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I’ve been dreaming about the day restaurants can welcome dine-in customers again. The energy is jubilant. Every restaurant, not just the hotspots that usually draw crowds, has a line out the door at 5 p.m. Regulars are at the front of each line—they can’t wait to tip their friendly bartender, bite into their favorite burger, or give their usual server a hug.
But I’m jolted back to reality when I wake up. Not every restaurant will make it through the COVID-19 global pandemic. In a March 18 Washington Post article, chef and industry thought leader Tom Colicchio predicted 75 percent of U.S. restaurants will not be financially fit enough to reopen when the time comes.
On March 27, Northern Virginia native and celebrity chef David Chang added his thoughts. “My fear is the restaurants that survive are going to be the big chains, and we’re going to eradicate the very eclectic mix that makes America and going out to eat so vibrant and great,” he told the New York Times.
Numbers from the National Restaurant Association look less bleak. On March 25, the trade group estimated that on top of the 3 percent of restaurants that have already closed permanently because of the global pandemic, 11 percent more will shutter for good in the next 30 days. Campono, an Italian eatery in the Watergate complex, closed permanently on March 27.
At a March 26 press conference, President Donald Trump offered twisted reassurance that restaurants will come back in one form or another. “Might be a different restaurant. But it’s gonna be a great business for a lot of people,” he told his fellow Americans. “We’re making it easy for people. Look, what we’re doing in terms of loans, what we’re doing in terms of salaries, they’ll all come back. It may not be the same restaurant, it may not be the same ownership, but they’ll all be back.”
None of this is good news for the District’s restaurant owners, who already operate on the thinnest of margins. Hospitality establishments don’t have significant cash reserves, especially the small, independent restaurants that make up 96 percent of D.C.’s dining scene.
When a city loses small restaurants and bars, it loses more than food and drink. It loses employers who hire some of the city’s most vulnerable residents, like immigrants and formerly incarcerated people. It loses neighborhood gathering spaces where conversations take place and achievements are celebrated. It loses charitable partners, too. Restaurants regularly host fundraisers and support a wide range of causes, from eliminating hunger to LGBTQ rights.
City Paper asked five restaurant owners how they’re navigating this rapidly evolving crisis, what they need to pull through when opening day finally comes, and what D.C. would lose if they don’t make it. We encouraged them to speak as explicitly as possible. With transparency comes the potential for more support from local and federal governments and greater understanding from the public.
The Good Neighbor—ANXO Cidery & Pintxos Bar
300 Florida Ave. NW
ANXO co-owner Rachel Fitz set an ambitious goal for March. She aimed to raise $12,000 for Planned Parenthood through various Women’s History Month fundraisers and events like a cocktail competition, artisan market, and comedy brunch. She knew it was possible, at least until coronavirus caused operations to cease. In 2019, the Truxton Circle restaurant raised $10,000 for the DC Abortion Fund in one night.
“The restaurant world has so much opportunity to do more than food and beverage,” Fitz says. At their second location in Brightwood Park, ANXO invites kids from The Kennedy, a nearby homeless shelter, over for a monthly paint night. When the young artists complete their work, ANXO gives them the option to hang the paintings on the walls and sell them. 100 percent of the proceeds go back to the shelter. “There’s only so much we can do if we can’t keep our doors open,” she says.
Now it’s ANXO that needs a lift. “We aren’t in a position to reopen and weather this storm without support,” says Sam Fitz, Rachel’s brother and business partner. “We’re making 10 percent of the sales we were doing before we closed.”
ANXO closed on March 15 out of concern for employee safety, one day before Mayor Muriel Bowser limited restaurants’ and bars’ operations to take-out and delivery. They decided not to sell food for the same reason. “Food preparation involves so many more interactions,” Sam says. “We felt uncomfortable doing food.”
That makes cider ANXO’s only source of revenue right now. They’re permitted to sell and deliver cider and wine as a part of their wine pub permit. In addition to selling cider to Washingtonians, ANXO can direct-ship cider to people in more than 40 states.
