An empty Penn Social
Penn Social Credit: Courtesy of Penn Social

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Penn Social almost didn’t make it through the pandemic. Google still thinks it’s closed permanently. Co-owner Geoff Dawson even penned a letter to investors in June to deliver the bad news, but something told him not to hit send. Then he got an email announcing that the Small Business Administration approved his enormous, two-floor bar and entertainment venue for a $2.8 million Restaurant Relief Fund grant. 

Now not only is Penn Social reopening on Aug. 26, just in time for football season, but the restaurant group behind the project, Tin Shop, has rethought the street-level space. Come October, it will reopen as Little Penn, a daytime coffeehouse and nighttime bar complete with a podcast studio that you can see from the street. Starting at 7 a.m. you’ll be able to order Astro Doughnuts, Compass Coffee, and bagels. Little Penn will also serve lunch and dinner. The bar will be open all day.

Dawson thinks the 80-seat Little Penn patio will draw people in. “We’re making it the place that if you’re a resident, if workers ever return downtown, or if you’re visiting D.C. and are coming from Portrait Gallery, the patio will be a beacon,” he says.

The inside area is under construction, so those visiting the bottom floor will have to pardon the dust or get a sneak preview, depending on how you look at it. A small stage will host local bands and other acts. “Before, upstairs was just the place you could get away from downstairs,” Dawson says. 

When the 10,000-square-foot downstairs space reopens next week, it will be during a spike in COVID-19 cases brought about by the delta variant. Indoor environments are riskier than outdoor ones. Asked about whether they think it’s responsible to move forward, Dawson outlined some safety precautions. Customers will have to show proof of vaccination and Tin Shop is considering limiting Penn Social’s capacity. 

Dawson hopes to beef up programming downstairs. He imagines a monthly talent showcase. “If you’re good at your craft, come in for four minutes and take a shot at it,” he says. “We’re going to have the ability to record all this stuff and live-stream it.”

Dawson talks about another component of the reopening. He wants to figure out how to make Penn Social “the best place to work in the city” and then replicate what they learn at Tin Shop’s other establishments: Franklin Hall, Church Hall, TallBoy, Highline RxR, and forthcoming pizza places Slice & Pie and Lucy. Peter Bayne co-owns them. Dawson repeats a mantra that’s becoming more common in the hospitality industry lately, at least as an aspiration: “Start with a happy staff and you’ll have happy customers.”

“What’s the role of the dishwasher?” Dawson asks rhetorically. “How important are they? Incredibly important. If we can make the dishwasher successful, it’ll trickle up.” One of their strategies is to cross-train employees. A dishwasher, for example, may also learn how to do maintenance and repairs, giving them more hours and extra experience. He’s also exploring profit-sharing with employees.

Dawson wants to put his money where his mouth is by transparently posting how much his lowest-paid employee makes per hour on Penn Social’s website or menu. He thinks customers would appreciate that intel and he hopes it might attract more employees in a market that’s still experiencing a staffing crisis. “We want our work culture to be second to none.” City Paper is interested in checking in with Tin Shop six months in to see how their staffing strategies are panning out.

Georgetown University offers a Pivot Program that helps returning citizens find success and employment. Dawson says he’s one of the local business leaders who’s involved in the initiative and he hopes to hire graduates. “It’s an extraordinary labor pool,” he says. “We have [a returning citizen] at Penn Social who is one of our most valuable people. … We want to be that place where someone can get a job and be surrounded by people who want to nurture them.” 

Penn Social will only be open from 4 p.m. to close Thursdays through Sundays to start. 

Penn Social, 801 E St. NW;