A third store selling booze at the intersection of Sheriff Road and Eastern Avenue NE was one too many for Deanwood residents, who’ve been pulling out all the stops to prevent Uncle Lee’s Seafood from getting a retail liquor license.
The problem is, the other two stores are on the Maryland side—so the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Board doesn’t have to consider them in its consideration of liquor license saturation.
In part because of the jurisdictional challenge, neighbors have tried persuasion and protest to convince the owners they should stick to food—they’d like to see a sit-down restaurant there, or a grocery store—in a stalemate that’s good for nobody living in the vicinity.
“They make money off the community, so they should serve the interests of the community,” says Councilmember Yvette Alexander, who waved signs with about 30 people Saturday morning, including many residents of a 39-unit condo nearby. Lots of cars honked in support as they zoomed through the intersection. “We don’t need another liquor store. When you open a business, you need to be sensitive to the needs of the community. That’s what owning a business is about.”
Peter Jung, a certified public accountant, helped his mother Eun Sun Kim buy the business from its longtime owner in November 2010. They wanted to serve breakfast and lunch—the place closes at 6:00 p.m.—but figured they couldn’t survive in that location without selling alcohol and lottery tickets as well. ANC 7C Commissioner Sylvia Brown tried to talk them out of it, taking Kim to Cornercopia on 3rd Street SE to illustrate the kind of thing she’d like to see at Uncle Lee’s, and telling them about grants and loans for corner stores that agree to sell healthy food. Still, Jung and his mother weren’t convinced that it could work in Deanwood, where they don’t even want to take down the bulletproof glass—not a great atmosphere for a restaurant.
“What if my mom gets shot? It’s a dangerous neighborhood,” Jung says (while acknowledging that he has encountered no crime since opening the business). “It sounds so nice, but in reality, it doesn’t make any sense at all.”
To make matters worse, D.C. has capped the number of off-premises beer and wine licenses. Buying one can cost tens of thousands of dollars, so the Class A license for hard liquor was their only option for retail sales. The ANC pushed back, and Jung says that while they were fighting for their licenses and certificate of occupancy, business was so slow that they fell behind on their $2,000 monthly rent payments.
“I told her we are not trying to run a liquor store,” Jung says, referring to Brown. “We are only trying to increase our sales so we can afford rent and utilities.”
Uncle Lee’s isn’t the only business on the corner that has faced the neighbors’ ire. Andre Johnson has been selling clothes there for the last several years, and the liquor license protesters also called the cops on him, suspecting he wasn’t properly licensed or paying sales taxes (he had a vending license, but needed a basic business license, which he recently obtained). Johnson stopped by the protest on Saturday and got into a profanity-laced shouting match with Alexander and other sign-wavers, saying they weren’t letting him set up shop, and had made his business look illegitimate when the police stopped by.
“When I talked to Ms. Alexander back in January, she told me vending is ghetto,” Johnson says, furious. “Vending is ghetto? Half the community does vending. There’s no jobs out here. So what you rather, somebody be on welfare? Somebody sell drugs? Or try to set up a legit business?”
Ronnie Streff, of the Capitol View Civic Association, says they didn’t think Johnson had been doing anything illicit—they just would rather it not be there. “It’s not the quality of business that we would appreciate seeing in the neighborhood.”
The owners of Uncle Lee’s are being stubborn, and maybe they could make a go of it with groceries instead of booze on that high-visibility corner. But with things as they are, the crusade against their right to sell liquor might just end up driving them out of business entirely (which would be a shame for local food options; the crabcake sandwich isn’t bad). That could allow another entrepreneur with more startup capital to buy the place and set up something the locals would like. Or it could result in the corner sitting empty for years to come.
Rather than punish one local business that’s uninterested in change, it might make sense for neighborhood activists to focus on attracting a business—or starting their own—that will prove to others that the clientele exists for something better than what’s been there for decades. If Peter Jung isn’t willing to be the first mover, then show him why he’s wrong.