Heat Da Spot, located on Georgia Avenue NW a few blocks north of Howard University’s campus, is more than just a cozy cafe. Students often became surrogate family members to the staff, says Ben Solomon, who manages the Park View cafe. “You know everyone’s name,” he says. “One day comes, you don’t need to ask what they want. We know what they want.” He says he often gets to know students’ parents, too, when they come to drop off their children for their first year.
In the coming weeks, universities in the D.C. area, including Howard, Georgetown University, the George Washington University, American University, the University of Maryland, the University of the District of Columbia, and Gallaudet University will at least begin the fall semester with online, remote instruction. Many local schools have closed their residence halls, while others will house a small percentage of students.
Without students returning to their respective campuses, restaurants, cafes, and bars, like Heat Da Spot, that often serve students are worried about their current and future revenue-earning potential.
Solomon estimates that about 20 percent of Heat Da Spot’s customer base comes from Howard University, but says when students do come, they often gather large groups to study together. Once, a professor held a class on small businesses there. These gatherings add to the cafe’s family-like atmosphere.
Heat Da Spot even reassures parents that Solomon and other staff will take care of their children should they need anything. “We offered student discounts or if they didn’t have enough money, we would cover the bill,” he says. “That way, we became family.”
Howard University announced its intention to move to online instruction and to close its resident halls earlier this month. Without on-campus instruction, is Solomon worried? Not if he keeps his doors open, he says. Students who live in the area have continued to order pick-up or takeout, he says. New customers, like construction workers transforming Georgia Avenue NW, are always coming in, and Howard alumni living nearby come by for coffee, too. Heat Da Spot is currently operating with full hours. Its patio is also open.
“Yes, we lost our university, but people come,” Solomon says.
Despite Howard being closed, Solomon has also found a way to keep students close. A large whiteboard hangs in the cafe and is open for any customer, students included, to sign their name or to describe how they feel about the moment they’re living in right now. Solomon plans on one day framing the whiteboard to capture this odd time. “Some of the students, their signature is on the board, so we always remember, you know,” he says.
The story is different in Foggy Bottom. Saad Jallad, owner ofCrepeaway at 2001 L St. NW, calls the university closures a disaster. His restaurant serving sweet and savory crepes is a familiar haunt for George Washington University students who Jallad says bring life to the creperie after late nights. The colorful venue has a tongue-in-cheek sign that warns people not to dance on the tables, but, of course, they do.
The restaurant is still operating during its regular business hours with a full menu. Jallad says he stayed open, even during the stay-at-home order in the early months of the pandemic, for takeout and delivery. Like many operators, he’s had to cut back on staff. He typically employs college students to work at the shop.
Jallad worries how other nearby restaurants will survive only being able to operate in limited capacities as more and more landlords begin to ask for full rent payments. His landlord, Jallad says, has played fair so far.
Sales have started to pick back up again, but Jallad emphasizes that he was counting on students returning to campus for an additional boost. Revenue, he says, is “nowhere near what it was during the same time period last year.”
In Glover Park, basement bar Breadsoda is also bracing for the impact of vacant universities. The business serves students from at least two universities. Students from Georgetown Medical School often book meet-ups and networking events at the bar in August, and American University students are known to frequent the bar on Wednesday nights when some drinks are $4 and all games are free.
Discounted drinks or not, Wednesday night is often a big money maker for the bar, says co-owner Steve Teague. He compares Wednesday nights to Friday and Saturday nights in terms of revenue. Students, who arrive in droves from 10 p.m. until closing, spend big.
These infamous “Breadsoda Wednesdays” have been going on for several years, Teague says, with a number of American University alumni often claiming they had started the tradition. “I’m not sure if it was a fraternity thing, or just a group of guys got the word out,” Teague surmises. “But the numbers doubled.”
While the bar will undoubtedly take a financial hit on Wednesday nights, Teague says it’s tough to fully gauge what will happen in the coming months without students returning to D.C. He estimates that Breadsoda’s revenue is down 30 to 40 percent compared to before the pandemic. Breadsoda’s patio is currently open and operated on a limited schedule with minimal staff.
Much like Jallad at Crepeaway, Teague worries he’s losing out on a potential employee pool. He estimates that 99 percent of his servers were local college students, all of whom have left the city. Teague hopes upperclassmen, returning to the District for internships and other work, will remember Breadsoda and come back to sit on the patio.
There’s also a sense of emotional loss without the university students. Some students who frequented Breadsoda later went on to work there or return after their college years. It goes both ways, too. Teague says a former bartender became a professor at American University and has kept Teague apprised of the university’s changes in operating status.
For now, it’s just a waiting game for these college hot spots. Like everyone else, they’re wondering when things will slowly return to normal. “[We’re] just waiting and playing it safe, that’s what we’re doing,” Teague says.