It didn’t take long for the new Denny’s on Bladensburg Road NE to impact Capital City Diner, the historic 1940s-era diner that owner Matt Ashburn bought off eBay for $20,000 and dragged down from Avoca, N.Y. to his underserved Trinidad neighborhood.
The second week after Denny’s opened in November, Ashburn recalls, he “and two cooks and two servers, we were just sitting around looking at each other . . . . That was a kick in the gut, to say the least.”
Business at Capital City never recovered, Ashburn says. Overall, the owner says, revenues have been down about 20 percent since Denny’s opened, and the diner’s margins were already razor-thin.
“I really debated for awhile about this and tried to stretch it out as long as I could. It just doesn’t make sense,” Ashburn says. “The fact is, the numbers just don’t work.”
Ashburn finally made the announcement this morning on Capital City Diner’s Facebook page. The note, in part, reads:
Although we received positive response to our recent improvements, we also encountered rising costs, a declining economy, and a national chain ‘diner’ restaurant opening almost a stone’s throw away. Now, we must refocus and reformat our restaurant to move forward.
DCist was apparently the first to spot the bad news and posted a short item, immediately leading to speculation and finger-pointing about who or what was to blame for Capital City Diner’s demise. Some look to Denny’s. Some point a finger a Cap City’s own schedule, which was essentially limited to breakfast and lunch.
Aside from the competition from Denny’s, Ashburn says his own Trinidad neighborhood may have contributed to the decline. Cap City, because of its long history and its play for diners who appreciate something more than Jimmy Dean sausage and scrambled eggs, needed to attract customers from outside the neighborhood.
“I think crime is a part of [the decline], too,” Ashburn says. “I’ve had people say, ‘I don’t feel safe over there’ ” in Trinidad. Ashburn and his former partner in the business, Patrick Carl, were, in fact, held up at gun point once.
Regardless of all the factors, Capital City will close on Sunday. The diner’s final services will be 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. It’s a bitter pill for Ashburn to swallow, given all the hours and money he has invested in this project to bring a taste of diner history — and diner food — to his struggling neighborhood.
“It’s not just a business. There’s a lot of emotional investment in this,” Ashburn says. “It’s not a money thing to me . . . . This is a project that I really loved, and a diner that I love.”
Ashburn says he’s been talking with a “few people who are interested” in the diner. Nothing has been signed, however, and Ashburn isn’t sure what the potential new owners would do with the place.
“Hopefully, we’ll firm that up in the near future,” he says.
And what will Ashburn do with all his time? He, after all, was known for putting in 50-hour work weeks at the diner — and many more hours in the early months — aside from his full-time job.
It’s very sad,” he says. “I’ll have a lot of free time. I don’t know what to do with it now.”