On a stretch of Rhode Island Avenue NE sandwiched between rows of single-family houses and accompanied by the steady soundtrack of Prince George’s County commuters, a string of storefronts once served as a main street but has since fallen on hard times. Many of them are vacant. Scattered among the occupied ones are liquor stores, pawn shops, and carryouts. There’s a tire-and-rim dealer, a taxi parking lot, and several car-repair garages.

And then, in the middle of it all, there’s Zeke’s Coffee.

The cafe, with its minimalist decor and pour-over station, wouldn’t look out of place in Logan Circle or Georgetown. Those neighborhoods, after all, have a few things Zeke’s milieu of Woodridge doesn’t: residential density, visitors from around and outside the city, and abundant disposable income.

Their cafes also have something Zeke’s often lacks: customers.

On a recent Wednesday morning, Zeke’s is empty save for a lone man hunched over a laptop at the window counter overlooking Rhode Island Avenue. Unlikely as it may seem, though, the coffee shop’s sparse patronage is almost by design.

That’s because walk-in business accounts for a third or less of the cafe’s revenue, according to John Kepner, who owns the D.C. branch of the small, family-run Zeke’s chain, which also has locations in Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Wholesale business from Zeke’s coffee-bean roasting and stands at 10 D.C.-area farmers markets provide the bulk of Zeke’s income. “Two of the three are coming in outside of the dollars walking through the door,” Kepner says.

It’s what’s happening in the back of Zeke’s, the roasting, that allows the cafe to stay afloat.

“These guys would go out of business if they just sold coffee,” says Bo Menkiti, the leading developer in Woodridge, who owns five properties along that stretch of Rhode Island Avenue plus more in adjacent Brookland. “The community wants a coffee shop. A coffee shop is not viable here now. But this is.”

Menkiti has been pushing a concept for Woodridge he calls transitional retail: “business models that do not require massive amounts of walk-in traffic, but promote walk-in traffic.” Zeke’s is its poster child. The idea is that retail corridors like Rhode Island won’t turn vacant spaces into thriving restaurants overnight—there aren’t enough people or disposable dollars on the surrounding blocks, and investors won’t take a chance on the neighborhood without a change in perception. But if attractive and desirable businesses start cropping up, even if they’re not making their money from the storefront operations, others may follow suit. Eventually, as Woodridge becomes more of a destination, or at least a viable option, cafes may be able to stand on their own—and, Menkiti hopes, the properties he owns will gain value.

Across the city, once-bustling retail streets are struggling to overcome high vacancy rates and an overabundance of the types of shops neighbors don’t always love, like liquor stores and check-cashing joints. These streets haven’t recovered from the white (and middle-class black) flight and depopulation that hit the city in the middle of the last century. Some once-blighted places, of course, have: 14th Street NW can’t get enough high-end restaurants, and drinkers in search of esoteric $14 cocktails will have no trouble finding them in Shaw or Columbia Heights.

But farther from the city’s core, in areas once served by streetcars but now nowhere near Metro lines, streets with more supply of than demand for storefront retail can’t seem to recover their former glory. On Kennedy Street NW, neighbors have banded together in an effort to lure investment in both restaurants from the private sector and streetscape improvements from the city, so far to limited success. But on Rhode Island’s “main street,” spanning two long blocks of retail frontage between 20th and 24th streets NE and capped on either end by detached houses, it’s this concept of transitional retail that may provide the solution, not only for Rhode Island but potentially for similar corridors around town.

A few doors down from Zeke’s, the Bespoke Kitchen is scheduled to open this fall, according to Katie Rotramel, its client and venue relations manager. Woodridge lacks many sit-down eating options, and the Bespoke Kitchen will fill that need, at least for the people who get onto the supper club’s invitation list. But it won’t rely on that walk-in traffic to stay in business, since it’ll be sharing the space with its sister operation, Eat & Smile Catering.

Across the street, a Manny & Olga’s pizzeria will be opening in the next three to four months, says the takeout chain’s president, Bobby Athanasakis. It’ll be the company’s first D.C. location with seating, offering neighbors a local sit-down option, but it’ll likely still make most of its money from takeout, though Athanasakis says he’s hoping in-house dining will comprise up to half its business.

