A third of Maxwell Park’s 20 most loyal customers have skipped town since the COVID-19 pandemic hit D.C. “They’ll write an email or come in for a last glass of wine or buy a gift card and then tell us the news,” says Brent Kroll, a partner and sommelier at the wine bar with locations in Shaw and Navy Yard. “They’re people we’ve come to know and love. They not only come, but they bring their friends, book events, come to our classes, and post on social media. You don’t lose that and get someone who kind of likes your bar. It’s not as easy to get new die-hard people.”
Count Maxwell Park’s departed regulars in the flock of 15,000 people who have moved away from D.C. since the start of the year, according to a study by MyMove that looked at how many people filed change-of-address forms with the United States Postal Service.
Floriana owner Jamie Branda says about 20 percent of regulars at his Dupont Circle restaurant seem to have moved away.
“A lot of our regulars are wealthy,” Branda says. “These people tend to have second properties outside of the city. So, they’re not leaving for good. A lot of people who haven’t changed residence are not circulating money in the D.C. economy.”
The mini exodus couldn’t come at a worse time for restaurant operators trying to scrape by eight months into the pandemic. “It’s D.C.,” Branda says. “If you don’t have a loyal following you’re gone.” Restaurants with longevity like Floriana, which will celebrate 42 years in business next month, are better positioned to endure because they have established followings. The same goes for bars and restaurants in residential neighborhoods as opposed to downtown restaurants near empty buildings.
Branda says the percentage of business that comes from regular customers has climbed from roughly 30 to 40 percent to 60 to 70 percent since March. “They’re not seeing things outside of their neighborhoods that are drawing their eye,” he says. “People that would have come in once a month are coming in every five to 10 days.”
Other D.C.-area restaurateurs agree with Branda and Kroll and believe their regular customers are more vital than ever. These superfans open their wallets or find other ways to boost the businesses they want to survive.
“Regulars are always critical,” says Sloppy Mama’s BBQ co-owner Joe Neuman. After serving barbecue at Union Market and Solly’s on U Street NW, Neuman opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Arlington in July 2019. “Unless it’s a tourist spot, a restaurant exists because of its regulars,” he says. He estimates that 40 percent of business comes from repeat customers and he’d like to see that percentage climb to 70 percent.
Like many restaurants, Sloppy Mama’s set up a GoFundMe page when the pandemic took hold to fundraise for expenses and staff pay. “We raised $20,000 from regulars almost exclusively,” Neuman says. “One guy donated $1,000. He comes in once a week and knows everyone who works there.”
Customers pause to inquire how the restaurant is faring on a daily basis, according to Neuman. “They want us to make it,” he says. “They know not everybody is going to. One guy says he’s only been eating at six restaurants, the ones he wants to survive.”
Like Sloppy Mama’s, the lion’s share of Brookland’s Finest‘s GoFundMe donations have come from regular customers. “They’ve gotten us through some of those really hard winters,” says Chef Shannon Troncoso. “The first year we opened , we wouldn’t have made it without our regulars.”
This winter promises to be the most challenging season yet with COVID-19 cases climbing and outdoor dining becoming less desirable due to falling temperatures. Troncoso says sales are down at least 50 percent since last year. She’s trying to figure out how to keep regulars coming back.
“I’m trying to do a menu that’s accessible to everybody,” she says, adding that she’s focused on “comfort food greatest hits” like catfish with mac and cheese and spaghetti and meatballs. “I don’t want to change too much even though prices have gone up so that people can come once a week.”
Restaurateur Ashok Bajaj of the Knightsbridge Restaurant Group also got an onslaught of concerned calls, texts, and emails from diners who love his restaurants including Rasika, Sababa, Bombay Club, and Oval Room. “It’s so touching,” he says. “Americans are a very generous society.”
Unlike Neuman and Troncoso, Bajaj decided against setting up a fundraiser for his employees. “When staff needs help, I’m there for them,” he explains. That didn’t stop donations from coming in. “There’s one church group who would regularly visit Olivia,” Bajaj says. “They collected funds and wrote a check and left it at Annabelle. The manager said the St. Alban’s parish church left a check. It was for $2,000.”
Since every dollar counts, regulars are finding creative ways to spend more. Stellina Pizzeria co-owner Antonio Matarazzo describes a couple that has a standing pizza date on Friday nights. They doctor a margherita pizza instead of ordering one of the restaurant’s speciality pies.
“They add seven or eight toppings so it costs $40 a pizza,” Matarazzo explains. “It’s kind of crazy. I’m like, ‘Are you able to eat that pizza with everything on it?’ Two pizzas for $75 is crazy stuff. We really appreciate them.”
Another dedicated couple has visited Shaw’s Tavern every week since the neighborhood gathering place opened a take-out window on March 18. According to managing partner Rob Heim, Glover Park residents Bruce and Adam, who asked to be identified by their first names, typically place orders on Wednesdays. They buy dinner, plus two bottles of wine.
Heim attributes their fandom to the environment he’s helped nurture over the years. “We wanted to create something other than food and drink to bring people in, like trivia nights, piano nights, and drag shows.” (Those events have moved online during the pandemic.)
“The atmosphere has always been relaxed,” Bruce says. “You know you’re in a good place when you’re there. They’ve always been supportive of the LGBTQ community.” “It’s not just an eating place, it’s a meeting place,” Adam adds.
