“It was supposed to be 14 days to flatten the curve,” Stable co-owner Silvan Kraemer says, reflecting on March 2020. “We were hopeful that after two weeks, we could go back to normal.” Two weeks became two months, then two months became 12. It’s been nearly a year since Mayor Muriel Bowser closed restaurants to on-premise dining on March 16 to limit the spread of COVID-19.
As predicted, not all restaurants and bars made the numbers work. Some landlords still demanded rent, insurers largely didn’t honor business interruption insurance, takeout couldn’t cover labor costs, and the federal government didn’t pass restaurant-specific aid until this month. The Post Pub made it to June. Bistro Bohem hung on until July, and Capitol Lounge until September. Johnny’s Half Shell called it quits in October.
Even as temperatures warm in D.C. and vaccine availability increases, diners who think their favorite restaurants are safe could be mistaken, according to hospitality attorney Scott Rome. Because a commercial eviction moratorium has been in place in the District, some restaurants have avoided paying full rent by working out payment plans with their landlords.
“If they made it this far, it doesn’t mean that they’ve weathered the worst of the storm because that could still come when the bills come due,” Rome says. “When the eviction ban is lifted, there will still be months, if not years, of legal wrangling before people go under, but how much that’s going to be we don’t know yet.”
Some resilient restaurants have persevered. City Paper had to know how they did it.
The Tea House That Needs a New Home
When Sunyatta Amen opened Calabash Tea & Tonic in 2015, she envisioned it as a modern-day apothecary. “People come in telling us something about their existence,” she says. If a visitor relays they have headaches on Mondays, Amen or her long-tenured staff try to find the root cause before recommending products. She misses the rhythm of regular guests seeking less stress or better sleep.
Consultations have moved to social media as neither location of Amen’s business have allowed customers to cross the threshold since last March. Her Shaw shop has been closed since March 15, 2020, and Brookland is pickup only. That means no more prepared foods, either. Calabash typically sells Jamaican patties, coconut curry chickpea soup, and granola bowls to go with its teas.
The pandemic decimated Calabash’s revenue, but the business survived thanks to a Paycheck Protection Program loan, a shift to e-commerce, and teaming up with other local businesses—including Little Red Fox—to sell goods. Calabash also offers delivery to D.C. residents through NEAR Delivery, a Black-owned local alternative to third-party delivery giants.
Closing Shaw was an easy call for Amen because the shop is tight and the windows don’t open. “I was concerned about my staff and their families,” she says. “Many live in multigenerational households. We don’t want to kill grandma trying to catch a dollar.”
Her landlord didn’t see it that way. In January, Amen learned Calabash would be in default of its lease if it didn’t open immediately because her landlord wants “bustling, front-facing spaces.” Negotiations spurred an aha moment. “I realized how much power we small businesses give away to developers by not owning our properties,” Amen says. She’s in the process of moving the Shaw location to a building where she will have an ownership stake.
While Amen’s spirits are down because she can’t interface with patrons in person, she says the first time she had hope was “when I got the vaccination myself and survived it.” As a believer in natural remedies, Amen had doubts about getting the vaccine. Ultimately she did so to protect the aunt she lives with, who is older and a cancer survivor: “You know what I do for a living, but it would be foolish not to take advantage of protecting the people around you.”
Breakfast on the Brink
Less than a month after Bowser closed restaurants, Tyoka Jackson feared the worst. The former NFL player, who owns two IHOP franchises in D.C., told City Paper he didn’t think he could hang on for four more weeks. Sales were down 65 percent. “I don’t like to predict our own demise, but I’m scared to be doing this beyond one month from now,” Jackson said in April 2020.
“I was telling you we have about four weeks left,” Jackson now recalls. “It ended up being shorter than that. It was pretty dark.” Running payroll put this business in the red. “I had to reach into my own pocket and put in. That was a low point for us as a business,” he says.
Nearly a year later, the pancake houses in Congress Heights and Columbia Heights are still in business, serving as affordable gathering spots for community members. Jackson says he’s even in a position to hire and has partnered with the United Planning Organization to reach Washingtonians in need of employment.
He attributes his viability to the aid he secured. Shortly after Jackson’s morale sunk, his franchises obtained PPP loans. Some restaurateurs felt the first round of PPP, which incentivized businesses to keep employees on payroll, wasn’t a good fit for the hospitality sector because only 25 percent of the money could be used on expenses like rent for the loan to be treated like a grant. The second round of PPP allowed for greater spending flexibility and increased the coverage period.
It panned out for Jackson. “That took a lot of pressure off of us to be able to take care of folks who had hung in there,” he says. Local support helped too: “The D.C. government stepped up with microgrants and dedicated restaurant grants. Those were invaluable infusions of much needed liquidity. I tip my cap to the mayor and her administration for stepping up. I don’t say this a lot, but I’m proud of our politicians for listening to the people screaming the most.”
Due to their locations, outdoor dining was never an option for Jackson’s restaurants. They’ve allowed diners inside whenever the city permitted it, but 90 percent of sales have come from takeout. Losing weekend business hurt the most; many customers visited for a late-night stack of pancakes after a night out.
