(Photo by Darrow Montgomery)

On a breezy Saturday afternoon, the only sounds in the Big Bear Café at 1700 1st Street NW in Bloomingdale are the tapping of laptops and some hushed conversation, with the occasional shout of a finished sandwich or coffee order from the counter. Ceiling fans whirr overhead. Large open windows make it feel like an open patio, with people spilling out of the café onto the sidewalk.

Shortly after 3 p.m., a group of teens poke their heads in, scoping the serene scene. Suddenly, three of them dart to the counter. One grabs the tip jar. All three race out the open door and down the street. Two patrons jump up and give chase, but no matter; the boys are faster and quickly disappear around a corner.

The pursuers walk back, frustrated. Lenora Yerkes, working the register, hugs them, and is consoled by other patrons. It’s not so much the money in the jar as the feeling of shattered peace and trust. Because that’s the kind of place the Big Bear is: Staffers lent out shovels to neighbors during February’s snowstorms. Since opening in 2007, the café has hosted poetry readings, friendly barista competitions, and champagne breakfasts for people who want to watch the sun rise.

But the tip-jar snatching was a reminder that the Big Bear is still very much alone in the immediate neighborhood, where even after a decade of steady gentrification, the retail landscape remains largely defined by liquor stores and carry-outs. And, in recent weeks, something else has upended Big Bear’s tranquility. Owner Stu Davenport decided to apply for a liquor license.
For all the fanfare that followed the first bonafide sit-down restaurant to open in Ward 8—an IHOP—the fact that Ward 5 is similarly underserved has gone largely unnoticed. Davenport’s plan for an expanded Big Bear menu, including beer, wine and specialty cocktails, would finally pop that cork.

Naturally, the neighbors are worried about getting drenched. “You open up Pandora’s box,” complains Ed Jones, who lives across the street from the cafe. “You open up one bar here,” he says, strolling past several empty storefronts along 1st Street later that afternoon, “and you have a whole lot of bars along this strip here. I’m sure that Adams Morgan wasn’t like that originally. It doesn’t take much to interrupt the pseudo-peace of the neighborhood.”

Davenport, a general contractor who purchased the two-story painted brick building for $400,000 in 2006, has been running the gauntlet of local community groups in recent weeks, campaigning for their support of his expansion plans.

“The idea is to create an environment that’s responsible, that I would want to live next to, and have it be financially viable to stay open,” he calmly told members of the Eckington Civic Association on Tuesday. “And one of the main ways to do that is to expand our menu, and one of the things that we want to add to that menu is alcohol.”

Several elderly ladies in the audience exchanged knowing looks.

Davenport is getting used to the glares.

In early May, he formally brought his plans for alcohol service before the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission 5C. Since Davenport himself is a commissioner, Big Bear employee Yerkes made the case on his behalf, seeking a stipulated license that would allow the cafe to serve alcohol while its official application to the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) is being processed.

The room in St. George’s Church that night was packed with Big Bear supporters. It was a central casting image of the new, comparatively white, Bloomingdale; many thumbing their mobiles throughout the proceedings. They spoke impassionedly of how going to the café had brought the community together, and all they wanted was to be able to go get a glass of wine in the evening, too. Someone in the back held up hastily scribbled signs reading “BIG BEAR YES WE CAN.”

Under pressure from commissioners, Yerkes proferred 600 letters of support from nearby residents, and she claimed to have notified all of the immediate neighbors of Big Bear’s ambitions. But she apparently missed a few. Two detractors stood up to protest, arguing that an alcohol-serving Big Bear would make nearby parking impossible, bring trash and noise, and attract thieves seeking to take advantage of tipsy rubes. The commission tabled the vote, and Davenport began negotiating a voluntary agreement with neighbors that would potentially limit his hours of operation.

“There’s a misconception that if I get 600 people to sign, that constitutes a preponderance of support,” observes Bloomingdale Civic Association president Robert Brannum. “ABRA responds to protests, not shouts of hosanna.”

