City Paper is not for tourists
Nine years ago, in Mandu’s first year of business, chef and owner Danny Lee remembers how every restaurant suffered in August. It was the worst month by far.
“Our first August—we were still new; it was less than a year in—and it was just devastatingly bad,” Lee recalls. Restaurants had to budget around the month, saving money so they could still make payroll and pay rent when Washingtonians fled the city en masse.
Conventional wisdom still holds that August is one of the slowest—if not the slowest—months for District restaurants. Congress is out of session, people go on vacation, and the weather can be oppressively hot and muggy. “It’s just one of those rules: August sucks in D.C.,” Lee says. (Unless, of course, you were a diner looking for an otherwise hard-to-get reservation.) “But I’m not sure if anybody really takes a step back and does a year-by-year analysis.”
The fact is, August isn’t the bummer it used to be for businesses. While it remains one of the least profitable months of the year, most restaurateurs aren’t exactly staring at empty tables. Promotions like DC Beer Week and Restaurant Week—purposely timed to coincide with what’s historically been a summer slump—help keep dining rooms busy and provide an infusion of cash. At the same time, the city doesn’t revolve around the comings and goings of Congress as much as it used to. And August tourism to D.C. appears to be slightly on the rise: The percentage of occupied hotel rooms in August, for example, has steadily increased from 72.9 percent in 2011 to 79.6 percent in 2014, according to Destination DC.
“Over the years, it’s getting busier and busier where it’s not automatically your worst month anymore,” Lee says. August business in Mandu’s early years was at least 25 percent lower than the average month. Now, Lee forecasts it’s more like 10 to 15 percent lower—down but manageable.
Matchbox and Ted’s Bulletin co-owner Drew Kim cites a similar 10- to 15-percent drop in August from average. “I would say this is probably the biggest down time if there was one,” he says. But he says it’s more consistent year-round now.
“Old school D.C., everybody left,” echoes chef and restaurateur Jeff Black. By “old school,” Black means pre-9/11, when the economy was red hot. Now, Black sees a lot more people staying in the area, although August affects different parts of the city differently. His Logan Circle restaurant Pearl Dive Oyster Palace slows down because “a lot of that demographic goes to the beach in the summertime.” But his suburban restaurants remain fairly busy.
The problem with August now, Black says, is not so much that sales are down but that they’re uneven, which makes it harder to plan orders and staffing. For example, Black’s Bar & Kitchen in Bethesda had a terrible lunch last week. But the next day? “I had to get on the line [in the kitchen] because it’s so busy,” Black says. “And I’m in street clothes.”
For Black, February is actually the worst month of the year. It’s a short month and often so cold that many people don’t want to leave their homes. Black says the second half of August and first half of September are the second worst. That’s when he tries to get his managers to go on vacation and schedule projects for the restaurants.
“I don’t even like getting media coverage in August because a lot of people are away,” says Black. If he’s doing a new menu release or wants to announce a new chef, he’ll try to wait a month.
Black admits Restaurant Week can be a nice bridge to September. Restaurants involved in the promotion last summer saw 16 percent more in revenue than the weeks before and after, according to a joint study between OpenTable, Venga, and the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington. They also saw a 40 percent increase in reservations during that week.
Even restaurants that don’t participate in Restaurant Week often feel the need to do something for a boost. “You definitely up your game in August,” says Bar Pilar partner and general manager Jonathan Fain. While the 14th Street haunt doesn’t do Restaurant Week, Bar Pilar is planning to do an Industry Week with Monday brunch and late-night specials this month.
Perhaps in part thanks to Restaurant Week and other promotions, the notion that it’s easier to get a table in August isn’t exactly true. August was actually the fourth busiest month for restaurant reservations in 2014 (after May, April, and March), according to data from OpenTable.
August is also one of the most in-demand months for D.C. tables on Rezhound, a site that alerts users when booked-up OpenTable reservations become available. Last August, the service saw 10 percent more demand than the average month. Only April and February (if you include Valentine’s Day) had higher demand.
Reservation requests actually drop off substantially in September on OpenTable and Rezhound. Restaurateurs say the beginning of September can be a stealth killer.
“A lot of people have this false notion that right after Labor Day business is back to normal. It’s not,” says Mandu’s Lee. “It’s usually two to three weeks into September where you really start to get more of a regular rhythm and set patterns in terms of where your average numbers are.”
Historically, it wasn’t uncommon to see restaurants close for good around this time, says Medium Rare owner Mark Bucher. “If a restaurant was going out of business, it went out of business because it couldn’t hang on in August,” he says. February might have the lowest sales, Bucher says, but businesses hang on for the Valentine’s Day bump. Unless they’re getting some help from Restaurant Week, “there’s nothing in August. And if restaurants are going to close their doors, they typically do it in and around or soon thereafter.”
To avoid this fate, some restaurants slim down their staffs or cut hours in order to make the numbers work. Bucher says that’s something that hasn’t been as necessary for him this year. He says his sales volume at Medium Rare is up this summer over last. “We’re seeing a lot of tourist business or a lot of people who used to live in D.C. coming back to visit D.C. in the summertime and hitting their favorite haunts,” he says. “D.C. is still very transient, so millennials move out, but they travel back because their friends are here. So we’re seeing that, which is a completely new phenomenon that I’ve never seen.”
Restaurateurs say that August can be a great month to open a restaurant. It’s slow enough that the staff can get some practice without being slammed, and by October, the restaurant is hitting some of the busiest months of the year. The only drawback, says Matchbox’s Kim, is that staffing is more difficult with a summer opening since cooks and servers are also going out of town.
August is also an ideal time for restaurant renovations. The Source and 701 Restaurant, for example, are both closing for makeovers this month. Mandu will also undergo a complete menu overhaul as well as some aesthetic changes gradually over the next several weeks.
“Even if it’s slightly slower that means we have just that much more time to still run service but also prepare for these new steps we’re taking at the restaurant,” Lee says. “There’s no way I would have made this change in mid-October, because that’s right when you’re hitting this really busy season.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery