A reproduction of the Big Chair still sits at the original location, what is now V Street SE and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. It has outlasted the furniture company, which closed in the mid-1970s. The chair has “endured good times, bad times and good times reborn,” the Rev. Oliver “OJ” Johnson, a prominent Anacostia resident, once suggested. “It is a symbol of hope for this community.”
The chair stands as a different symbol in 2020 as we grapple with a pandemic, racial injustice, civic unrest, divisive politics, social media bots and the constant, underlying tension between the haves and the have nots. The Big Chair’s loneliness and its towering, two-story scale remind us of not just the desolation of our dining rooms but also the surrealism of our daily lives. Like Alice after she falls down the rabbit hole, we have lost perspective. Sometimes, we’re larger than a house, puffed up with bravado. Other times, we’re smaller than a mouse, fearful we may get crushed by events beyond our control. It’s hard to maintain your center when only chaos surrounds you.
I don’t think I’m overstating the case to say that Open Crumb is a port in the storm that has hit Anacostia particularly hard. Opened in February 2019, in the space formerly occupied by Capitol Hill Crab Cakes, Open Crumb comes from the same family that ran Ghana Cafe for years, first in Adams Morgan and later on 14th Street NW. Like so many chefs and restaurateurs before them, whether on H Street NE or Shaw before they turned into destinations themselves, Abigail and Anthony Opare and their sons sought a neighborhood with kinder rents. Historic Anacostia suited them just fine.
Open Crumb moves smoothly in the currents of everyday life in Anacostia, like water flowing from a tributary to a mighty river. In a historically black neighborhood that struggles to attract chef-driven restaurants, the kind that people take for granted on the west side of the Anacostia River, Open Crumb draws on the Opare family’s West African roots as well as the restless mind of Peter Opare, a son who executes his mom’s recipes and makes new ones all his own. Collectively, they have created a serious-minded carryout with Ghanaian stews, fried whiting sandwiches (on housemade Chinese milk buns), shrimp and grits and even a chicken parm that rivals any plate from a classic red sauce house.
Peter, a budding biomedical researcher turned chef, is a one-man operation at Open Crumb. He answers the phone. He bakes the bread every morning. He cooks the food. He places your order on a table in the bright, tangerine-colored waiting area, decorated with a few pieces of custom-made artwork. It’s the most personal touchless delivery system I have yet encountered during the pandemic.
But the chef has also had a front-row seat to Open Crumb’s descent into economic limbo. In early March, before the city went on self-quarantine, Open Crumb and its separate food manufacturing business were sitting pretty. The manufacturing side was pulling in a couple thousand a week from sales to Whole Foods, where the family’s jollof rice, egusi soup, beans and more could be found on hot bars as far away as Ohio. Those sales died the day that hot bars did, a victim of a pandemic that has made us fearful of our neighbors and the things they touch.
Even Open Crumb was approaching profitability within its first year of operations, Peter said, a rare feat in the hardball economics of independent restaurants. Both sides of the business were looking to expand, hire workers and conquer their respective worlds. “Then the pandemic really started to settle in, and all of a sudden your sales dropped 75 percent,” Peter told me. Making things worse, Open Crumb has yet to qualify for Paycheck Protection Program money, perhaps because it had not yet hired staff at the family-run business.
The outbreak has been rough on Ward 8, the home of Anacostia, which has only one or two full-service supermarkets to help feed a population already vulnerable to a virus that has killed a disproportionately high number of African Americans.
“This area was struggling anyway, so then covid hits, right?” said Kristina Noell, the executive director of the Anacostia Business Improvement District. “Then you have the community that is most impacted, then you have the seniors who actually will purchase things and order things and come out a little more. They’re not leaving their homes at all, a lot of them. For every business in this ward, it has been hard.”
You could make a strong argument that residents east of the river have been living with existential threats long before the pandemic hit. Racism. Police brutality. Injustice. Income inequalities. Given time, these all these will suck the life out of you. Then there’s the threat that has a kinder face. It’s called gentrification, and you can see it emerging along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, where the Maple View Flats have risen from the ashes of the abandoned Big K site. The apartments will offer affordable housing for the next 40 years, but they’ve already attracted a tenant previously unknown to Anacostia: a Starbucks. Is that a camel’s nose I see under the tent?
One Saturday afternoon, I walked over to the Starbucks and chatted up the two young employees working a counter at what should have been the entrance to the shop. They were wearing masks and emerald-green aprons with smug mermaid logos. They’re from the neighborhood, they told me, and they kindly directed me to the next counter to pick up my coffee, where I stopped to admire the mural behind it: a colorful collage of famous faces and symbols, including Chuck Brown, Frederick Douglass and, yes, the Big Chair. Could it be that Starbucks executives have learned to cater to black customers, and not profile them?
One danger with gentrification in Anacostia is that the newcomers may not support a place such as Open Crumb, which, if I may add, would be insane. (Peter, I should note, swears that newcomers and old-timers alike frequent his carryout.) The chef has honed his craft to a fine edge. All his sandwiches, each served on the sweet housemade milk buns, are worth every penny you pay for them. I’m particularly fond of his fry skills, evident both with the fried chicken and fried whiting sandwiches, the latter of which flakes off in large, moist, well-seasoned chunks.
The West African dishes are legacies of Ghana Cafe, and Peter has done little to mess with his mom’s delicate spice profiles, a mix of coriander, allspice, turmeric, cumin and other assorted fragrances that add depth and complexity to Open Crumb’s spinach stew, chicken stew and traditional Ghanaian red red, prepared with black-eyed peas and sweet, silken plantains. If Peter forgets to ask, remember to add a side of shito, the hot-pepper condiment that electrifies every bite. I’d advise you to use it sparingly.
I’ve spoken to a lot of chefs and restaurateurs since the coronavirus started its deadly trek across the country. None of them have seemed as anchored as Peter Opare. Nothing seems to rattle this man. Not a crippled economy. Not a dizzying drop in business. Not a pandemic with an unknown end date. He views all of these events as challenges to vanquish, seemingly no different from his current task to build a better vegan burger. He is the new Big Chair of Anacostia: a symbol of strength and hope. Even better, he hasn’t lost his perspective.
“Quite honestly, I’m more grateful for what I have than for what I’ve lost,” he said. “I really thankful that I’m able to put food on my table without worrying. A lot of people don’t have that, unfortunately.”
If you go
1243 Good Hope Road SE, 202-610-9979.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesday through Friday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Nearest Metro: Anacostia, with a 0.7-mile walk to the carryout.
Prices: $1.50 to $12 for all menu items.