The quality of life concerns seemed to underscore a deeper fear: a sense that Big Bear’s alcohol program would drag the neighborhood backwards. Before the spot was a café, it was Big Bear Market, which dispensed alcohol just like Sunshine Liquors, still operating across the street.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s black people on a corner drinking beer, or whether it is young white folks on the corner drinking wine out of a pretty glass—it doesn’t matter who’s drinking it, or what it looks like, I don’t want it on my block” says Tracey Campfield, who moved to the area in 1998 (and, like nearly all Big Bear detractors, is African-American). “I have fought the good fight, with drug dealers, and dirty alleys, and rats in the alley, and people drinking on the corners…I don’t want to fight that fight again.”

ANC Commissioner John Salatti, among Big Bear’s biggest supporters, dismisses that fear as irrational. “Stuart turned that market, which was a hellhole, into something nice,” Salatti says. “Now, all of a sudden, him having that option turns us back into the drug-dealing, crack-smoking, 40-ounce land of 1990 or 2000?”

To some long-term residents, Davenport is only piggy-backing on their hard work to improve the neighborhood. “Efforts from people like me, when we came in, of getting rid of the drug dealing that was going on, and getting rid of the theft, made it possible for other people like the Big Bear owner to come along in 2004 and say, ‘Hey, this is a viable neighborhood for my home, as well as my business,’” says Eric Woods, who moved to the 100 block of S Street in 1995. “Coming here in 2004, I don’t see that being a pioneer.”

That’s what it felt like, though, to Big Bear co-founder Lana Labermeier. When she and Davenport moved to the neighborhood six years ago, she felt unsafe walking the streets, and got a dog to protect herself. The couple started the café to provide a place for people to gather, and even then dealt with accusations that they were gentrifying the neighborhood.

“A lot of these same old-time residents felt that this was a place in the neighborhood that seemed to be attracting these young white kids,” she says. “The Big Bear was blamed for being the cause of it. It was the easiest thing to point to.”

Labermeier says the couple had always planned on one day offering beer and wine. But liquor license battles in nearby neighborhoods provided a preview of what they’d have to go through, and she was scrambling just to keep the café afloat. When the former husband-and-wife team eventually split up last year, Davenport moved forward with the alcohol effort on his own.

“Providing liquor is almost like opening up a second business,” Labermeier says. “I was just too exhausted to think about a whole new endeavor.”

Pat Mitchell, president of the nonprofit group North Capitol Main Streets, worries how the Big Bear debacle may impact future development along 1st Street, which the Urban Land Institute recently recommended as a better corridor to cluster new retail and dining establishments than congested North Capitol Street.

“I think it sends a pretty bad message to the business community, really, whether it’s a restaurant or a coffeeshop or a flowershop,” Mitchell says.

A lot of the hullaboo has to do with the fact that the local ANC has never before dealt with restaurants serving liquor, just retail liquor stores (and, as Salatti points out, the ANC hasn’t been particularly zealous in regulating those). Given Ward 5’s lack of eateries, and the large amount of expected development in the area, ANC Commissioner Barrie Daneker is currently collaborating with neighboring ANCs to draft common guidelines for evaluating future applications. As a model, he says he’d like to use the state of Rhode Island, where his father uncle was the state liquor commissioner.

Of course, there are working models a lot closer to home: Prolific restaurateur Joe Englert found the structure quite accomodating when pursuing his vast plans for nightlife on H Street NE.

“ANC 6A is a refreshing place to do business because they research a subject and applicants before they jump to conclusions,” says Englert. “Business owners are treated like adults not would-be criminals….Protestants have to substantiate claims and objections and are questioned just as vigorously as applicants.”

Even the arbiters of the process want to see ANC 5C get a proper sit-down restaurant. ABRA community resource officer Cynthia Simms was called to last week’s ANC meeting to better explain the process—but ended up giving her opinion as well: “I promised my director I was not going to say it, but I can’t help myself. I live in Ward 7, and I would die for a restaurant over there where we are! I just would.”