“Our sales have grown considerably over the past two weeks,” Sam says, noting they’re still producing and canning, but at a much lesser volume. “Collectively, these initiatives are exciting and show great growth potential, but they don’t cover the overhead of the restaurants or the cidery.”
The Fitzes laid off their staff except for General Manager Jade Aldrighette, who makes deliveries. The owners aren’t paying themselves.
ANXO’s insurance company declined to honor their business interruption policy because global pandemic isn’t covered. Many restaurateurs have encountered this barrier and some are considering filing a class action lawsuit against insurance companies in response. One of the country’s most famous chefs—Thomas Keller of The French Laundry in California and Per Se in New York City, among others—has already done so.
Sam and Rachel Fitz have not secured any rent abatement or forgiveness. While commercial and residential tenants can’t be evicted during the emergency for failing to pay rent under local legislation, Sam says he’s “very, very concerned” about the steps their Truxton Circle landlord will take once she can take steps against them.
“We’re applying to anything and everything that we qualify for,” Sam says. That includes the DC Small Business Recovery Microgrants Program. Grant money can be put toward employee wages and benefits, accounts payable, fixed costs, inventory, rent, and utilities. $25 million will be shared among D.C.’s small businesses, nonprofits, and independent contractors. The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development said it received 6,000 applications by the April 1 due date. The District will either have to pick winners or hand out grants for as little as $4,166 when they make disbursements later this month.
Sam is also intrigued by the small business loans included in the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act Congress passed last week. It includes $349 billion for “paycheck protection” loans for businesses with 500 or fewer workers.
Loans aren’t enough, according to most restaurant owners. They need grants, especially because business isn’t likely to spring back to normal as soon as restaurants have the green light to start serving customers again. Washingtonians who were furloughed or laid off won’t have the same amount of disposable income. Others may be afraid to dine out if COVID-19 continues to spread around the world.
The federal loans can be converted into grants should restaurants use the money for payroll. But the amount of forgiveness will be reduced if employers cut down their workforce compared to prior periods or if they shrink salaries and wages by more than 25 percent from Feb. 15 to June 30.
“We have a lot on the table with our landlord and our vendors,” Sam says. “Bills need to be paid before we can do business again.”
The Meeting Place—IHOP
1523 Alabama Ave. SE
Former NFL player Tyoka Jackson took a chance when he opened a sit-down restaurant in Ward 8 12 years ago. At the time, his brother was a police officer in the Metropolitan Police Department’s 7th District, and his father grew up and went to school within walking distance of the site that’s now his son’s IHOP franchise. It shares a parking lot with the ward’s only full service grocery store.
“We wanted to send the message to the larger D.C. business community that you can do business in Ward 8,” Jackson says. “You can do more than fast food, liquor stores, and convenience stores. We saw a change coming.”
The IHOP had its challenges before the COVID-19 crisis. “It’s hard to be really profitable because of the amount of investment we made,” Jackson explains. “It’s also a grind because of the employment situation. Unemployment in the ward is a little higher. We’re heavily relying on our residents to be able to have the extra income to come in and dine with us.”
Even though IHOP has remained open for take-out and delivery, he describes the current situation as catastrophic. Sales are down 65 percent. “Usually if you’re a restaurant it’s week-by-week or if you’re a really good restaurant it’s month-by-month,” Jackson says. “Now it’s a day-by-day deal.”
To Jackson, take-out is a weak substitute for the full-service experience. “It’s not just about putting food in your belly,” he says. “When we first opened in Southeast, we had a senior citizen who came up to me with tears in her eyes. It was the first time she sat down and had a meal served to her in her neighborhood.”
As a business owner, Jackson says part of his job is forecasting. “It would be really optimistic to think we could survive with four more weeks of this,” he says. “I don’t like to predict our own demise, but I’m scared to be doing this beyond one month from now.”
He’s doing what he can to position himself to succeed, including applying for the District’s small business microgrant program. Independent franchises were not initially included in the program, so Jackson turned to local legislators, including Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, for help. The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development later amended its policy.
