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The Independent Restaurant Coalition hired actor Morgan Freeman to narrate a haunting call for help released earlier this month. “The COVID-19 crisis threatens to permanently close 85 percent of independent restaurants,” Freeman says in the ad that urges Congress to pass legislation including $120 billion in aid specifically for the hospitality industry.
When Mayor Muriel Bowser closed restaurants and bars for on-premises consumption on March 16, some restaurant operators speculated that the pandemic would only stretch into late spring. Tyoka Jackson, the owner of an IHOP franchise in Congress Heights, told City Paper on April 2 that he wouldn’t be able to survive four more weeks operating on takeout alone. “I don’t like to predict our own demise, but I’m scared to be doing this beyond one month from now,” he said at the time.
It’s now been 19 weeks since Jackson made his dire prediction and five months since the pandemic first necessitated a shutdown. While D.C. restaurants have since been able to open their patios in Phase One of reopening and seat a limited number of people in their dining rooms in Phase Two, the city could roll back these permissions at any moment. Leaders in other cities and states, including California and parts of Michigan, have reclosed restaurants as the virus continues to spread, acknowledging that indoor dining is risky.
Many of the District’s small and independent restaurants that are currently open for business are staffed solely by an owner or a handful of staff to cut down on labor costs and free up money for mounting rent and utility bills. “This is like The Hunger Games, restaurant edition,” says Coconut Club chef and partner Adam Greenberg. “Everyone gets two people to operate.”
According to the U.S. Labor Department’s July jobs report, 21.8 percent of hospitality industry workers remain unemployed. There couldn’t be a worse time to be without work—the $600 per week Pandemic Unemployment Insurance payments ceased in late July, and Congress is deadlocked over reinstating the benefit at the same or a lesser amount.
President Donald Trump issued a memorandum on Aug. 8 promising an additional $400 per week in unemployment benefits, but the order will be difficult to implement because the money is tied up in the Department of Homeland Security’s Disaster Relief Fund. Trump’s memo also asks states and other jurisdictions, which are strapped for cash, to contribute 25 percent of the $400.
There also isn’t any promising aid on the way for restaurant owners. The Paycheck Protection Program wasn’t created with a lengthy pandemic in mind. The forgivable loan application window expired on Aug. 8, and any plans for an extension are also tied up in the stalled stimulus talks. Locally, the D.C. Council dedicated a fresh $100 million to microgrants targeting restaurants, hotels, and retailers, but the funding to bring the grants to fruition isn’t available yet.
As conditions grow increasingly challenging, City Paper took the pulse of four bars and restaurants in the District. One didn’t make it. Another has yet to reopen. And two more are doing whatever it takes to survive, despite not knowing how long the COVID-19 pandemic will last.
3321 Connecticut Ave. NW
Coppi’s Organic’s history in D.C. dates back to 1993, when the restaurant first opened on U Street NW. In the early 2000s, the original owners sold the restaurant to Salvadoran siblings Carlos and Nori Amaya. Then tragedy struck. Nori was murdered in her apartment in 2009; the case remains unsolved and continues to torment Carlos.
In 2012, the building housing Coppi’s was slated for redevelopment, forcing Carlos to find a new home for his restaurant. He signed a lease in Cleveland Park and reopened in late 2014 with the help of another sister, Liz Pacheco.
According to Carlos, business was steady until the transition from the Obama administration to the Trump administration in 2016. “There was a noticeable difference in sales,” he says. “They dropped dramatically, so we started having conversations with our landlord about rent relief.” Other Cleveland Park restaurants struggled as well, with Ripple and Nam-Viet closing in 2017.
That rent relief didn’t come, according to Carlos. Coppi’s fell $20,000 behind in rent in 2016, and ended up in court with its landlord, Katz & Company. The parties reached an agreement and the case was dismissed in August 2017. “From there we kept a good balance, where it didn’t happen again until COVID-19,” Carlos says. “It was a blow overnight. We went dead.”
The restaurant condensed its menu and laid off almost all of its employees to try to make the numbers work doing takeout and delivery. “I was washing dishes and had two cooks cooking,” Carlos says. Coppi’s was only bringing in a couple hundred dollars per day throughout the pandemic.
