From the Ground Up: The beauty of a laundromat

The third installment of a series about the launch of a local coffee shop and roastery. Read all of the From the Ground Up stories

 

Before they knew any better, Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez thought finding a commercial space for their prospective coffee shop and roastery would be like finding an apartment.

"It's embarrassing to admit," Suarez said. "We'd be walking around and see a 'for lease' sign and call them up, and the secretary would be like, 'Who is your broker?'" It was one of those cold calls that led them to Blake Dickson Realty's Alan Zich and Ken Johnson. Over a cup of coffee, of course, Compass Coffee's co-founders laid out their vision.


The future home of Compass Coffee (Courtesy of Compass Coffee)

"A lot of the people you talk to, they have the desire but they don't have the stomach," Johnson said. "I mean, trying to get into the food industry in Washington D.C. is not for the weak-kneed. You have to be really aggressive. And you can tell ... it was clear that they were going to make it happen."

They looked in Adams Morgan and on 14th Street, but for various reasons -- like price, or other business owners beating them to the punch -- none of those spaces worked out. After a number of close calls, they identified a former laundromat, on Seventh Street NW, in the heart of Shaw. It was perfect. "The beauty of a laundromat is that it has the infrastructure, it has the water capacity, the electrical capacity," Zich said, "which, when you're doing food use, is extraordinarily important."

Haft and Suarez fell in love with its aged brick facade. And just as abruptly, they lost it to a veterinarian.

But fortunes rise and fall quickly in real estate, and a few days later, the former Marines got a call from Zich and Johnson: The laundromat was back in the game after the veterinary deal fell through. They had 24 hours to pull together a letter of intent for the building's broker, Jackson Prentice, and owner, the Wilkes Company. This time, they were successful. In less than two weeks, they and their lawyers had hammered out a lease with Berkeley Shervin, the president of Wilkes. Shervin said it was an unusually quick deal.

"When the pieces of the puzzle fit together, you know it," Shervin said. "And when you know it, you go full speed ahead."


The laundromat's fixtures were moved to its new location (Courtesy of Compass Coffee)

'It always takes twice as long'

Haft and Suarez had already identified an architect, Brie Husted (more on that piece of the puzzle in a future installment), but they still needed a contractor. They received three formal bids before selecting Larry Castle. "He was always straight with us, no bull----, which is exactly what you want from a contractor," Haft said. And the price was right. Next, Haft and Suarez needed demolition and construction permits.

They got acquainted with the local ANC 6E, led by Alexander Padro, who also serves as the executive director of Shaw Main Streets.  When he moved to Shaw in 1997, Padro said, "The only place you could get a cup of coffee around here was the 7-Eleven at Seventh and Rhode Island, and the greasy spoons associated with the churches."

Padro serves as an unofficial adviser for many businesses in Shaw. He's helped Compass Coffee apply for small-business grants, and shared his experience working with contractors and the D.C. bureaucracy. "I told [Haft and Suarez], regardless of how much you think it's going to cost and how long you think it will take to do your build-out, it always takes twice as long and costs twice as much."

 

Padro also helped them through an unexpected hurdle. When they filed their permits with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, they applied for a restaurant license; DCRA classified them as a "prepared foods shop" instead, saying in an e-mail that this was the typical classification for coffee shops.

But Haft and Suarez didn't realize that Compass Coffee's proposed seating capacity, 71, was more than the 18 seats allowed under that type of license. They had to apply for zoning relief to add the extra seating; Padro saw to it that his ANC swiftly approved the change on March 4.

Subdivide and conquer

The building has its challenges. Shervin said the structure dates back to the early 1900s, though it's only been in his company's portfolio since the mid-'80s. It's actually two separate buildings that were joined together, and another headache came when Compass had to file paperwork to officially join the two lots into one. Though it had been operating as one building for several decades, the two taxation assessment lots had not been officially united.

"They have to be combined under what is called a subdivision," Shervin said. "You can subdivide and separate, and subdivide and combine, too."

"Which I still don’t understand," Suarez said. The Compass duo's interactions with the D.C. bureaucracy, thus far, have been cordial but bewildering. The forms for the subdivision, which were prepared by a surveyor, even had to be filled out with a specific type of pen.

"It’s just always a little startling to the applicant," Shervin said. "It’s just the way the system works . . . DCRA, to their credit, they are trying to [have] a logical system."


Demolition workers dug trenches for the plumbing (Courtesy of Compass Coffee)

Demolition began in February. First, the laundromat's previous owner ripped out the washers and dryers, which were moved to a new location. Anything that was left behind was recycled. Contractors tore out the drywall to reveal the building's original brick, which will remain exposed in the new cafe.

That's where the project encountered what could have been a major hiccup: Demolition revealed that part of the building's ceiling had been attached to the drywall, not the brick, and was no longer supported in a way that was structurally sound. The contracting team quickly rebuilt it with simple wooden beams, which will be replaced with a minimalist steel beam later in the process.


The framing for what will become a hallway at Compass Coffee (Courtesy of Compass Coffee)

The laundromat sign came down -- Haft and Suarez have plans for it later--  and so did the paper on the windows. For now, at least, passersby can peer in and see progress. The floor has been torn up to dig trenches for plumbing. Framing for the walls is up. And, as of April 2, when they received their permits, demolition has transitioned into construction. The future home of Compass Coffee looks like a mess, but to Padro, the construction work on Seventh Street is a sight for sore eyes.

"I can't tell you how satisfying it is to look at places that were boarded up forever, and have hundreds of people coming to them every night," Padro said. "Whether you're living in affordable housing or you're in a million-dollar rowhouse, something is there on the menu for you."

Previously in this series:

Introducing Compass Coffee

Inside Compass Coffee's subterranean lab

Correction: A previous version of this post misspelled the name of Brie Husted.

Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts for the Weekend section and Going Out Guide.
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