“It feels so good to be here,” she said, the neon “COMET” sign glowing red above. “Like I’m alive again.”
Just weeks before, Mendoza, 29, had sunk into her couch after learning in an email she was out of a job — the coronavirus had forced D.C. restaurants to close to dine-in customers. Comet Ping Pong had hired her when she was 19 years old and barely able to speak English. Over the next 10 years she would work her way up to assistant manager, a job that enabled her to raise her three children mostly on her own.
But all at once, on March 15, the most constant part of her life vanished. She thought about all the bills she had to pay, and her kids.
“How could I tell them that Mommy didn’t have a job?” Mendoza recalled thinking.
But the Northwest Washington restaurant managed to reopen and called her back. When she returned, she found customers were still hungry and still loyal.
The restaurant had found a way to persevere through the pandemic — for now.
Those familiar with Comet Ping Pong are not surprised by the resilience that has helped Mendoza and her colleagues make it through the coronavirus crisis. The neighborhood pizza shop is still recovering from Pizzagate, an online conspiracy theory that inspired a gunman to storm the restaurant in 2016 in search of an alleged child sex trafficking ring run by leaders of the Democratic Party.
Comet Ping Pong shut down after the shooting but soon reopened. Four years later, the small business — still defending itself from Pizzagate harassment — is now trying to weather a pandemic.
'I had to fire everyone'
Comet Ping Pong has sat on a small shopping corner in Northwest Washington since October 2006. Over 14 years, it transformed into a neighborhood favorite for birthday parties, graduation dinners, live music and, of course, games of ping-pong in the backroom between slices of pizza. Favorite local bands such as Ex Hex and the Make-Up have made sure to stop by the restaurant to play.
But on Sunday, March 15, owner James Alefantis confronted a painful decision. As he sat in his empty restaurant having an after-hours drink with his general manager, a notification lit up his phone. He learned restaurants would no longer be allowed to have customers dine in, part of efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
His general manager, Oriana Quezada, begged him to keep the store open: They could transition to a full-fledged takeout operation by the next day. Their staff needed them. Their community needed stability.
“That’s how you retain a customer base,” she told her boss. “You stay open.”
It was not Alefantis’s first time handling a crisis. He thought back to that terrible day four years ago, when a gunman agitated by Pizzagate drove from North Carolina to Comet Ping Pong with an assault rifle. The humble D.C. restaurant became a national story as the gunman, inspired by the false online stories, fired at least three shots inside the restaurant. No one was injured, but the trauma of that day still haunts Alefantis and his employees.
After Pizzagate, the restaurant temporarily shut down for the first time since it opened.
On March 15, Comet Ping Pong shuttered again.
“I knew right then that we needed to take drastic action now or we would have zero left,” he said. “Our job is to stay alive, not kill ourselves trying to make this thing work.”
That Monday, behind closed doors, Alefantis and his senior management team reckoned with some painful trade-offs. They would decide to add delivery apps, though the platforms would take valuable commissions. They would think about how to reorganize furniture so employees could work six feet apart. And Alefantis would open Comet Ping Pong along with his neighboring restaurant, Bucks Fishing and Camping, the next day — but without all his staff.
About 45 longtime Comet employees would learn, over text or via phone call, that they no longer had jobs.
“Dad, I had to fire everyone. This is so scary,” Quezada told her father through tears that day. “We are trying desperately, but it feels like cupping water with your hands.”
'Swim together or sink together'
Restaurant and bar owners across the country have made similar heart-wrenching calls to employees over recent weeks. Kathy Hollinger, president of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, said 38 percent of operators in the District have temporarily closed. The other 62 percent remain open for takeout, often forced to reinvent their businesses.
Andy Shallal has reduced the 600-person staff at his Busboys and Poets restaurants to 80. “It gives me comfort that we are all in this together. We are going to swim together or sink together,” he said. “Busboys is a community gathering space, and that is the opposite of what people want right now.”
When Comet reopened that Tuesday, there were only three employees: Quezada and two chefs. Ceramic plates and cutlery covered the ping-pong tables. The bulletin board advertised concerts that would never happen.
Alefantis considers himself lucky. He owns Comet’s building, though he had to negotiate rent with the landlord for Bucks Fishing and Camping and a new restaurant. Even so, it has been challenging as Alefantis works to figure out the patchwork of grants and loans needed to get through the pandemic.
“I felt creatively tapped,” Alefantis said, “like I can’t come up with a cute, interesting solution to this problem right now. What is the signage supposed to read that is not offensive but communicates a message? Do I put a fire pit outside or not? And then on top of that, I am supposed to try to get a federal loan? I don’t know how to do that.”
Alefantis is still waiting to hear about his application for the Paycheck Protection Program, which received a $310 billion boost in funding recently after initial funds quickly dried up. He would consider the Small Business Association’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan if he felt desperate, though he wants to do everything in his power to avoid taking on more debt.
Alefantis said he was too busy trying to keep his restaurant afloat to meet the deadline for grants of up to $25,000 available through the D.C. government. He did, however, recently receive two grants from Van Ness Main Street, sponsored by the city’s Department of Small and Local Business Development.
Now, amid shifts at the restaurants, brainstorming sessions and breaks to garden with his boyfriend, Alefantis squeezes in frequent calls with his bank to discuss how to best proceed.
“I wanted to fix it ourselves first and then get help when we can,” Alefantis said. “But I feel a responsibility to try all options.”
A new rhythm
As employees continue to search for a new rhythm, they still field calls from Pizzagate obsessors. A few weeks ago, someone jammed the phone line for an entire day, frustrating customers who struggled to place orders. Alefantis has received almost 70 Pizzagate messages in recent weeks.
But amid the relentless attacks and hard conversations, Comet Ping Pong has found a way to keep going, thanks to customers who have proved more loyal than Alefantis could have imagined.
Comet Ping Pong is bringing in about 60 percent of its pre-pandemic sales as it adjusts into a takeout and delivery business.
Every day Alefantis invents and reinvents, trying to figure out how to balance safety, efficiency and a little bit of fun. He has introduced shots in plastic cups and a medley of iced cocktails to go. He plays music and burns a bonfire throughout the night.
The first Friday night the restaurant was open for delivery, Quezada could barely keep up with the incoming calls and the notifications pinging on four iPads. In the past two weeks as the orders have continued to pour in, Alefantis has been able to rehire 60 percent of his full-time employees on a reduced schedule.
“What keeps a restaurant going is usually a neighborhood,” he said. “And in this case that could not be more true.”
Amy Waldman has been eating at Comet Ping Pong for 11 years, and while everything else in her life has changed in these past weeks, her regular meals from the pizza shop have not.
“I mean, it’s better to actually eat here, but we can’t do that,” she said as she waited for her wings, risotto balls and a couple of pizzas to emerge on the restaurant’s patio. “But it’s still a great neighborhood cornerstone, and it’s good food.”
In recent weeks, more than $15,000 in donations has poured in through a crowdsource effort an employee started to support the Comet Ping Pong staff.
Mendoza, who was staring at an empty fridge a few weeks ago, received $270 from the donations, allowing her to dash to the store and buy food for her children. She returned to work on March 19.
“The neighborhood knows we have been through a lot, but I’m not sure they know how much this support means to me,” Mendoza said as she waited to guide customers through contactless payment. “If Comet wasn’t open, I would not have money. Now I feel happy coming into work every day.”