Despite this, Carlos and Pacheco say their landlord grew increasingly “aggressive” about collecting payments. They say they received multiple texts, emails, and calls per day, until an in-person confrontation was captured on video in May. The owners say a man representing Katz & Company showed up at the restaurant asking for at least $1,000.
“The mere fact that he was there collecting rent during a pandemic,” Carlos says, exasperated. The restaurant owner did much of the yelling on the recording obtained by City Paper. He calls the exchange stressful. “We’re not trying to cheat you on rent! We’ve been on time with rental payments for six years except that one time,” he recalls saying.
On May 27, Carlos received a letter from a law firm stating the landlord would not renew Coppi’s lease, which expired in July. It cites failure to pay March, April, and May rent and asks the restaurant to vacate the premises.
While the D.C. Council, through emergency legislation, set up protections that prevent commercial landlords from evicting tenants during COVID-19, there isn’t anything mandating that landlords renew expiring leases. Carlos and his sister didn’t put up much of a fight. “If you can’t reduce my rent to the percentages I’m making, then you can have your key back,” Carlos says. “I left because I didn’t see a healthy outcome to this.”
Pacheco says they’ve hired an attorney to navigate final negotiations over back rent. Katz & Company did not respond to City Paper’s requests for comment, including a query about whether they expect to find a new tenant in the current economic climate.
“I’m not a special case, but when a 27-year-old institution gets shut down,” Carlos says, his words trailing off. “You have to be fearless to be in the restaurant business.”
540 Penn St. NE
When Chef Adam Greenberg and his business partner Emily Cipes closed their island-inspired restaurant near Union Market on March 15, they examined their financials. Greenberg penned a letter to his investors asking them to help him come up with $75,000 to get through 10 weeks with no sales. Then the team put their heads together, determined to do whatever it took to “see the other side.” Their ingenuity paid off, and Greenberg walked back his initial request to his investors—at least for the time being.
In the beginning, takeout and delivery were the restaurant’s only way to earn revenue. Coconut Club projected bringing in about $2,500 per week from selling to-go food three days a week. The restaurant was on Caviar before the pandemic, but would only receive a handful of orders per week. To their surprise, they did $8,500 the first week. “If we can do $7,500 a week for 10 weeks, there’s $75,000,” Greenberg recalls. He reached back out to his investors. “I don’t need your money,” he told them. “We’ll bust ass!”
Greenberg continued to tweak takeout and delivery. The team learned how to operate with less people, cut down on fancy proteins like tuna, and pivoted to pre-orders, which improved staff morale. Kyle Henderson, the chef de cuisine, could wake up knowing exactly how much food to prepare and call it a day at 3:30 p.m., instead of waiting to see if orders trickled in later in the evening.
“You’re paying a chef to have a nice salary, but I’m not going to have the guy work 60 hours a week during COVID,” Greenberg says. “Whatever environment we can create to be the best [for] us mentally, that’s what we’re going to do.” Coconut Club found the most success with themed pre-order meals, including a weeklong Passover brisket special that brought in a record $24,000.
When the pandemic lasted well past the 10 weeks Greenberg initially projected, he experimented further. Coconut Club built a market where customers could pick up cooking staples missing from grocery stores, teamed up with former Yang Market owner Pete Sitcov to launch sandwich pop-up Crush Subbies, and even tried collaborating with a cannabis delivery service, before pulling back when city agencies caught wind of the partnership before the launch.
Once Coconut Club could seat customers outside, the restaurant tried serving a $55 prix-fixe meal. “I had two people crying and having panic attacks over that style of service,” Greenberg says. There was too much interaction between customers and employees. They switched to an a la carte menu that allows customers to order from a window. Food runners drop everything off at tables in disposable containers.
“With every scenario, something is going to suck, but you have to decide what sucks the least,” Greenberg says. The chef talks openly about battling depression. In the past, he might have surrendered to tough times, but COVID-19 has had the opposite effect. “I can’t believe it’s been five months,” he says. “Every time we’ve pivoted, it’s worked.”
Coconut Club is still racing the clock. Greenberg says if sales don’t return to pre-pandemic levels by early 2021, he’ll run out of money. At that point, he’ll need to ask investors for another infusion of cash, secure money through loans or grants, or close. “What COVID has created is living in reality,” he says. “A lot of restaurateurs or chefs, we romanticize that if we do this, we’ll make money one day.”
