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They call it the “9th Street Massacre.” Three Shaw businesses on or just off 9th Street NW have closed or announced that they’re closing this month. They are Chao Ku, A&D, and most recently, Table.
Is it a sign that the Shaw restaurant boom can no longer be sustained? Or could these closings have happened anywhere, making Shaw still a promising neighborhood to set up shop?
We asked the neighborhood’s unofficial mayor, Alex Padro, who is the executive director of Shaw Main Streets—the commercial revitalization non-profit that has led the neighborhood’s renaissance since 2003. He is also serving his ninth term on his local Advisory Neighborhood Commission.
“We’re disappointed that we’ve had a couple of closures, but that’s the normal course of business,” he says. “Stuff happens, but we’re still moving forward.” He notes that there are “tons of ABRA placards up,” meaning a bevy of new restaurants are currently going through the permitting process and preparing to open. “I don’t expect any vacancies to last,” he says.
In sharing his views on the reasoning behind each recent closure, Padro paints a picture that these issues could have happened in any neighborhood.
At Chao Ku, an affordable, modern Chinese restaurant, Padro says owner John Fielding signed a lease that seemed reasonable, but the place needed significant renovations. “There was a long running dispute between his landlord and the landlord of a neighboring property that ate up six months,” Padro says. He elaborates to say the fight was over roof repair. “Long story short, it [Chao Ku] was hemorrhaging money.” The landlord, Nigist Asfaha, lives in Los Angeles.
Padro notes that the public reception of Chao Ku was good, but there were too many insurmountable issues. For one thing, Padro says they should have had dine-in seating on more than just the second floor. “The owner was opening a second business over in Van Ness at the same time. You can’t spread yourself too thin,” he adds. Padro says that he already has a lot of people looking at the space.
A&D, a beloved neighborhood bar that seemed to always be backed with customers, also struggled with lease issues. In a letter the bar posted announcing their final day of business (April 23), the owners stated that “our landlord has chosen not to exercise our lease renewal.” That landlord is Lisa Fricano (and her husband). Padro describes her as “not your typical landlord, she doesn’t think the way normal landlords do.”
To illustrate his point, Padro provides an example. “We were able to offer Seasonal Pantry an opportunity to pay for a new HVAC, a $70,000 grant to put it in,” he says. Seasonal Pantry (now closed) was in the same building owned by Fricano. “All they needed to do was get a five year lease, but they wouldn’t give them a five year lease. These are improvements that they’d be able to keep afterwards,” he says.
Padro often reviews leases with the help of pro bono lawyers to make sure there’s nothing shady, but he can’t catch everything. “One of the things that we’ve found over the years that has tripped up a significant number of people is bad leases,” he says. “One lease provision can make the difference between being successful versus being gone in a couple of years.”
Table, Padro says, is a different story. He says guest numbers fell off after they stopped devoting a lot of resources to public relations and outreach. “When you get so many other places competing for your attention and you’re not speaking out, that makes it hard to capture the crowds.” It doesn’t help that the restaurant has had so many chef changes.
He thinks Table struggled by opening for lunch despite the fact that Shaw has yet to see a significant amount of daytime foot traffic. “It’s primarily residential, you don’t have a large pool of office workers,” he says. “We don’t have the right zoning to do big commercial office developments because most buildings are included in historic districts.”
To make up for the fact there’s not much of a breakfast or lunch crowd, Padro says consider UberEats. “You’ve got places like Rito Loco where when they joined UberEats, their sales went through the roof. “I was there Wednesday or Thursday and while I was there for ten minutes, 10-15 UberEats drivers came through. Anyone that’s latched onto that is making up for not having a lunch crowd.”