Superstar D.C. restaurateur Joey Belcher lives, and dies, in the fast lane
By Paul Schwartzman,
Jason Martin had phoned and sent text messages to Joey Belcher through the morning and afternoon on that Monday in December. His business partner did not answer. By 3 p.m., Martin headed to Belcher’s apartment.
Where was Joey? he wondered. Was he okay? Maybe he had a relapse of the flu from the previous week.
In a few hours, they were to present plans for a sidewalk cafe on H Street, the playground of the uber-hip in Northeast Washington where they already owned a sushi place called Sticky Rice. Michelle Obama had once stopped in to eat dinner. Their pie shop down the street had a name that almost described Belcher’s life: Dangerously Delicious.
At 37, Joey Belcher had piloted airplanes, luxuriated on yachts, and earned as much as $250,000 a month as a mortgage broker. There had also been a long phase, beginning in college, when he smoked enough crack that his father fantasized about using a gun to paralyze him so he couldn’t leave home to buy drugs.
All these years later, Belcher possessed the kind of robust vigor that made him seem like “five men at full throttle,” his sister, Mimi Belcher, said. Besides the restaurants and food trucks he already co-owned, he had plans to expand and open a nightclub.
On that Monday afternoon, Martin went into Belcher’s silent apartment and knocked on his bedroom door. No answer.
Martin opened the door and saw a bare mattress, clothes scattered about, an overturned candy jar and the footboard separated from the bed. On the floor, on the far side of the bed, Joey Belcher lay on his back, clothed. He was not breathing.
Martin leapt on his friend.
“C’mon Joey!” he shouted, pounding on his chest. “This can’t be happening!”
More than five weeks later, the death of Joey Belcher remains a mystery.
Police have declined to comment on the case, citing a pending autopsy report. Although detectives have indicated that Belcher did not show the signs of trauma that would suggest homicide, they have interviewed friends and family, scoured his apartment and tried to retrace his last steps.
Questions have mounted: Where was Belcher before Martin found him? Who was he with? What happened to this energetic, ambitious man who was so immersed in planning his future?
“He shouldn’t be dead,” said Markus Groeschel, Sticky Rice’s manager, with whom Belcher shared the apartment. “And none of us understand why he is.”
What is known is that Belcher’s death has devastated his large circle of friends, family and patrons. What also is known is that, after a decade of sobriety, Belcher had started drinking and using drugs again, even as his businesses thrived and he assured everyone he was fine.
For the past five years, he was part of a wave of entrepreneurs who seized on Washington’s economic renaissance and sought to remake its night life. Across the city, they invested in often-dilapidated corridors, opening stylish restaurants and quirky bars catering to young professionals. As much as the developers altering the city’s skyline, they helped redefine neighborhoods such as the H Street corridor.
“We’re all risk takers and crazy people,” said Joe Englert, who has opened more than 20 bars in the city, including seven on H Street. “We’re all addicted to gambling in a way. We all want to have more than one or two places. We’re all adrenaline junkies.”
Belcher idolized Englert and Englert’s partner Kyle Remissong, working as a waiter for them at the Big Hunt, a bar on Connecticut Avenue, during the 1990s when he was out of college. He was well-liked by the owners and patrons, but after several months, he announced that he was quitting.
“It didn’t work out in D.C. for whatever reason,” Remissong recalled, “and he was going home.”
In truth, Joey Belcher’s struggles had started long before he reached Washington.
Drinking and drugs
Even in his mid-30s, Belcher had a childlike passion for the whimsical and wacky. He loved to dress up in animal costumes and show off the collection of windup toys he stuck to the dashboard of his Cadillac Escalade. He loved dreaming up business ideas, like opening a bar with a fairy-tale theme or hiring scantily clad servers to swing down on bungee cords with drink orders.
At Sticky Rice, Belcher decided that the answering machine had to include, after options for reservations and directions, the choice of listening to a speech by actor Christopher Walken.
“Press 5 if you’d like to give us an impression of Christopher Walken,” the voice says. “Press 6 if you’d like to hear a sad trombone.”
“ ‘Just do it, it’ll be funny,’ ” Belcher told Groeschel after writing the script. The Walken option became popular with customers, and sometimes Belcher could be found at his desk late at night cackling as he listened to the impressions.
His creativity was obvious as he grew up in New Orleans, where his father was a utility worker for the phone company and his mother, a Mexican immigrant, was a court stenographer. He liked to build circuit boards and dismantle alarm clocks to figure out how they worked.
As a student at Brother Martin High School, a Catholic school, Belcher often couldn’t leave home because his mother had grounded him for some infraction or another. “She was a strict disciplinarian,” said Lloyd Blanchard, a high school buddy.
