When Big Chair Coffee and Grill abruptly closed last fall, reporters swooped into Anacostia to understand why the once-promising eatery had failed in a neighborhood starving for sit-down restaurants. Answers, they discovered, were hard to come by as those involved with the groundbreaking business declined to provide specifics.
This laconic funeral for Big Chair stood in sharp contrast to its birthday nearly four years earlier, when practically everyone wanted to praise the place for bringing a homegrown business to a community still looking to catch the revitalization wave. On its first day of operation on Jan. 11, 2010, locals, members of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission and even Ward 8 D.C. Council member Marion Barry wandered into the shop on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, looking to score coffee, a sandwich or just political points. Some joked that Anacostia residents would no longer have to cross the bridge for a cup of joe.
“The hope was that [Big Chair] was the beginning of the revival,” says Duane Gautier, president and chief executive of ARCH Development Corp. in Anacostia. “And I think the whole community viewed it as that.”
But on that day last fall, as manager Michael Sterling announced the shop’s closing on Facebook, none of the principals appeared eager to tell the story, perhaps in part because it would take hours to try to explain the strange, complicated narrative that led to Big Chair’s sudden shuttering.
“What I can say is,” Sterling told a TV reporter in October, “it’s not my choice to close.”
What Sterling didn’t tell the reporter was that he was forced out — by Ayehubizu Yimenu, who spent months trying to regain access to the business that she says she had subleased to Sterling, with the option to buy.
Sterling, in fact, was supposed to be Yimenu’s ticket out of the restaurant business. Big Chair, after all, was proving a burden for Yimenu, an Ethiopian native and registered nurse who opened the place not only to serve the Anacostia neighborhood but also to give her son and her brother, Bantamlak Yimenu, an opportunity to run a business. Locals initially seemed to love the shop.
“It was really well run and the coffee was good,” Gautier said. “I would go there every morning.”
But things changed quickly in March 2011 when Ayehubizu Yimenu’s son was deported to Ethiopia. He had been convicted more than a decade earlier of conspiracy to traffic in vehicles with altered vehicle identification numbers, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. The deportation left Bantamlak Yimenu in charge.
“It became very stressful to me,” said Bantamlak Yimenu, who also drives a cab. “So I wanted someone to buy the business.”
Enter Sterling, a friend of a friend of Ayehubizu’s son. A Jamaican native who moved to the United States in 1979, Sterling, 41, told the Yimenus that he had run a catering company and dabbled in real estate in Detroit. The siblings inked a January 2012 deal that allowed Sterling, 41, to run the restaurant with the potential to buy the business outright.
It was an unorthodox one-year agreement: None of the parties involved secured the signature of the landlord. As such, building owner W Street Acquisitions never acknowledged Sterling as the legal operator, says Stan Voudrie, the group’s managing partner.
“Legally, he was never the owner. He was the licensee of the business,” said attorney David Taylor, who represented Yimenu in her legal battle to take back possession of Big Chair.
Sterling had his own interpretation of the agreement: Big Chair was now his business. He says he sank nearly $200,000 into Big Chair, drawing on retirement funds and credit cards to help finance the operation. He says he rebuilt the bar, repainted the interior, invested in new equipment, added outdoor seating and hired occasional DJs. He and his brother, Wayne, even installed a new Jamaican menu. Some locals thought Sterling’s changes brought real energy to Anacostia.
The problem was that some of Sterling’s changes ran afoul of Big Chair’s liquor license, which was still under Ayehubizu Yimenu’s name and did not include provisions for live entertainment or outdoor seating. Under Sterling’s stewardship, Big Chair was fined $2,500 by the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration for violations, including not having an ABC manager on duty and hosting live entertainment without a permit.
“I continued the same thing they did before,” Sterling says about live entertainment, noting that Yimenu also had DJs. “It’s Southeast Anacostia. No one ever comes there” from ABRA, he said.