“We have to continuously find ways to financially support small businesses in D.C., because small businesses are the strength of our economy,” White says. “Historically, small businesses hire locally. IHOP, in Ward 8, is owned by D.C. residents and became home to eat, meet, and socialize when we didn’t have any other sit-down restaurants.”
If IHOP doesn’t pull through, Jackson says there will be consequences for his community. “You lose a place that employs upwards of 50 people right here in the ward,” he says. “Our entire management staff are all black females. You lose the opportunity for black girls to see black women in leadership positions while they’re eating their pancakes.”
The Brand New Bar—Maxwell Park Navy Yard
1346 4th St. SE
On March 2, just two weeks before Bowser closed bars and restaurants to on-premise consumption, Brent Kroll welcomed his first customers at Maxwell Park in Navy Yard, a sister business to the laid back Shaw wine bar of the same name.
“I got really choked up talking to staff,” Kroll says. “I had a chat with them about their safety and how I was going to try to do what was right for them and make sure they all had jobs to come back to.”
The Navy Yard location experienced permitting and construction delays, so Kroll stashed would-be staff in Shaw on part-time shifts. When March 2 came around, the Navy Yard location was crammed with people clinking glasses and spending money. “These employees were finally starting to get stable. Then it shut down,” he says. “They just bent over backwards to get the business going.”
A new bar’s finances are particularly vulnerable to setbacks. Investors want to be repaid rapidly. “The gold standard is trying to pay back investors in three years,” Kroll says. “Let’s say you’re accruing debt and not making any money—it’s looking pretty grim. For a place like Navy Yard, where I was easily going to pay back investors in under three years, now I don’t think so.”
On top of that, Kroll just signed up for a variety of services he has to pay monthly even though the bar barely had any time to take in income. He ticks off examples, including his million-dollar insurance policy and the pest control contract that the D.C. Department of Health requires. “If we hadn’t had success in Shaw, Navy Yard wouldn’t make it,” Kroll says.
While Navy Yard’s Maxwell Park has gone dark, Kroll and his business partners, Niki Lang and Daniel Runnerstrom, are selling wine to-go out of the Shaw location. They’re paying themselves what Kroll calls “micro-salaries.” They laid off everyone else. Any tips that come in through wine sales, plus the money raised on the GoFundMe page Lang started, goes directly to staff.
Revenue is severely limited. “If I sell $4,000 in wine to-go, it’s as if I sold $2,000 when I’m open,” Kroll explains. “It’s taken me out of profitably.” Maxwell Park discounts the wine it sells to-go by 30 percent. What would cost someone $100 to drink on one of the bar’s stools costs $70 to sip at home.
After checking his finances, Kroll thinks he can remain closed through August before he’d have to take out an SBA loan or a bank loan to save his businesses. “That’s a better situation than most people, so I feel very fortunate,” he says.
Kroll’s not sitting idle while others suffer. He’s walking anyone who will listen through what bills they should be fighting during the pandemic. “There are certain vendors who are kind and are waiving payments, even if they’re in legally binding contracts,” he says. “Some are still saying, ‘Pay me now!’ Others are doing deferred payments.”
He’s currently battling credit card companies, asking them to reduce their transaction fees, which are higher when vendors sign up for no-contact processing—meaning customers don’t have to sign or enter a pin number. On social media he told his fellow bar owners to cancel or adjust their trash and linen contracts.
“Businesses have voices right now,” Kroll says. “We need to speak up. I think diversity from independent owners is what makes D.C. D.C. That would be lost if my business closed.”
The Place Where Everyone’s Welcome—Taqueria del Barrio
821 Upshur St. NW
Young families, millennials, and neighbors who have lived off Upshur Street NW for decades fill the tables at Taqueria del Barrio.
Its 22 employees, who were laid off when the restaurant temporarily closed on March 15, contribute to the feeling that everyone is welcome. “Most of my front-of-house staff are LGBTQIA,” says co-owner Anna Bran Leis. “This is a very safe place. This is where they come to work. It’s another family for them. For some, we are their only family.”
