Former Congressman Bonior, longtime liberal on Capitol Hill, discovers the profit motive


“Small-business people work very hard,” said former congressman David Bonior, co-owner of Agua 301 near Navy Yard. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

David Bonior is a hungry entrepreneur bent on making money.

David Bonior ?

Thomas Heath is a local business reporter and columnist, writing about entrepreneurs and various companies big and small in the Washington Metropolitan area. Previously, he wrote about the business of sports for The Post’s sports section for most of a decade. He has also covered local news, including the Maryland General Assembly and investigative work in Fairfax county. He has served as a correspondent for Newsweek and The Post, participating in coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing, the Unabomber and the O.J. Simpson trial. Heath was born and raised in Syracuse, N.Y., where he attended Catholic schools. He is a graduate of Fordham University and was a 2001-2002 fellow at Columbia University’s Knight/Bagehot business fellowship program. View Archive

The former Michigan Democratic congressman, liberal pit bull, academic, antiwar firebrand and labor-union BFF has undergone an epiphany, making him simpatico with businesses and the profit motive.

He has invested at least $1 million, by my estimate, building two family-owned Washington restaurants, the second of which, Agua 301, is near Nationals Park and only a line drive from the Anacostia River. His first eatery, Zest Bistro, opened on Capitol Hill four years ago.

“It’s the American Dream,” he said of his new career.

Over tasty Caesar salad and tacos at Agua 301, the mild-mannered, thoughtful Bonior — chastened by local regulators and fickle weather — sounds more born-again capitalist than fire-breathing lefty.

“Small-business people work very hard,” said the 68-year-old, who has spent most of his life in government. “If you are a small-business guy, you are out there and not as protected as a government employee. They struggle every day. A snow day, a government worker is off. A restaurant person takes a hit from that snow day. This winter was very, very tough on the [restaurant] industry.”

Bonior retired from Congress in 2003 after 26 years serving his Michigan constituents, including fighting for better wages. He said he entered the business world in order to help his stepson and daughter-in-law. Both had longed to own their own place after toiling for years in the restaurant business.

Since leaving office, Bonior has earned significant money selling investment products to pension funds, likely making him a ­
1-percenter. That has allowed him breathing room as he tries out his newfound love as a restaurateur.

“I don’t have to make a lot of money on it,” he said. But, “I hope to make a lot of money on it.”

Most importantly, he said, he wants to use the income from his pension fund work to do something family oriented; something fun, meaningful and, alas, profitable. Aside from the money, he contributed a recipe for bread pudding.

“I like the creative part of it. I like the workers. I know their stories, where they come from, their schools, their families,” he said. “Congress is often crisis after crisis. Trying to put out fires by the minute, especially if you’re in the leadership.”

Instead of fires, he spends most of his time worrying about the weather, the availability of limes or the price of avocados as he chases after those elusive profits.

“There are always going to be problems, and we’ve had our share.”

Bonior said if he had the power, he would lighten up on pesky regulations.

“It took us a ridiculous amount of time to get our permits. I understand regulations and . . . the necessity for it. But we lost six months of business because of that. It’s very frustrating.”

Bonior hasn’t forsaken his liberal heritage. He is a self-described labor guy who hails from a Ukrainian-Polish section in Detroit. His father ran a tiny printing business and had bouts with unemployment, which left a lifelong identification with the working man.

He attended the University of Iowa on a football scholarship and served in the Air Force from 1968 to 1972. The service sent him to cooking school in Virginia, where he learned a few basics. He disclaims any passion for cooking — except the bread pudding — although he loves the “up” vibe of restaurants.

After leaving Congress, he bought a place near Capitol Hill because he wanted to be near a growing, urban neighborhood. He owns a second home near the Chesapeake Bay.

When his family approached him more than four years ago about starting Zest, Bonior became a scrappy entrepreneur. He used his congressional access to knock on every one of 435 congressional offices, dropping off a flier for Zest. He worked the Metro stations, handing out coupons. He went door-to-door, as if he were campaigning.

“We kept thinking of ways to reach out.”

He knew it was risky. Most restaurants fail within two years. But his stepson and daughter-in-law were experienced in restaurant management. In the process, he gained an appreciation for the profit motive.

“The biggest surprise is how you have to hustle,” he said. “It was an eye-opener. I always heard this when I was in Congress. ‘You should try and own a business someday, Bonior.’ So I own two small businesses with my stepson and daughter-in-law. It’s tough to make it, in terms of profit margins. But somehow you get by and you figure it out.”

After Zest turned the corner, Bonior decided to open a second restaurant in the newly developing Navy Yard area, which has attractive demographics and strong growth potential.

He did his homework, talking extensively to the developer, Forest City. He researched the future development, talking to the Business Improvement District. He included in his equation the lunch crowds from the Department of Transportation headquarters and the residential area sprouting nearby. The restaurant adjoins a busy park and plaza where people congregate. Once the area is developed, it will be at a crossroads of 2.5 million feet of residential, retail and office activity.

“We saw the potential,” Bonior said. So he signed a 10-year lease.

Zest is profitable. Agua 301, which is modern Mexican cuisine, doesn’t lose money, he said.

To make the numbers work, he pays his 50 or so employees — who are not union members — what he calls “the tip wage,” which is $2.36 an hour. He said that when he was in Congress, he worked hard to increase the “tip wage,” but it was a casualty from the successful effort to increase the minimum wage.

Bonior tries to motivate employees with baseball tickets and discount meals.

His employees get paid vacations of at least two weeks a year. Most employees who were on the restaurants’ health plans have signed up for coverage via the Affordable Care Act. Bonior’s restaurants do not have retirement plans, although he says he plans to institute them in the future.

Bonior visits Agua 301 a couple of nights a week. He was bopping around the bar area on a recent evening, wearing his red Nationals hat (he is a season-ticket holder), working the crowd.

Ahhhh. The American Dream.

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