When the pandemic hit they panicked. “We were really concerned about the restaurant continuing to operate,” Adam says. “There was this notion of, ‘How could they survive?’ We made a resolution of sorts to patronize them. We’ve been doing take-out once a week and promoting them on social media.”
They encourage D.C. residents to do the same. “We’ve redone our spending to support local businesses,” Adam says. “Be thoughtful about what you’re buying and where you’re buying it from. Try to maximize keeping money in the local community.” Bruce adds, “Your choices have an effect on the lives of everyone around you.”
Bruce and Adam have such an affinity for Shaw’s Tavern that they held their rehearsal dinner there. That can create a tight bond, as Thamee partners Simone Jacobson, Jocelyn Law-Yone, and Eric Wang learned when they hosted a wedding shortly after their restaurant opened.
Mount Pleasant residents Andrea Matthews and Zack Hill planned to marry at Sally’s Middle Name, but the restaurant closed in March 2019 before they could tie the knot. When they learned Thamee would be debuting at the same address on H Street NE, Hill and Matthews connected with the team to determine if they could still use the space.
“Anyone can understand how important and stressful it can be for someone to say, ‘Your favorite plant-focused, Mid-Atlantic restaurant is now a Burmese restaurant,’” Jacobson says. She invited the couple in for a tasting. “Andrea cried. She was like, ‘This is more than we could have imagined.’”
“We met with Simone and JoJo and could see how warm and thoughtful they were,” Hill says. “You can be all those things and not make good food. But we tried their food and it was incredible.” Matthews adds, “They’re thoughtful and brilliant in the way they conceive of their role in the community and what it means to have a restaurant space. They take their work far beyond the confines of what it means to serve food to a neighborhood.”
The wedding was a hit, and the couple says they visited Thamee at least monthly. “It became an emotional haven for us,” Matthews says. “Not only because it was a good time and a place for us to carve out space for each other, but it meant we got to spend time with people who we love being around.”
The newlyweds were among the first to reach out to Thamee in the early days of the pandemic and supported the restaurant by buying merchandise, items from its BIPOC pantry, and takeout.
Jacobson believes the government, not diners, should be responsible for saving restaurants. But with little aid on the horizon, she encourages diners to pick two or three restaurants and go there as often as they can afford to because restaurants have reached their tipping points.
That’s what Matthews and Hill are doing. “We spend our money at places where we feel like if they were gone, it would be a hole in our lives,” Matthews says. “No one should be going through what they’re going through, but you can drive yourself insane figuring out how to plug every hole in the boat. It’s been about directing resources and energy to the places we feel we would be despondent without.”
The same goes for Caitlin Clark, who stepped up to help her walking-distance watering hole, Moreland’s Tavern. “I would love to frequent and patronize everywhere, but I have to think about where I still want to have when all of this is over,” she says. “I love the restaurant. It’s family friendly, but you can come for an actual real meal—not just chicken fingers—and have a great cocktail.”
Clark owns her own consulting business, A Confident Kitchen. She assists locals looking to meal plan or pull off entertaining at home. When she learned Moreland’s Tavern was rolling out CSA boxes early in the pandemic, she reached out to owners Tony Kowaleski and Matt Croke. She offered to develop recipes using the ingredients in each box to help home cooks make the best possible meal on a pro bono basis. “In a way it was a lot like a Food Network mystery box challenge,” Clark jokes.
Moreland’s Tavern nixed the CSA boxes once they reopened for on-premise dining. “They’ve been doing a meat and fish market on Fridays,” Clark says. “Now I send a highlight recipe. If you weren’t sure you wanted swordfish, here’s what to do with it.”
Tipping his hat to regulars like Clark, Croke says, “they want us to be here when this is over. We can’t do that without them.”
Then there are regulars like Elyse Braner who rise to the level of outright evangelism. She works part-time as a community lead for Pacers Running and has long led a local running club. The 14th Street NW corridor has been her home base for about a decade.
“When ChurchKey opened about 11 years ago, one of our run club members said a new restaurant opened and it would be fun to get drinks there after runs,” Braner explains. “We kept going back every single week. They spent time teaching me about beer and helped me develop a passion for it.”
Braner patronizes the full gamut of Neighborhood Restaurant Group bars and restaurants. “It’s the people I love there,” she says, adding that she’s noticed how they promote and train staff from within the company. “I’m extremely loyal to them and they’ve been good to me throughout the years.”
Both ChurchKey and Bluejacket in Navy Yard have sponsored 100-mile relay races that Braner organizes teams for twice a year. When the pandemic threatened the future of her favorite NRG restaurants, she found a way to return the favor.
On, a Swiss sneaker brand, reached out to Pacers to find out if they could distribute donated shoes to essential workers. “Because of our amazing relationship with ChurchKey, we knew their staff was working hard and we wanted to show that they were appreciated,” Braner says.
In total, Braner says she and Pacers were able to direct 125 new pairs of running shoes to NRG employees. “Elyse is a super fan of a level I can’t even describe,” says NRG director of operations Erik Bergman. “Few equal her dedication for our group.”
Braner says she recently re-started her Monday night run club. There’s a three-mile group whose mantra is one shared by the D.C. hospitality community and its loyal following of local diners: “No man left behind.”