1234 H St. NE
Early on in the pandemic, The Pug owner Tony Tomelden says he would gather with a bartender from The Red Hen and the owner of All Souls Bar for socially distanced summits in a Brookland alley to commiserate about the state of their industry. “Then we all got tired of complaining to each other, so we did it less,” Tomelden says.
He can’t bring himself to read articles about customers mistreating bar and restaurant workers, nor can he doom scroll through stories about how businesses that haven’t opened yet likely won’t. Tomelden closed his H Street NE dive bar on March 15 and hasn’t been able to reopen. The phased reopening process uniquely disadvantages small indoor bars compared to sprawling beer gardens or restaurants with a lot of square footage.
“I went to zero income,” says Tomelden, 54, who has worked in hospitality since he took his first job at Roy Rogers at 16. He has three children and his wife is a physical therapist. Her work was also disrupted by the pandemic. While Tomelden sounds discouraged, he doesn’t blame the city for taking measures to keep Washingtonians safe. “I’m vaguely frustrated,” he says. “I’m not mad at anyone in particular.”
Tomelden is involved in other projects, which have proceeded cautiously. AtBrookland’s Finest, for example, he and his business partners took their time opening the patio and remain “too afraid” to open indoor service.
The Pug isn’t getting threats from a landlord because Tomelden owns the building. But he is beholden to the bank. While he was recently able to secure a three-month mortgage deferral, the COVID-19 pandemic could worsen in the winter. “Everything comes back to the banks,” he says. “I don’t want them to close, but they have to freeze mortgages. And don’t give us hoops and hoops to jump through.”
Tomelden says he would prefer not to close permanently, but says it’s “tough to just sit there.” Recently, he’s allowed Peregrine Espresso to pop up in The Pug and collects a small percentage of their sales. Other than that, his bar has gone dark. “The Pug is a little dump, but it’s an awesome little bar,” he says. “I hate seeing it empty.”
Places like The Pug are in danger, and that doesn’t sit well with Tomelden. “It’s the third place,” he says. “I’m getting a little emotional.” He ticks off The Pug, All Souls, and The Public Option as places people can go in their jeans or right after work to rub elbows with their neighbors. “People don’t realize what a big part of our lives those little escape places are,” he says. “Clearly Applebee’s will have to fill that if we don’t figure out how to get this done.”
1243 Good Hope Road SE
Chef Peter Opare and his family run a carryout restaurant that bucked all trends by having one of its best months ever during the pandemic. It helps that the Anacostia business was already positioned to do a majority of its sales to-go. Opare attributes Open Crumb’s solid June numbers to a series of press clips. The Post called the restaurant specializing in soul food and Ghanian dishes “a safe harbor from the storm that has devastated Anacostia” on June 2.
“It definitely boosted our sales,” Opare says. “We got more eyes on us and more followers on Instagram. If it wasn’t for those things, we wouldn’t be having the same conversation.”
But the bump didn’t last. Opare says sales dropped 70 percent from the end of July through mid-August. He attributes the decrease to neighbors losing all or a portion of their unemployment benefits or income. If customers don’t have money to cover rent, they’re not dining out, Opare says.
Opare began considering how best to serve his community. First, Open Crumb teamed up with World Central Kitchen to prepare meals for those in need. The nonprofit pays restaurants about $10 per meal. Then, Opare decided it was time to introduce a new revenue stream. He purchased a machine from Canada before the pandemic and is nearly ready to put it to use making prepackaged meals. He plans to box up reheatable dishes like jollof rice with chicken and lasagna.
“I’m trying to compete in a different space,” Opare explains. “It’s like HelloFresh and Blue Apron, but with a local identity. We think there’s space for that around this time where people aren’t trying to eat out or cook. I want to give people the idea that I’m their personal chef.”
If Open Crumb can pull off the prepackaged meals, Opare is cautiously optimistic his business will make it. “If Congress can get its head out of the sand and figure out a way to get more income into people’s pockets, I feel like people are going to be more willing to spend and put money back into small businesses like mine,” he says.
Confronted with the statistic quoted in the IRC commercial that 85 percent of independent restaurants will close, Opare is defiant. “That’s exaggerated,” he says. “I think we’re stronger than that. The restaurant industry is not made for the weak of heart.”