Belcher’s drinking and drug use started to become noticeable after he enrolled at Loyola University in New Orleans, his father said.
Once, after returning from a trip, Joe Belcher Sr. discovered that his son had “emptied” his bank account and traded the family sedan to a dealer for drugs. His father said he went to the dealer and demanded the car’s return.
Sometimes Joey disappeared for days. Once, his parents drove all over the area searching for him. They spotted his car parked outside a motel on the edge of New Orleans. Joe Belcher Sr. said he pulled out his .25-caliber pistol to persuade the clerk to identify his son’s room, where he found Joey and two others smoking crack.
Joe Belcher Sr. became so despondent over his son’s drug use that he mulled the idea of maiming him. “If I shoot him in the back, I will sever his spinal cord,” he said, recalling his reasoning. “I’d rather have him be a cripple than go out and buy more drugs.”
The Belchers gave Joey an ultimatum. “He could go to rehab or jail,” his father said. Joey chose rehab. He “seemed to be in a state of remorse,” his father said.
After rehab, Joey moved to Washington, where his sister was an intern at the National Institutes of Health. The partying went on. His father told Joey he would help him “any way I can.” But he would not give him money “until you decide to change.”
In 2000, Mimi Belcher enrolled in the PhD program in neurobiology at the University of California at Irvine. Her brother followed her there and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. Soon, he stopped drinking and using drugs.
Mimi Belcher recalled Joey telling her about an AA meeting and “coming out of a dark hole after one of those weekend binges” and seeing the stricken look on his sister’s face. He told the audience, Mimi Belcher said, “I don’t want her to feel that way again.”
Sober and rich
At AA, Joey Belcher met Joshua Schwartz, who was impressed that Belcher had gotten his pilot’s license and could play the piano and drums. Schwartz invited Belcher to the movies and bowling, eager to show him he could have fun without being high.
Belcher and Schwartz went to work as loan officers for a friend who owned a mortgage business. They learned to cold call people, trying to persuade them to refinance. “We had a ton of business,” Schwartz said.
They soon opened their own brokerage, J & J Lending, which offered a spectrum of fixed-rate, adjustable and subprime loans. Interest rates were falling, housing prices were soaring and millions of Americans were refinancing. At first, Belcher and Schwartz had a handful of employees, then 20, then 75, then hundreds, including Belcher’s father. At their peak, they had 10 branches and satellite offices, including one in Las Vegas.
By 2005, Joey Belcher was earning as much as $250,000 a month, Schwartz estimated. Sometimes more. He smoked expensive cigars and could spend up to $15,000 in a weekend at the mall. He bought an Aston Martin sports car, a couple of yachts and a house in Vegas with a pool, putt-putt course and home theater. In the summer, he invited dozens of employees to an annual party, at which he seemed content to sip diet sodas.
He took friends and family on trips to Europe and Asia. In Hong Kong, he got the $3,000-a-night presidential suite for himself, his father and Schwartz. He bought his girlfriend a Porsche and paid for her to enroll in a master’s program in education. He paid for his mother’s paralegal classes and bought his parents a townhouse in Las Vegas.
“It was a really joyful, exhilarating time,” Schwartz said. “You had a guy who was at the bottom, and he makes recovery and sobriety the Number 1 priority, and from that all else follows. In a short period, he was able to build a monster of a business.”
Joe Belcher Sr. was proud of his son, even as he worried about his spending. “You’re not always going to be in this position,” he told him. “Things change and sometimes abruptly.”
Joey was ready. In 2008, the economy collapsed, the housing market plummeted, and Americans stopped refinancing. Belcher sold his yacht and cars and his house in Vegas and returned to Washington, where opportunities abounded.
Englert, his old boss, was transforming H Street, opening bars with names like Granville Moore’s, the Argonaut and the Rock & Roll Hotel.
Englert owned a two-story building at 1224 H St. NE, a perfect spot for a restaurant. Belcher and Martin bought the property and opened Sticky Rice, an outpost of a Richmond restaurant that offered sushi, tater tots, and, its Web site boasts, a “charming atmosphere and bad attitude.”
Sticky Rice was the beginning. Belcher also went in on a New Orleans-style place on Ninth Street NW called the 1905 Bistro and Bar. He invested in another Sticky Rice location in Baltimore, the pie shop and several food trucks.
He seemed to thrive on the demanding rhythms of the restaurant life. Asked by a blogger what inspired him to open a restaurant, Belcher replied: “I was hanging something in the bathroom and stood on the toilet. I slipped off and hit my head. I had a vision of tater tots . . . the rest is history.”