Then there are the drag performers who call Bingo or make brunch more spirited. “They depend on our space as a venue not just for creativity, but to earn a living as well,” Bran Leis says. Local performer Vagenesis has hosted drag brunches, trivia nights, and other special events there for well over a year.
“Together we have turned the restaurant into a safe space for queer people and people of color to gather, work, perform, and have a good time,” Vagenesis says. “We are regularly losing venues like that without the virus. Please don’t let this result in the loss of another. We need to save Taqueria del Barrio for the sake of the community.”
With her restaurant completely closed, Bran Leis spends much of her day wondering how much money she’ll need to make it. She’s trying to clear the same obstacles as ANXO. Her insurance company won’t pay up, arguing that the restaurant hasn’t suffered any physical damage. It’s unlikely that her landlord will let rent payments slide.
“My landlord isn’t a big corporation like EDENS,” Bran Leis says, suggesting big commercial developers might have more wiggle room. “She owns several properties in the city and has mortgages on all of them.” While bigger developers may have more capital, City Paper reported that EDENS, Douglas Development Corp., and JBG SMITH have done little to assist their tenants.
Overall Bran Leis sounds defeated. “People haven’t done enough to think about businesses like ours,” she says. She’s applied for an SBA loan and the city’s microgrant program for small businesses, but wonders when she’ll actually see the money from the latter and how much she’ll actually get. A DMPED representative says grants will max out at $25,000 and will be disbursed in April.
Bran Leis thinks her restaurant can make it as long as the city lifts restrictions by the end of May, but only because she has funds from other ventures. “If it was purely based on the restaurant, we wouldn’t be able to go on,” she says. “It’s because of the other stuff we have going on—DC Empanadas catering is what allows me to float this when it’s not doing great.”
If Taqueria del Barrio doesn’t survive, Bran Leis says Petworth would “go from a vibrant, up-and-coming neighborhood to a bunch of boarded up windows.”
The Stalwart—i Ricchi
1220 19th St. NW
I Ricchi has been serving Tuscan food just south of Dupont Circle for 31 years and has outlasted other crises. After 9/11 no one was traveling or dining out. “Our sales were down 70 percent,” its owner, Christianne Ricchi, says. “But we got through it.”
The Great Recession in 2008 hit her restaurant even harder because i Ricchi makes a significant portion of its revenue from private events like board dinners and convention lunches. Those sales opportunities evaporated, but again the restaurant rebounded.
Despite these trials, Ricchi says she still panicked when the threat of COVID-19 locked down D.C. “There’s solace knowing everybody is in the same boat, but on the local and national level, I don’t know how independent restaurants are going to survive this,” she says.
To bring in enough money to keep a few of her most devoted kitchen workers employed and stay connected with the restaurant’s loyal customers, Ricchi launched the i Ricchi Food Club. She designs a four-course Italian menu each week that customers can pay for ahead of time and pick up. Ricchi includes some sentimental extras in the package.
“Together with the food we’re giving out ‘food travel notes,’” she says. “People find comfort through food memories. I also include a candle and an optional bottle of wine you can purchase.” Ideally, customers go home, set the table, read her notes, and take a few minutes to get lost in a close approximation of dining out.
Ricchi hasn’t thought too much about how to pay her next rent bill or how long she can afford to remain closed. “When you run a restaurant and you’re putting out fires all day long, you have to learn to prioritize,” she says. Last week she was concerned with payroll and paying purveyors.
She sees small restaurants’ importance through an economic lens. “How much do restaurants contribute in sales tax?” she asks rhetorically. “We’re the biggest contributor in the city. That’s black and white.” Hotels, restaurants, and bars provide half of the city’s $1.6 billion in annual sales tax revenue, according to D.C. Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey DeWitt.
“I want to be optimistic,” Ricchi says. “Young people think restaurants always existed in this country or in the world, when actually it’s a relatively new phenomenon. When I was a little girl, going out to a restaurant was a big deal. Today people go out to restaurants three times a day. If people have enjoyed experiences of going out to restaurants in the past, they have to really think about how many, many, many restaurants will close. We might even close. Who knows.”