City Paper is not for tourists
Mount Pleasant rent wars squeeze the Little Giant Restaurant out of the neighborhood. By Laura Peterson
The final breakfast shift at Mount Pleasant’s Little Giant Restaurant on Feb. 27 wasn’t much different from the thousands of others that Arthur Simon had worked during his 30 years behind the counter. Office-bound suits, caretakers of hangovers, and passing delivery men settled onto vinyl-topped stools and bent over their plates of potatoes and eggs. Simon rang up their tabs on the metal keys of an ancient manual cash register, while his brother, Armenak Simon, pushed potatoes around on the grill with a spatula and sliced away at a ham perched upright on a wire stand on the counter.
Almost every inch of the dingy diner, from the huge coffee urns to the plastic-covered boards announcing the special on beef stew, seemed unchanged from the restaurant’s opening day, nearly 60 years ago. The only clues that the restaurant would lock its doors for good that very afternoon were the words of consolation and regret passed on by the occasional customer. An attorney who liked her eggs over easy offered some legal advice; a construction worker who took his eggs scrambled wished the brothers good luck.
Oddly, there was little sign of the indignation that many neighborhood residents had expressed upon hearing that the building at 3215 Mount Pleasant St. NW, which has housed Little Giant for six decades, had been purchased from its owner, Joseph Heller, by Mark Peters. Peters is the proprietor of the sleek Marx Cafe, which sits just a couple of doors down from the Little Giant, at 3203 Mount Pleasant St. NW.
For weeks, the rumors that insensitive landlords and predatory pricing had forced Simon out of the neighborhood had lingered in the Mount Pleasant air like the aroma of the greasy spoon’s offerings. There was talk of posting fliers, of staging sit-ins and boycotts to protest the diner’s closing.
“I thought it was an outrage,” says Brian Friend, a local resident who used to patronize the Little Giant along with his Adams Mill Road housemates several times a week. Friend laments “both the closing of my favorite place in Mount Pleasant to hang out with local people over a cup of coffee, and the way in which the owners were treated after renting the space for such a long time.
“The Little Giant,” Friend concludes, “was beat by a capital giant.”
The diagnosis of unbridled capitalism might be a bit harsh, but behind many of the storefronts in this neighborhood are stories of small-business owners attempting to stay afloat in an area that has seen major cultural and economic shifts over the past 15 years. Subscribers to a Mount Pleasant e-mail bulletin board responded to the news of Little Giant’s closure with nostalgic tales of sticky floors, cheap grub, and the diner’s “neighborhood feel.” They also expressed worries about the arrival of “Adams Morgan-like” businesses in Mount Pleasant.
Part of the nostalgia and anxiety about the closing of Little Giant may be grounded in the fact that real estate prices in Mount Pleasant are approaching the levels seen in Adams Morgan. And the “Adams Morgan” future that Mount Pleasant residents and small businesses fear? Some ask, “How soon is now?”
Little Giant Restaurant was one of America’s original Greek lunch counters. It opened in 1941 and passed down through a succession of Greek owners. One of these owners, Spiro Kokkolis, engineered the expansion of the restaurant into the building’s other two storefronts in the ’60s, adding several booths and a second grill that produced pizza for the pre-Domino’s generation in addition to souvlaki and gyros. Little Giant’s business, always brisk, boomed after Kokkolis’ improvements.
“You had to wait in line to get in there,” says Heller, the landlord, “all the way up through the ’70s.”
In 1971, Kokkolis hired then-21-year-old Arthur Simon, an Armenian Turk who had left his native Istanbul to escape anti-Christian prejudice, as a part-time dishwasher. Simon went full-time the following year, working nine-hour shifts seven days a week. It’s a schedule he maintained for 30 years, save for the odd vacation day.
“I can cook a hot breakfast for 10 people at once,” Simon boasts. “No one waits more than three minutes for breakfast here, ever.”
Kokkolis passed ownership on to a friend named Chris Hondas, and when Hondas decided to sell, in 1985, Simon made a successful bid for the restaurant where he’d worked for all of his adult life.
Simon’s purchase, unfortunately, coincided with a major shift in Mount Pleasant’s demographics. Refugees from Central American conflicts of the ’80swith tastes leaning more toward pupusas than souvlakiflooded into the area, and recession and neighborhood unrest in the early ’90s further cut Little Giant down to size. Little Giant’s monthly sales averaged around $17,000 when Simon bought the place; by 1992, that figure had fallen to $10,000.
Simon responded by cutting back hours, eliminating the dinner shift, and closing the larger grill. When Simon’s lease expired, in 1991, Heller told Simon that he was raising the rent from $1,500 to $2,150 a month. Simon told Heller that he couldn’t afford the hike, and Heller worked out a plan of incremental annual increases instead.
Simon admits that he never paid the increases, but Heller didn’t move to sell the building (which had been in his family since 1928) out from under him for almost a decade. “We knew we were losing money,” Heller says, “but we had a sentimental attachment to the place.” Heller says that he figured that he would sell the Little Giant space “when the right opportunity came alonga tenant who had a vision and would develop the site, who wanted to grow within the community.”
In stepped local entrepreneur Peters, who had developed landlord problems of his own in recent years. An immigrant from Iraq’s Kasmeren region, Peters came to Mount Pleasant in 1985, when he took over an Armand’s pizza franchise that was located in the building adjacent to the present Marx Cafe. Longtime residents recall that Peters worked around the clock to keep afloat in a neighborhood that was long on drunks, drugs, and fights, and short on dependable help.
Armand’s eventually pulled the plug on the franchise, but Peters stuck around, signing a 15-year lease on a space next door in 1988and opening an Italian restaurant called Trolley’s. After changing the restaurant’s menu to Tex-Mex to mesh more closely with neighborhood tastes and splitting off the pizza business into a separate building, Peters turned the restaurant over to Haydee Vanegas, a restaurateur with more experience in Latin cuisine. When Vanegas split off to start his own Mount Pleasant eateryHaydee’sat 3102 Mount Pleasant St. NW, in 1997, Peters found himself with a prime spot and two years left on his original long-term lease.
“It made sense to put some money into it,” says Peters. “It was an eyesore. I wanted to open a restaurant that would be different from the others in Mount Pleasant in every respect.”
Peters applied his years of construction experience to his new venture, and in December 2000, he unveiled a restaurant replete with amber wood paneling, wall sconces, and a bar stocked with top-shelf liquor. He dubbed his new upscale bar and restaurant the Marx Cafe. “We brought class to Mount Pleasant,” Peters says.
With class came a new problem for Peters: a hike in his rent. He says that the Marx Cafe’s current landlord, Leo Vandas, one of a consortium of real estate investors who own several storefronts in Mount Pleasant and Adams Morgan, informed him that his rent would increase from $5,000 to $8,000 a month when he signed a new lease. So when Peters heard that Heller was putting Little Giant’s building up for sale, he jumped at the chance. Little Giant’s landlord told Peters that he wanted to give Simon a chance to bid, but when Simon offered him $350,000, Heller opted for Peters’ offer of close to $500,000.
Simon says that Heller sold the building to Peters without allowing Simon to make a counteroffer, but Heller claims that Simon told him he couldn’t go any higher than his initial bid.
“I personally went to talk to the Simon brothers about it,” Heller argues. “In D.C., you don’t have to talk to commercial tenants, but I did it out of respect for them and their business.” Under the terms of the sale, Simon could keep the space for another year at $3,500 a month or be out by the end of February. Simon opted to vacate.
“I don’t want to fight,” Simon says. “I don’t like lawyers.”
The story that was served to Simon’s customers along with their pancakes was that he had been pushed out by a squeeze play. It’s a tale that resonates with longtime customers like Friend.
“I was speaking with [the Simons], and they explained how Marx Cafe had bought the space and were forcing them out,” says Friend. “They paid years of rent to the former owner of the space, and their business was taken from them without a thought to what these guys would do after it closed. The family business, which is what this was, is going faster than you can say boo.”
Peters believes that he’s in a similar fix, and that he, like Simon, is being railroaded out of his place by investors looking to capitalize on Mount Pleasant’s rising rents. In the dog-eat-dog world of rapid gentrification, Peters doesn’t have much sympathy for the arguments of local residents who have dropped into Marx Cafe #to discuss Little Giant’s demise or announce their plans to boycott his restaurant.
“Who are they to tell me how to run my business?” he blustered on a recent night after one local resident that Peters described as a “punk-rock kid” had come to “pick his brain” about Little Giant.
“How long have they lived here? I’ve owned a business in this neighborhood for more than 15 years,” Peters argued. “The people who deserve these buildings are the people who have been here through thick and thin, through the riots and everything. Now, when Mount Pleasant has blossomed, we’re out of luck.”
In this game of Mount Pleasant musical chairs, however, it is Peters who has nabbed the last seat. Simon, for his part, plans to reopen his eatery out of the neighborhood, in a vacant McDonald’s at 6100 Baltimore Ave. in Riverdale, Md., about two miles from the University of Maryland’s College Park campus. He hopes to start serving customers at that location in May.
The biggest losers, it appears, are Little Giant’s weekday regulars and its packs of bleary-eyed group-house dwellers who used to come to sop up their weekend excesses with piles of food and musings about the contents of the restaurant’s scrapple.
Even the new proprietor of the space says that he’s not entirely happy about where the music has stopped for Simon.
“I feel really bad about people getting kicked out of their building,” says Peters. “If anyone should own that building, it’s [Simon], and if anyone deserves to own [Marx Cafe], it’s me. But it’s a jungle out there. I have to survive.” CP