By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 19, 2005
The children of Ulysses G. "Blackie" Auger Sr., the late proprietor of Blackie's House of Beef and the Washington Marriott Hotel he built on top of it, have decided to sell the businesses and use the proceeds to develop hotels throughout the region.
The surprise sale of the Washington landmarks and the nearby Lulu's Club Mardi Gras, follows Auger's death nearly a year ago at age 83. The high school dropout had a simple slogan for the restaurant business, which wound up making him a lot of money: "You eat beef or you don't eat nothing."
But for his children, beef apparently just wasn't enough. In 2001, they used the site of the Blackie's restaurant in Springfield to build a Courtyard by Marriott, and they are building hotels in Winchester and in Gettysburg, Pa. Auger's son Gregory described the moves as a natural generational shift in business interests.
The second generation, he said, wants to develop and manage hotels. The third generation -- his and his siblings' children -- will want to be in real estate and hotels, not restaurants.
"It's a very hard thing to do," Gregory Auger said. "It's very bittersweet for us. It's a real estate deal, but a very, very personal one."
Auger acknowledged the strong possibility that the new owners, whom he declined to identify until the deal closes early next year, could shut down Blackie's altogether, ending an era of red meat and hard liquor at the corner of 22nd and M Streets in the West End. Marriott officials said the hotel's flag will not change.
Blackie Auger's business empire did not start with beef. It started with hot dogs.
With his wife, Auger opened a hot dog stand at 22nd and M right after World War II and built it into Blackie's House of Beef, serving politicians and businessmen a fixed dinner menu: prime rib, baked potatoes, peas, a salad and cheesecake. The platters were heaping. The tab: $1.75.
He'd tell new customers, "If you don't like it, I'll pick up the tab." The business certainly suited Auger, a tough former Army ranger built like a heavyweight boxer. "If I please myself," he often said, "I'd please 99 percent of the people."
He apparently pleased 110 percent, because his wealth grew quickly. He bought two new Cadillacs a year. He also decided to invest in banks, real estate, and other businesses from here to Switzerland. In 1981, he built the Washington Marriott on top of Blackie's. It was the Bethesda chain's first hotel in the District.
He bought a minority interest in the Mayflower Hotel, where he had previously worked as a busboy. With a few friends, he started Madison National Bank, an investment that didn't go as well as Blackie's. It was seized by federal regulators in the early 1990s, helping put him in debt reported to be as high as $100 million. He sold hotels and a parking lot and refinanced loans to put himself back on his feet.
In the late 1990s, after suffering a stroke, Blackie Auger turned the restaurant over to his children, and they spent $5 million modernizing the decor and upgrading the menu. They also dropped "House of Beef" from the name, but at the time, that didn't seem to signal that the family would drop the restaurant altogether. One of his children, Dina Economides, told the Post: "We've been here 50 years. And we want to stay here another 50 years."