On the edge of the H Street riot corridor along Benning Road, where aging row houses and dilapidated storefronts paint a picture of decay, a gleaming, fast-food restaurant has recently been constructed.
In this Northeast neighborhood, where minority businesses have failed faster than you can say "hamburger," 32-year-old Robert L. Alexander is convinced his fast-food franchise will survive.
Alexander is the only black in the country who owns a Hardee's restaurant and is one of a handful of minority fast-food franchise owners in the District, according to a local small business spokesman.
For Alexander, a young, agressive entrepreneur, his fight to get into the fast-food business has not been easy. Those who have done business with him have been impressed and say he never gives up.
"Alexander is like the inflatable punching bag we used as kinds - you punch him and he keeps on coming back," said one banker who granted him a loan to operate his business.
Now, only three months after starting the restaurant at 2301 Benning Rd., Alexander is in the middle of negotiations to open another Hardee's restaurant at an undisclosed location in the District. But, Alexander said, he may have to give up one of his prized possessions in order to finance the deal - his 1935 "classic" Rolls Royce, which he keeps in the garage "because I can't afford to keep it running."
"I don't want to project myself as over-confident," said Alexander as he climbed into the 1972 Mercedes sports car he drives. He said he bought the 1972 model rather than this year's because "most people can't tell the difference."
Moments later, however, Alexander told a reporter, "I don't have a competitor within a straight solid mile."
His arm waved across his dashboard as he pointed from school to school explaining that more than 10,000 students attend 10 schools within walking distance of his fast-food restaurant.
As he talked, his eyes got as big as . . . well . . . hamburgers. "Wait until next football season - we are the closest fast-food outlet to RFK Stadium."
He said he expects to make as much as a 20 percent profit from the sale of hamburgers, french fries and other fast-food items.
Alexander, who lives in Southeast, has been divorced, is remarried and has a child on the way. A native of Florida, holds a Ph.D. degree from Rutgers University.
He said he began thinking about the possibility of going into the fast-food business shortly after he left a staff position with the Central Intelligence Agency in 1975.
"I was out in the cold and couldn't get another job," according to Alexander, who said he left the job, which was a political appointment, after former President Richard Nixon resigned from office. Alexander said he earned $31,000 a year helping the CIA recruit blacks.
According to Alexander, he began searching for a location for a fast-food restaurant while getting about $3,000 a month from an apartment investment he made in 1973.
Alexander said he bought an apartment project in Southeast Washington from a local businessman who "sold it because he was losing his shirt."
Using money he received for writing a book on eriminology, Alexander made a $15,000 down payment on the property and secured a loan for nearly $200,000.
Alexander said he improved the property and evicted tenants who would not pay their rent. (According to court records, the property has a number of housing code violations that are part of continuing litigation.)
Alexander's first attempt to find a location for the restaurant began in 1975 when he bought a piece of property across the street from the Stadium-Armory for about $37,000.
Because the property was zoned for residential construction, Alexander said he went to the community and got hundreds of signatures in support of his project.
"I took the signatures to the zoning board. They looked at them, and then voted 5-to-0 against me," according to Alexander, who said he immediately sold the property for a $300 profit.
A month later, the property was sold for a $50,000 profit by a developer. "I was really sick," said Alexander.
Quickly finding another site, this time on Benning Road across the street from Joel Spingarn High School, Alexander made a $1,000 security deposit and began searching for a lender for the $60,000 he needed to buy the site.
"No one would give me any money to buy the property because I was not going to improve it immediately," he said. As Alexander searched for a lender, the Miles Long Sandwich Shop, next door to the property he wanted to buy, went out of business and the owner was willing to sell the property for $70,000.
Alexander received loans to purchase both parcels of land and was ready to seek a construction loan. "The pressure was really on me," according to Alexander, who said he was making payments of $1,300 a month on loans for the two parcels of property as he searched for a construction loan.
"It took me two years and I went to more than 50 lending institutions before anyone would give me money," he said. Neither black or white lending institutions were willing to take a financial risk on his project, he said.
In the end, Alexander said, he was able to get a loan with help from the Greater Washington Business Center, a nonprofit group that helps minority businessmen.
"Most businessmen would have given up after getting turned down by five lending institutions. They would have figured the idea was unfundable. Not Bob. He is tenacious. That guy had been scratching with his idea three years and made his project work," said William C. Jameson, president of the GWBC.
Howard Orebaugh, senior vice president of Washington Federal Savings, which granted Alexander a long-term loan for nearly $500,000, said: "If we were not favorably impressed with Bob, we would not have extended the loan to him. We all get discouraged if we get turned down and turned down for loans, but Bob did not get discouraged. We found him to be someone who could make a go of it."
An executive from Riggs Bank, which gave Alexander a construction loan, said "Anything I would say about Bob would be said in a favorable light."
But, after Alexander received the money, his problems were not over.
According to the construction contract, the fast-food outlet was scheduled for completion in 90 days. Alexander said he almost went broke because the contractor took six months to build the restaurant. Alexander said he had to go back to the bank for another loan to keep afloat financially until the restaurant opened last March.
Alexander says he is "not angry anymore" about the problems in getting his restaurant on Benning Road off the ground. He said he has learned a number of things in the process.
"When banks look at minority businessmen, especially blacks, they think of Mom and Pop stores," said Alexander, who explained that these lending institutions are apparently reluctant to loan money to minorities for large projects.
Now that Alexander's business is off the ground, he says he feels he has a responsibility to give something back to the community. "I have been meeting with the schools, the churches and with people in the community trying to do what I can to help them."
Alexander has provided funding for a recent track meet at Spingarn High School and says he is working with the school system to develop a special course in small business.
The fast-talking fast-food franchise owner, who attended Hardee's "Hamburger College" for six weeks with the manager of his franchise, trained and employed approximately 40 students to work in his fast-food outlet on Benning Road. He told a reporter that "community support" is a critical factor in making his business work.
As Alexander spoke, a crowd of students spilled into his restaurant from Spingarn High School, and a smile crept across his face.