But Jackson isn’t wallowing. “I refuse to complain when so many people are doing worse than me and have businesses doing worse than ours,” he says. “There are businesses closing that won’t ever reopen. Everyone is suffering the mental anguish of not being able to bring people back who are looking for jobs.”
While he doesn’t name names, Jackson thinks some hardship could have been avoided by better messaging from federal officials. “Leaders have to decide what’s best not for themselves, but for the people they’re leading,” he says. “I don’t believe that was always the driving force for the decisions being made as it relates to this pandemic.”
The Neighborhood Bar That Neighbors Discovered
The timing of D.C.’s initial restaurant shutdown was terrible for an Adams Morgan bar that matches sports with Filipino sisig. “The biggest bunker for us was right before March Madness,” says The Game DC owner Jo-Jo Valenzuela. “For a sports bar, we were really looking forward to that. All those months that it was dead, we really counted on that to give us some money to pad the bank.”
Prior to the pandemic, Valenzuela says passersby overlooked his businesses that opened in February 2019. On top of the sports pub sits a tropical oasis called Tiki on 18th. “COVID-19 was indeed a blessing for us because beforehand, we were merely an industry place,” Valenzuela says. Bartenders and chefs occupied most of the stools. “We were also a destination place. People from New York and New Jersey came for our [Filipino] food.”
Once outdoor dining was allowed in late spring, Valenzuela set out tables and the foot traffic he was hankering for finally materialized. “When it was beautiful outside, we were always busy,” he says. “That kind of gave us hope. We’re pulling this off. … We have better numbers now than before COVID.”
But that doesn’t mean the bars didn’t have to overcome obstacles. To cut back on labor costs, Valenzuela says he was both the cook and the dishwasher for a number of months. While he’s worked in kitchens before and briefly ran a takeout place in the Philippines, Valenzuela is a bartender by trade. “Bartending is still harder,” he jokes. “You have to deal with personalities.”
Valenzuela and several of his family members also contracted the virus. “Mine started with a throat thing and body aches,” he says. His sense of taste was impacted. Staff members at the bars got it, too. “We had to shut down again and wait for all of us to be cleared.”
Operating in the rigorous conditions of a pandemic has given Valenzuela a fresh perspective. “What this did for the whole industry is made everybody work more efficiently,” he says. “What I have done differently and will do differently moving forward is not be too ambitious. I’ve always been an overachiever. I like to do things more complicated than what they should be. Now it’s more about efficiency. You’re giving up a lot of passion to survive nowadays.”
The Center of Swiss Innovation
Stable owners David Fritsche and Silvan Kraemer say they’re better off running a restaurant in a pandemic here than in Switzerland. Takeout hasn’t been a lifeline there because it isn’t entrenched in their food culture, according to Kraemer. Stable had never experimented with to-go food, fearing that staple dishes wouldn’t travel well. The cozy restaurant is at its best in the winter when diners huddle around bubbling fondue pots.
But after adjusting its menu in March 2020, the H Street NE restaurant gave takeout a try. The staff had to because it’s all the city allowed. Stable’s entry into to-go food was the start of the restaurant’s yearlong experimentation with employing new strategies to stay afloat.
Summer is Stable’s slowest season, and Kraemer wasn’t sure if it was worthwhile to try to secure a streatery for outdoor dining. Then a neighboring business—Gallery O on H—approached the restaurant to see if Stable wanted to commandeer the patio. Fritsche and Kraemer got to work building a seafood shack serving crabs and oysters. Pier 1354 opened in August.
“It gave us the opportunity to do something totally different without sacrificing the brand,” Kraemer says. “It was good from a PR standpoint and it allowed us to bring everyone back who wanted to come back [on staff].” (In the early months of the pandemic, the owners ran the business by themselves like many restaurants in the region.) “It wasn’t a money-maker, but it was good for everyone’s sanity.”
When fall weather blew in, the owners regrouped again. “Silvan and myself were like ‘Fuck, I don’t know what to do,’” Fritsche says. “We sat at the bar, pounded beers, and brainstormed. Why don’t we build chalets? That’s what Switzerland is all about!”
The indoor chalets were ready for business in November and booked up immediately. “It was so good to see people in the restaurant again,” Fritsche says. “Hearing the pots and pans, broken glass, cutlery. It was kind of normal again.”
But then the District instituted a new indoor dining ban in anticipation of a holiday spike in COVID-19 cases. It lasted from Dec. 23 through Jan. 22. Kraemer called the move “a big slap in the face” because they had to cancel diners’ Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve reservations. Employees were looking forward to making money. Stable also built a streatery, but the holidays were rainy.
Stable received a PPP loan and a microgrant from the city, but Fritsche says they’re positioned to cross the finish line because of their willingness to adapt. “I always tell people if you survived this pandemic and you didn’t learn something, you did something wrong,” Fritsche says. “You really rip your numbers apart and go down to the bare bones to figure out where you can save.”