For Sterling to operate under Big Chair’s existing liquor license, he had to be considered an employee, not a lessor or owner. Sterling also needed an ABC manager’s license. He was issued a temporary one, but it expired in August 2012, says ABRA spokeswoman Jessie Cornelius. He never provided the proper documentation for a full license, she adds. Sterling says he did receive his full license.
Ayehubizu Yimenu had larger concerns. According to her attorney, Sterling was supposed to pay the Big Chair owner $4,625 a month — $1,000 of which would go toward the purchase. But Sterling would pay only sporadically and “never paid in full,” Bantamlak Yimenu said.
Sterling acknowledges that he had trouble paying rent during the early months but says he eventually made good on his back rent (a claim Bantamlak Yimenu denies). “They knew my situation,” Sterling says. “It was just not feasible [to pay the monthly fees]. We were just not making it.”
By the time their original deal expired in February 2013, Ayehubizu Yimenu wanted Sterling to pay the final lump sum — $120,000 — to purchase Big Chair. Sterling says he didn’t have the money and countered with an offer to put down $10,000 and pay the rest in installments. Yimenu declined the deal; by April, she wanted Sterling out.
But Sterling was not ready to give the property back. He not only had sunk his retirement fund into Big Chair, he says, but Big Chair was now his home. He was living in the back.
More than that, Sterling says he was a pawn in a larger chess match. Now that Anacostia was showing signs of life, with a business incubator and an art gallery and other developments, Sterling says he was pushed out so that others could capitalize on the momentum he created.
“I gave my whole life to this, and you’re going to kick me out on the streets?” Sterling says. “If you believe in something, you fight for it. . . . Why would I just lay down?”
To evict Sterling, Ayehubizu Yimenu turned to the courts in July. In late October, during a mediation session, Sterling agreed to surrender Big Chair. He handed over the keys on Nov. 4.
By that point, though, Sterling had announced on Facebook that Big Chair was closed, and the media reported the news. To Ayehubizu Yimenu, the Facebook post was one more slap. Sterling had informed everyone that Big Chair was dead when, in fact, the siblings had no intention of killing it off.
From his perspective, Sterling says he wanted closure to his era of Big Chair; he figured the siblings would just open it back up.
To complicate matters, when the Yimenus entered Big Chair, they discovered it was barren. Sterling had hauled off tables, chairs, the grill, plates, glasses, utensils and TVs.
Some of the equipment was later found at Mama’s BBQ, where Sterling had tried to form a partnership with the owners. Other equipment was found stored at the We Act Radio station further down the street, says Bantamlak Yimenu.
“They wanted me to leave everything I acquired while I was there,” Sterling says. “I was like, ‘Why would I leave my things? I’m already leaving for nothing.’ ”
Even though Mama’s and We Act Radio agreed to return the equipment, Bantamlak Yimenu says, the process of rounding up the materials proved time-consuming. So he and his sister bought new tables, chairs, TVs and other gear. They figure they spent about $6,000 to get the place back in business. They also had to lay out several thousand dollars more to satisfy utility bills that apparently had sat unpaid, including electric (nearly $5,000) and gas (nearly $900). All told, the siblings say they sank about $20,000 in equipment, utilities and attorney’s fees to reopen. (Counters Sterling: “I paid enough” to keep the utilities on.)
Big Chair reopened in December, but few outside Anacostia had any idea. And even some residents in Anacostia were not sure when Big Chair was open for business. The cafe’s hours were erratic, though Bantamlak Yimenu says they are working to fix that.
Regardless of the recent struggles, the Yimenus plan to charge ahead. They believe that Anacostia has made a turn for the better, and they want to be a part of it. To them, the increasing vibrancy of the neighborhood doesn’t just lead to more customers. There are other benefits, as well.
“If you are busy, you don’t get fed up” with the business, Bantamlak Yimenu says. “If I’m busy, I’m not getting bored.”