A few blocks to the west is Flip-It, another restaurant that’s become popular. “People want a sit-down restaurant,” says Menkiti. “Flip-It has become this gathering place, but if you sit there long enough, you’ll see that five people get carryout for every one that sits down.”

There’s no Washington Sports Club or Vida Fitness in the neighborhood, but there is KAAOS Gym, which opened last December. The economics are tough for a walk-in gym business, and so KAAOS is closed to the public most of the time—but its owner conducts personal training with clients, runs a fitness center for the U.S. Department of Education, and is working on securing contracts with schools to train their athletes.

Rents in Woodridge are lower than in most of the District’s commercial areas, making it financially feasible to open businesses that take up a lot of space and don’t get steady streams of customers. Much of Ward 5, where Woodridge is located, has struggled to find neighborhood-serving uses for its ample industrial land, and small-scale manufacturing has been proposed as a solution. Three production breweries and the city’s first gin distillery in more than a century are now located in the ward, and they open occasionally to the public for tastings and tours. But for neighborhoods like Woodridge, whose history is more village-style commercial than full-scale industrial, the hope is to move past a production-led model to one where cafes and restaurants can thrive on their own.

“It’s our goal to turn that around quickly,” Kepner says of Zeke’s wholesale- and market-driven sales mix. (By comparison, Qualia Coffee in Petworth, which also roasts its own beans, gets about 90 percent of its revenue from in-store sales, according to owner Joel Finkelstein.) “I’d like to have good high-quality product and bring people in the door. That’s why we chose a spot that was retail. We could have done the [roasting] at an industrial park.”

So is Woodridge the next Petworth or Bloomingdale? Unlikely. For all its retail strides, Woodridge remains a low-density neighborhood, with bungalows lining its side streets. Eventually, Menkiti hopes to build mixed-use apartment buildings there, but “there’s not a market for that right now,” he says.

The neighborhood has a troubled history, with racial covenants excluding minorities in the first half of the last century and the local citizens’ association urging residents in 1942 “to continually maintain the all-white character of the community.” After the Supreme Court banned these covenants in 1948, whites quickly became a minority themselves, and Woodridge turned into a haven for middle-class black families (one which promoted itself with the “A Good Community Getting Better” signs posted around the area). The neighborhood is now growing more diverse as young professionals find themselves priced out of more central parts of town and turn to the area’s attractive houses and quiet streets. In the process, neighborhood activism in support of Rhode Island Avenue business development has increased.

Rhode Island Avenue NE Main Street launched this May as a more formal successor to the 2011 Friends of Rhode Island Avenue, which “originally started as a group of folks who just wanted a good coffee shop,” says Kyle Todd, who now leads the Main Street group. It’s funded six storefront improvements through city grants and arranges technical assistance and speaker events for local businesses. Todd has also lobbied the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority for direct buses between Woodridge and downtown—they currently run only as far west as the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station—and succeeded in securing an express route there during rush hour, which could make the neighborhood more accessible and boost business.

Still, unlike homeowners, businesses and investors aren’t quick to move to areas like Woodridge. “Retailers and restaurateurs move in packs,” says Menkiti. “They’re not pioneers.”

Menkiti lets out a long belly laugh when asked if he’s making big profits yet on his Woodridge properties, which include three adjacent storefronts for which he paid $500,000 apiece in 2011 and a building across the street that he bought for $290,000 this year and now houses Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie’s campaign headquarters. (McDuffie’s former legislative director, Stephanie Liotta-Atkinson, now works for Menkiti.) “There’s no return today,” he confesses. “This is an investment.” As Brookland values rise, he’s putting some of his profits from his investments there into Woodridge, hoping for similar gains in the future. “It’s long, long, long, long term,” he says.

But in a city where neighborhoods seem to go from down-and-out to out of your budget overnight, it’s in the short term that Woodridge could inhabit the sweet spot in the middle, with its desired business types subsidized by the production work happening in back.

“What makes D.C. work right now is the in-between,” says Menkiti. “We’re here in the front end of that.”

Photos by Darrow Montgomery