It’s the last day at Yola, a yogurt and coffee shop inDupont, and there are no sandwiches, no fresh fruit (save for a few bananas), and no whole milk.
Customers might normally get upset about not having their strawberries, but today they’re forgiving. “We’ll take everything,” jokes one patron when she finds out that the store is closing. A few people make two or three trips throughout the day; others drop $20 bills in the tip jar.
“I’m sad to hear about you guys closing,” says one customer as he pays for his coffee.
“It’s OK. We’re sad too,” says co-owner Laura Smith.
“Any idea what you’re going to do next?” he asks.
It’s a conversation that repeats itself over and over throughout Yola’s final day, which was last Friday. “The other four days of this week have been really nice and high-energy and fun,” Smith says. “But now it’s just kind of sad.” As the string of customers express their condolences, Smith attempts to explain Yola’s downfall: “We are a $5 average check size business in a close to $10,000-a-month rent location. It just doesn’t work. The math doesn’t work.”
Yola is the latest in a long string of restaurants to close this year. But unlike other owners, Smith has been brutally upfront about the realities of running a failing business.
Neither she nor her father had restaurant experience when they opened Yola in December 2010. Smith, 26, graduated from the University of Virginia in 2008 and spent a year working as a paralegal in D.C. Bored with the job, she took a teaching position at a boarding school in Switzerland, where she saw people line up for yogurt. She began thinking about opening a restaurant that would focus on local, natural ingredients. Her father, David Smith, is a senior vice president for commercial real estate firm J Street Companies.
Seeing the popularity of frozen yogurt and thinking D.C. was a strong market, the father-daughter team went into business together. They spent about a year fundraising and developing Yola, which cost more than half a million dollars. Laura ran most of the day-to-day on-site operations, and David mostly handled the business end.
The trouble started from the very beginning. “We underestimated the cost of opening the store, so we were in debt, which is a major no-no,” Laura Smith says.
In the first few months, Yola was constantly running out of supplies, and there weren’t a lot of rules for the staff, which fluctuated in number from nine to 15. A good day brought in as many as 450 people. A bad day meant as few as 100. Smith tried a number of things to pick business up, including Scoutmob, promotions with yoga studios, social media campaigns, raising prices, and adding sandwiches.
Smith says there was no single point at which she and her father realized the restaurant was doomed. It always felt like they wouldn’t make the rent, but then something—a promotion, a good week—would pick them back up. “It felt like it was constantly in danger, and it just kept eking along,” she says. “It died a very slow death.”
One of the hardest things was that her time no longer belonged to her. “I imagine it’s like having a baby,” she says. “Your cell phone has to be on when you sleep because someone’s going to call you at 5 a.m., and you need to pick it up because they’re calling to say the grinder is broken, and you’re not going to be able to make espresso, and that’s going to be thousands of dollars that’s lost every day.”
Both Smith and her dad frequently changed their ringtones because the mere sound of their phones became a source of anxiety. “He’s gone through all the ring options so now he’s at the barking one,” she says.
Monthly revenue fluctuated between the high $30,000s and low $50,000s, putting them constantly in the red. The Smiths found it complicated to calculate exactly how much they were losing, because they frequently put off payments to vendors. “You’re basically a money rotator, where you’re like, ‘OK, this is payroll week so I can’t pay the paper cup company this week, so I’ll have to try and see if they’ll wait till next Wednesday,’” Laura Smith says.
Smith’s anxiety got so bad that she wasn’t sleeping, so she went to a doctor who prescribed Celexa, which she took for two months. Meanwhile, to save money, she and her fiancé PJ Podesta moved out of their apartment in Glover Park to McLean to live with Podesta’s sister and her three kids. Over the summer, Smith took a second job working seven days a week picking up towels as a pool manager at Washington Golf & Country Club.
“It was so great to have a boss, which is crazy because you think it’s great to be you’re own boss. But I was like, ‘Someone’s going to tell me what to do! And someone’s going to say good job or bad job,’” Smith says. “In the end, I could quit. If I hated it, I could leave and not be tied down.”
It quickly became clear that Yola would not be able to honor its 10-year lease, so the Smiths began looking for someone to take it over. They already had a relationship with Neighborhood Restaurant Group, whose Buzz Bakery supplied Yola with baked goods. After several months of talks, NRG took over the lease and bought all Yola’s equipment for an undisclosed amount, and now plans to open a fried chicken and doughnut restaurant in the space. The Smiths and their investors have lost all the money they put into the restaurant, and they still have some remaining debt. (David Smith declined to reveal the exact amount.)
Laura Smith wonders how things might have been different if she was at the end of a career, rather than the beginning. She and Podesta are getting married in November, then plan to travel to Southeast Asia for seven months and volunteer at an orphanage in Cambodia. Instead of a wedding registry, she’s asking friends and family to help fund the trip. In the meantime, she’s applying for MFA programs so she can pursue a new career as a writer. She’s done with restaurants for now.
“I don’t have any regrets,” Laura says. “Well, I have regrets. I would have made decisions differently, but I learned so much. I feel really grateful for the experience…It’s rare that you get an opportunity to make such a big failure, such a public failure, and knowing how to do that, it’s a great thing.”
* * *
An hour before closing time, Yola becomes crowded with family, friends, and regulars. Everyone wants to document the moment, including Smith’s mother and soon-to-be mother-in-law, who snap photos of the Smiths and their employees behind the yogurt bar and in front of the store. Everyone is all smiles and goofy faces.
The only one who doesn’t seem to be taking it so well is Podesta’s 6-year-old niece, who breaks into tears. “She’s way more sad than I am,” Smith says with a laugh.
In fact, the closing starts to feel like a celebration when someone breaks out a six-pack of Fat Tire beer and a bottle of Champagne. “You’d think we were opening a restaurant,” says Podesta.
As the clock ticks down to 7 p.m., closing time, friends and family start counting the last seconds: “Five, four, three, two, one! Woooo!”
But Smith is still behind the yogurt bar, and there are two customers left. Instead of turning them away, she makes their orders and tells them not to worry about paying.
Slowly everyone trickles out. There are lots of hugs and well wishes. Smith looks on the verge of choking up a few times but always breaks into a big smile instead of tears. Soon, it’s just her and her parents. David Smith counts cash at a table while Laura sits on a stool behind the register going over a thick stack of credit card tip receipts—far more than normal. By all appearances, the last day seemed like a busy one.
Then, they add it all up: $1,786.
“Which is a light day,” David Smith says.
“I know, right?” Laura says. “It can be very deceiving.”
And with that, they turn off the lights, set the alarm, and lock the door for the last time.
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery