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Bernard “Taz” Dehaene wants to teach Washingtonians that there’s more to Belgian cuisine than just monster waffles. To make his point, Dehaene has plans to open Den Brusselaer, the area’s first Belgian restaurant. The Brussels native hopes to distinguish himself within the ethnic eatery pack by featuring Belgian mainstays like mussels, delectable pommes frites, and luscious chocolate desserts. So far, so good.
“In the ’70s, when French restaurants began sprouting, they were fairly cheap, but soon they started charging too much money,” comments Dehaene. “Then the Italians came in, and soon they wanted $20 for water, flour, and eggs….I want to be the first Belgian restaurant. I want to show all those other restaurants that I can put out a superior product for not too much cost.”
Dehaene, who currently runs a gourmet coffee cart on the campus of George Washington University, has nailed down an ideal location for Den Brusselaer at 2348 Wisconsin Avenue, secured a talented pastry chef, and even hooked up a distributor to supply him with all the Chimay and Kriek Lambic beer he can handle. The Belgian Embassy has already made a reservation for a large party in September. After scheming and dreaming for more than 10 years, Dehaene has only one stumbling block between him and a visit from Phyllis Richman: D.C.’s Omnibus Regulatory Reform Amendment Act of 1998.
Part of a big-business wish list recently passed by the D.C. Council, the new regulatory reforms include a provision that effectively prevents Dehaene from selling the Leaf and Bean Cafe, his European coffeehouse on wheels. Although they are billed as a series of common-sense measures to free business from the shackles of needless government meddling, the reforms seem to have the opposite effect on the city’s smallest businesspeople, street and sidewalk vendors.
Dehaene needs to transfer the capital invested in his coffee cart (which he values at $45,000) into his new restaurant. But when the new regulatory reforms went into effect last month, the city placed a moratorium on all Class A, B, and D vending licenses pending further review of D.C.’s vending laws. The District requires vendors to obtain a separate license for each business they operate, and licenses cannot be sold among vendors or transferred with ownership. So until officials lift the moratorium, Dehaene will continue to hawk mochas instead of mussels.
When he first came to the U.S. in 1985, Dehaene worked as a sous-chef for various restaurants, including Restaurant Nora in Dupont Circle. Dehaene says that one of his signature dishes is even featured in owner Nora Pouillon’s recipe book.
Soon after leaving Nora in 1995, Dehaene and friend Christoph Raynal were cruising around Anacostia when Dehaene spotted a vending cart depot on Good Hope Road and convinced Raynal to stop. Dehaene wanted to see how much it would cost to start selling freshly fried pommes frites on the street. Ron Pickrel of Star Vending told Dehaene that the city’s vending laws banned hot oil in carts, but he could set him up with a hot beverage business. Dehaene rounded up a few investors and decided to jump in.
“I said to myself, ‘If I can’t make this coffee cart work, I can’t make a restaurant work,’” Dehaene recalls. He began that spring on the corner of Pennsylvania and M Streets NW. It was an unmitigated failure. He skimped on costs by not buying container tops and tried various stunts, such as shaving his head, to attract attention. “I thought people would have never seen a bald guy selling coffee before,” says Dehaene. But instead of increasing sales, Dehaene acquired nothing more than a major sunburn on his freshly shaved dome.
Fortunately, Dehaene got advice from a fellow vendor to move his business to H Street between 21st and 22nd, across from George Washington University’s Gelman Library. His mobile kaffeeklatsch has developed a loyal clientele among both students and workers in the area for everything from “Oooh soo good” mocha crushes to “Yum Yum” iced lattes. Leaf and Bean has become such an integral part of university life at GW that professors of French encourage their students to practice conversational skills with Dehaene when ordering.
For a while, he had stirred up business by selling Belgian waffles in the afternoon. A Tunisian coffee competitor across the street retaliated with chicken fajitas. Both were prohibited by the city’s vending laws. After weeks of sparring, Dehaene declared, “My friend, this is it. You’re going down.” Dehaene shut down his waffle operation and called Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) inspectors to catch his competitor in the act.
After suffering severe injuries in a motorcycle crash earlier this year, Dehaene moved his restaurant plans to the front burner. While Dehaene recuperated only blocks away at GW Hospital from his injuries, competitors inched in on his space.
But, to his surprise, his loyal clientele shunned their businesses. Many of Dehaene’s customers have become intimately involved with his restaurant plans. “I thought you were going to sell this thing,” asks Jennifer Grosman, ordering a celebratory iced latte after turning in her dissertation in psychology last Friday morning.
“I want to move on and give somebody else a chance,” says Dehaene. “I’m looking for someone with a good smile who will work hard.” So far, Dehaene has received four offers for the cart. But all the interested parties backed away when they found out they couldn’t secure a vendor’s license from DCRA.
“I figured if I couldn’t get a vendor’s license, I would be stuck with a cart that I couldn’t use downtown,” says Kennedy Raymond, a manager at Quartermaine’s Coffee in Cleveland Park, who expressed interest in buying Leaf and Bean. “For me to try to purchase the cart and not be able to operate or run it would be a waste of money.”
Mary Rudolph, a staffer for At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil, chair of the D.C. Council’s Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Committee, says that city vendors may not be stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place for long. Rudolph reports that the D.C. financial control board plans to repeal all the provisions in the regulatory reform legislation dealing with vending. “The control board disagrees with the Business Regulatory Reform Commission’s findings,” says Rudolph. “They think that the vending laws are just dandy as is.” If the control board reverses the Council’s reforms, the city’s old vending laws will stand.
If and when Dahaene finally unloads his cart, he will merely be setting off on another branch of the endless road of bureaucratic red tape: Turns out there is a moratorium on liquor licenses in Glover Park, where he plans to open Den Brusselaer .CP