The men behind Passion Food Hospitality — Gus DiMillo, David Wizenberg and Jeff Tunks — pride themselves on knowing how to pick a good corner.
First there was 14th and K streets NW, where in 1998 they opened popular downtown haunt, DC Coast. Then two years later, Asian-themed TenPenh sprung up on 10th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, followed by Ceiba on 14th and G Streets NW.
For their latest venture, they have taken the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 23rd Street NW, right off Washington Circle, for sister concepts District Commons and Burger, Tap and Shakes (BTS).
“With the corner we have, the proximity to the university and all that’s down here, we wanted to execute a concept to distinguish ourselves in the market,” Tunk said above a cacophony of drilling and hammering at the Foggy Bottom site two weeks ago.
The 10,000 square-foot space is wrapped in floor-to-ceiling windows and divided into two spaces. BTS, with its graffiti mural of George Washington, plays the funky little sister to the more sophisticated District Commons, with its private party rooms. Connected by a hallway, the two share a kitchen.
Much of the work was focused on the larger District Commons, a classic tavern with an open hearth oven, raw bar and 20 microbrews on tap. Entrees range from $13 to $23. The dining room will seat up to 180 people, while another 60 people can cozy up to the bar once the space is completed in early October.
Before that, BTS will open its doors.
The 65-seat, counter-service eatery will be serving up hand-cut fries, $6 to $8 burgers and spiked milkshakes — “shaketails,” by Sept. 26. The partners said they figured it would be best to open BTS first to build excitement.
They also can tap into the excitement surrounding the new food merchants in Foggy Bottom. Earlier this month, Whole Foods opened a supermarket in the neighborhood, a few doors down from Sweetgreen, Roti Mediterranean Grill and Circa, which all opened next to each other over the summer.
“There’s just phenomenal activity in that area right now,” said broker Tom Papadopoulos of Papadopoulos Properties. He brokered the lease for famed chef Bobby Flay’s eponymous burger palace, which opened last month on the edge of Foggy Bottom. “You’ve got all of the elements out there: office population, students, residential and hotels.”
As appealing as those demographics may be, few buildings in the neighborhood offer retail space, and what space exists is mostly occupied, said John Asadoorian, principal broker of Asadoorian Retail Solutions.
Property research firm CoStar pegs retail vacancy at less than 1 percent in the Foggy Bottom-West End area, but the company only tracks retail buildings, not merchant space in mixed-use properties. Asadoorian and Papadopoulos, however, say total vacancy isn’t too far off from that estimate.
Rent, they say, ranges from $80 to $100 a square foot on average.
Wizenberg would not discuss the lease at the Boston Properties building, but said that it took roughly $5 million to pull the space together. There were cost overruns and delays — the restaurants were supposed to open in June.
While contending with the woes of development, the partners also confronted the headache of closing of TenPenh. Dissatisfaction with the space and rising rent led the team to turn off the lights on June 30.
About 85 percent of the wait staff from TenPenh has been placed in other Passion Food Hospitality restaurants, including District Commons and BTS. Wizenberg said the group took a financial hit in closing the restaurant, though he declined to give a figure.
Passion Food had a little less than 10 percent sales growth in the past year. Not record revenue, but illustrative of the market’s resilience through a rocky recovery, Wizenberg said.