Teaism's Korean beef bento box Credit: Noldon Photography

Downtown D.C. still feels deserted. This reporter visited the City Paper newsroom near McPherson Square last week for the first time since March 2020 and only saw roughly a dozen people milling about. Warming up with a hot chocolate at Café Chocolat wasn’t an option because the shop permanently closed. Nor was it possible to buy a happy hour drink to-go at Union Trust, which was dark and locked. But a few blocks west, the Teaism diagonally across from Lafayette Park is poised to reopen in early March. 

Teaism, which has been around since 1996, adopted a style of service most similar to what’s now known as fast-casual, one of the highest performing sectors in the restaurant industry today. In addition to selling tea, Teaism offers an Asian-leaning food menu with bento boxes, udon noodle soup, Thai chicken curry, sandwiches, palak paneer, and salty oat cookies. 

Even restaurants located in largely residential neighborhoods, which have a captive audience of diners, have struggled to keep staff employed, pay rent, and remain open during the pandemic. Now imagine being a business owner whose sales depend on a rush of commuters filling downtown office buildings. Teaism co-owner Michelle Brown says her Dupont Circle shop is doing 50 percent of pre-pandemic sales while her Penn Quarter shop is barely hitting 30 percent. 

She expects Lafayette Park’s numbers to land closer to Penn Quarter’s percentages, but she’s preparing to reopen because she’s experiencing pressure on all sides. While Brown says her landlord “has been supportive and wonderful to us,” they’d still prefer to see their tenant doing business.

“To some extent, it’s about trying to help the community feel like it’s not the end of the world,” she says. “That was what brought us to open the Penn Quarter location.” According to Brown, her landlord said, “We want the neighborhood to feel like there’s some continuity in their lives and you’re part of their breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” 

Brown might have opened the Lafayette Park location sooner, but a fire at the end of May damaged the restaurant. Near constant road closures around the White House made it tough to carry out renovations. “It took us weeks to haul things away into storage because the trucks couldn’t get in because the street was closed down,” she says. Contractors couldn’t get in and out either. “That’s why it took so long to get a [proverbial] fresh coat of paint in there.” The company temporarily storing Teaism’s furniture and equipment also said time was up.

Because the restaurant has been closed, Brown hasn’t been able to use the first round of Paycheck Protection Program funds she secured for the restaurant. The loans require a good portion of money to go toward paying staff. She’s eager to bring some of her team back.

“In March last year, we had 50 people that were out of work,” Brown says. “We’ve worked hard to bring them along, did a GoFundMe, and tried to stay in contact … We have key people that are really good at what they do and I don’t want to lose them.”

But will the staff have anyone to serve? According to a report published by the DowntownDC Business Improvement District over the summer, only 5 percent of office employees were working from their downtown office buildings in July. While the vaccine rollout has begun, it’s hard to predict when workers will find their key fobs and reclaim their dusty desks. 

Brown knows this well. She lives across the street from a federal building. “Since March, I’ve seen two people working in there and that’s only been in the past two months,” she says. “I can usually look into seven floors and see all the lights on and people working.” 

Being located at 800 Connecticut Ave. NW means Teaism has a history of serving West Wing staffers, journalists covering the White House, and workers at the World Bank and Mexican embassy. The Biden administration appears to be committed to regular press briefings, which is welcome news for Brown. 

“I’d be grateful if any portion of that business came back,” she says. “In the before times, we had a lot of the news people. I’ve talked to David Gergen in there many times.” Still, she says, “It’s not going to be gangbusters when we open the doors.” She hints that First Lady Jill Biden, is a fan of Teaism. Maybe the restaurant will get a so-called Biden bump.

Opening, Brown sums up, is a gamble and a risk. But it’s one she’s taking come March. “It’s a little bit scary, but I know that our White House needs us so I’m coming.”