At various points, he mentioned past struggles with alcohol and drugs. But he remained sober, at least until 2010, when a business partner noticed him ordering wine.
“I said, ‘Joey, did something change?’ ” said Tony Dundas-Lucca, his partner at 1905. Belcher explained that he had been in Europe on vacation, visiting vineyards, and had “decided he wanted to try wine and see how it went.”
By then his sister, Mimi Belcher, had focused her work on studying cocaine addiction at NIH. When she heard that her brother was drinking again, she confronted him.
“What makes you think you can control this?” she asked.
Last June, she confronted him again. If he was using drugs and drinking, she recalled texting, “please remember what this did to your family.” In his response, Mimi Belcher said, Joey admitted to smoking pot and taking LSD on occasion. But, he insisted: “I have everything under control.”
Schwartz wasn’t so sure, warning Dianna Townsend, Belcher’s girlfriend: “If Joey isn’t sober, all bets are off for you and for him. You need to know that Joey Belcher is first and foremost an alcoholic and drug addict of the worst kind.”
His parents realized he was drinking again two months ago, when he showed up late for Thanksgiving, and they smelled alcohol on his breath.
“Be careful, you’re playing with fire,” his father told him.
“I’m okay,” Joey replied.
On the last weekend of his life, Belcher celebrated “Bananarchy,” an annual free-rolling festival in which participants dress up in banana costumes and bar-hop. Belcher’s apartment mate, Groeschel, urged Belcher to refrain from drinking that Saturday, Dec. 15, because he had just gotten over a severe flu.
He didn’t listen. At 2 a.m. on Sunday, he was at Jimmy Valentine’s, a bar on Bladensburg Road NE, said David Hemperly, a friend who lives in Belcher’s building and who was there.
At 6 a.m., after apparently never sleeping, he brought people to the apartment of another friend, Dianna Loevner, who has worked at Sticky Rice. The party went on. At one point, she said, they went to a supermarket to buy champagne and beer, and the person ahead of them in line did not have the money to cover the groceries. Belcher paid the bill.
He stayed at Loevner’s apartment until early evening, then invited her and three other friends to his apartment, stopping at Sticky Rice to grab a bottle of vodka. Their group included another Sticky Rice employee, a man who had been released from prison in 2010 after being convicted of selling heroin in Virginia. Around 9 p.m., Belcher knocked on Hemperly’s door, asking whether he could bring his friends over.
Hemperly told him he was too tired. Belcher hugged him goodbye before setting out for the Eighteenth Street Lounge, a club south of Dupont Circle. He and his friends arrived around 10:30 p.m. He had set a 2:30 a.m. curfew for himself, saying he had to pack for a vacation in Mexico. The Mayan calendar predicted the end of the world on Dec. 21, and Belcher wanted to be there.
Almost as soon as he arrived at the Eighteenth Street Lounge, Loevner said, Belcher departed, telling someone in the group, “I don’t want to be a burden on you guys.” Loevner tried calling and texting him after he left. Belcher did not answer.
Martin, his business partner, found him dead in his bedroom the following afternoon.
Mimi Belcher and Townsend, Joey’s girlfriend, went to his apartment four days later, after the police had finished dusting for fingerprints and searching for clues to his death.
In Belcher’s bedroom, Townsend noticed something beneath the nightstand: a pen cap in which there was a coating of a white powder that looked like cocaine. She handed it to Mimi. Yes, Mimi thought, looks like cocaine.
Mimi Belcher tossed the pen cap in the garbage. Whatever it was and whomever it belonged to, she didn’t want Joey’s mother finding it.
At Joey Belcher’s funeral on Dec. 22, his friends and sister recounted Joey’s boundless spirit and playful charm; his bunny and kitty tattoos, and his pranks. How he celebrated the birth of his niece by buying a Ferrari. How he once said the best thing he had ever eaten was a gummy bear.
“He never quit seeking,” Mimi Belcher said in her eulogy, “of chasing his rainbows’ ends.”
In the coming days, his girlfriend would dream of Joey getting on one knee and giving her a ring box that, when opened, was empty. His friends would struggle with questions about his drinking. His father would ruminate about whether everyone had been “lulled into a false sense that everything was okay.” Mostly, everyone just missed him.
As the funeral ended, the room filled with the strains of a song that Belcher once told a friend he wanted played at his funeral, a lilting instrumental from the 1950s called “Sleepwalk.”
As the tune faded, the silence was interrupted only by the sounds of weeping.
Peter Hermann and Julie Tate contributed to this report.