fussy: cheeses are served from a sculpted cow on wheels, and O’Connell boasts that the dress code consists only of a ban on wet bathing suits, which would damage the upholstered seats.

To help the staff of 225 internalize the ethos, Fasce last October recruited Christine Sellers, experienced in the hospitality business, to serve as an “ambassador of talent and culture.” Working with seven managers who oversee different aspects of the enterprise, she is preparing training materials that tell the Cinderella story of the gas station O’Connell transformed into a Michelin Three Star restaurant and inn. “I love training and I love watching people grow,” Sellers says. “But this is about culture, and Bob is great about building culture.”

The Inn culture asserts itself through countless encounters. When Patty O’s was under construction, a contractor floated the idea of saving money by installing painted Styrofoam beams, rather than hardwoods, across the ceiling of the dining room, a suggestion O’Connell and Fasce waved away derisively. Meanwhile in the kitchen of the new restaurant – which serves exquisitely prepared versions of ordinary American foods – the biggest challenge was the potato salad. The problem, Fasce says, is that some cooks harbored the misaligned attitude of “it’s just potato salad.” The new eatery, which insiders consider “the gateway drug” to the Inn’s flavors and atmospheres, is unlikely to veer too far from the Inn’s cultural rigors: Fasce’s son, Christopher, manages the operation, following jobs in the Inn’s dining room.

To make sure the world beyond the Town of Washington also gets the picture of the Inn’s unique culture, a New York public relations firm pumps out information about the latest awards and flourishes, powered by an email distribution reaching 70,000 computer screens.

Andrew Wright, the 36-year-old director of culinary operations, says he gives each cook “a checklist that says, ‘This is where you are, and this is where you want to be. This is what you need to be successful.’” Recognizing that perfectionism can wear people down, Fasce tells staffers: “My number one expectation for you is to be nice,” not only to guests but to one another.

Fasce also says he enjoys working with a staff that includes employees “from South Korea, Guatemala, Honduras, and Israel, along with those who are gay, straight, and transgender.” But he adds: “We don’t ring that bell and say, ‘Look at us.’” Language training is available for those with rudimentary English skills.

The challenge will be extending the alchemy of the O’Connell kitchen into a broader enterprise. What’s coming is “new but with the same soul,” says Fasce. Emphasizing a future that goes beyond food, Fasce says the Inn’s offerings will be “transformative, restorative, life-affirming” – all key words in the Inn’s lexicon today. If the buzzwords seem vague, it’s partly because other labels falter. Given the coming amenities, it might seem that the Inn is becoming a resort, but both Fasce and O’Connell dislike the word.

Wright says that despite his passionate interest in food, the experience must be about “more than what’s on the plate.” He believes that guests experience food differently when they have just gazed at the Piedmont landscape outside, or taken in the Inn’s ornately patterned ceilings. “Everything matters,” he says. “It’s about how happy can we make our guests? It’s cool to think of it that way.”

The pandemic shock: Record revenues

The bold expansions follow a period Fasce calls “a perfect storm of success”: in 2018, a third Michelin star; in 2020, a near-miraculous boom during the pandemic, which staggered other hospitality businesses; and in late 2021, the opening of Patty O’s Cafe & Bakery to rave reviews.

The Inn’s experience with the pandemic points to a capacity to manage the unexpected, which Fasce believes will be crucial in the next chapter. When COVID-19 swept the country, pundits immediately saw catastrophe for the entire hospitality sector, which did suffer widespread failures. The Inn went through a two-and-a-half-month shutdown, sidelining 165 staffers in the spring of 2020, which Fasce says was the most painful moment in his career. Ten weeks later, the Inn began staffing up, naming “Covid ambassadors” for each department. Subtle reminders about masks and sanitizing were inserted, and ultraviolet lights and extra ventilation appeared unobtrusively in public spaces. The goal: Make guests feel safe, without turning the celebrated Inn into a sanatorium.

O’Connell credits Fasce with the imaginative touch many guests will long remember. “We were only permitted to be at half occupancy so we had to come up with a plan to make the dining room still appear full and jolly,” he recalls. “Knowing that I love fantasy, folly and fun, Bob proposed that we bring in mannequins to fill the empty seats. I loved the idea and we found a theater company willing to help us dress and stage them. Stories about our mannequins appeared all over the world and on national and international television.”

The other move was to put an envisioned event space on hold, and instead invest in a glass conservatory added to the main building in order to offer greater space between tables. Guest bookings surged as vacationers canceled international travel plans and sought more accessible luxury in Virginia. Many weddings were scratched but some families opted for small but exquisite marriages at the Inn. Revenue in 2020 and 2021 set records (as a privately owned business, specific financial results are closely held).

Says O’Connell: “While others retracted we expanded.”

Taming county conflicts

In a county marked by divisive fights over new structures and new ideas, the Inn’s inventions might be expected to ignite the next culture war. In the 1990s, some local residents railed against the Inn’s postcard-perfect renovations and its parade of glitzy visitors. And the more recent displacement of the humble Country Cafe to make room for the upscale Patty O’s stirred resentful notes on the county’s RappNet listserv. But Washington residents have become accustomed to living in a company town, aware that the Inn generates as much as $600,000 in meals and lodging taxes for Washington’s coffers. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that another 10 rooms would harvest an additional $100,000 in taxes for the town.

“It’s hard to imagine being critical of what they’ve done to date,” says Supervisor Keir Whitson, who represents Hampton District, which includes Washington. “They’re the economic anchor of our county.” And recent clashes suggest that citizens dread aggressive housing developers far more than affluent tourists, who, after all, return home without making lasting demands on local infrastructure or schools.

The Inn’s approach to expansion is as important as its contribution to local tax revenues. Its growth has been incremental, and concentrated on rescuing existing buildings from neglect. Starting with O’Connell’s conversion of the gas station that became the original restaurant in 1978, “he hasn’t built a lot of new stuff,” Whitson points out. “He’s repurposed old stuff. That’s the way to go.”

Discussing the current expansion plans, Fasce envisions the new projects taking shape within the Inn’s current footprint by renovating buildings the enterprise already owns, or making use of in-fill parcels that might connect them. The exception would be the planned fulfillment center along U.S. Route 211, which would also accommodate trucks and service vehicles involved in the Inn’s daily operations.

The Inn’s expansion plans will face scrutiny by the Washington Planning Commission, zoning authorities and the town’s Architectural Review Board. The Inn’s ambitions also will figure in the just-launched discussions on Washington’s next Comprehensive Plan. The planned structure along Route 211 will be subject to the normal zoning and land-use reviews at the county level.

Caroline Anstey, chair of the Washington Planning Commission, is hopeful that the growth plans can be successfully knit into the fabric of the town, and specifically, within the Inn’s current footprint. But she recognizes the need for businesses and structures designed to meet local needs. “Residents want community, with their own social events and cultural events,” she says, and she notes that with the loss of Tula’s, a popular Gay Street eatery, and the inactivity at the theaters because of COVID-19, Washington has seemed unusually sleepy outside the Inn and Patty O’s.

There is one element of the expansion plan she applauds unequivocally – the Inn’s plan to move trucks and service equipment to the new site along Route 211. “This is a huge plus for the town,” she says.

Foothills Forum is an independent, community-supported nonprofit tackling the need for in-depth research and reporting on Rappahannock County issues. The group has an agreement with Rappahannock Media, owner of the Rappahannock News, to present this story and other award-winning reporting projects. More at
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