It was just after midnight, and Teaism, her restaurant near the White House, was on fire. Michelle Brown, still in pajamas, grabbed her hand sanitizer and car keys to check out the damage.
Brown would soon learn that protesters had destroyed her 21-year-old tea chest, and that her beloved artwork was engulfed in flames.
Police prohibited her from entering her restaurant in the middle of the night, but hours later, she would return to find her shop ashy and unrecognizable.
“It was heartbreaking,” Brown said. “But this moment is not about us.” She wants her customers to stay focused on the intense suffering sweeping the country instead of the damage done to her restaurant, which she says will recover in time.
“Any kind of issue like this seems pretty minor,” she said. “We have been through three months of being closed, we have seen 100,000 people die. I think the protests are great, and I think they are warranted.”
After barely sleeping through the night, Brown started the day with a golden dragon black tea, which she says she drank, perhaps subconsciously, “in hope that my inner dragon will come out today.”
Dan Simon, founder and co-owner of Founding Farmers, similarly expressed support for protesters after his restaurant was damaged on Saturday night. He drafted a string of tweets from his car on Sunday, soon after he saw the broken glass at his restaurant: “My team & I stand firmly with the message of the protest. The rage is justified. I would rather it be expressed peacefully, but if I need to ‘suffer’ some broken property, let’s be real, that isn’t suffering.”
Founding Farmers would open for brunch less than 12 hours after the protests ended, as a result of employees who spent the early hours of Sunday sweeping glass and moving furniture (while blasting music of their choice, which they are not allowed to do in normal times).
Other restaurants, however, decided to close because of the protests, just three days after D.C. relaxed some coronavirus restrictions and allowed restaurants to seat customers outdoors. Amy Brandwein, who owns Centrolina and Piccolina restaurants in City Center, had rejoiced Friday when she greeted her first customer. Two days later, she watched plywood enclose her establishments while texting her employees that they would not return to work on Monday, and probably not Tuesday either.
“We felt like we were inching toward something normal for the first time in months,” Brandwein said. “But now there is a pandemic and a civil war at the same time. And we are scared.”
Her restaurants emerged unscathed after protesters marched through D.C. on Saturday night, but Brandwein decided to close her restaurants until she thinks it is safe to reopen, whenever that may be.
Robb Duncan, who owns Dolcezza with his wife, experienced a similar setback in his plans to reopen. He received a call at 6 a.m. Saturday to come down to CityCenterDC. He soon found out that protesters had knocked the windows out at the shop.
“They were picking up outdoor furniture, the patio seating, and kind of hurling it into the storefront windows and stuff,” Duncan said. “We got a table or a chair stuck through the window. It broke three plate-glass windows.”
The CityCenter location was the only Dolcezza that had not yet opened for business, Duncan said. The couple had planned to reopen the shop this week. Instead, they spent $1,200 boarding up the space, thinking the protests are not yet over. Duncan estimates that the shop won’t open for two or three more weeks.
Even so, Duncan says he understands the frustration on the nation’s streets, started by the protests in Minneapolis.
“There are so many other things that are brewing at the same time with everybody’s insecurity about jobs, the future, what’s going on, the income, the pandemic,” Duncan said. “I mean, I understand it, and we support it. I mean, if it’s a window that’s broken, it’s not that big of a deal. I mean, there is change that has to happen.”
Ashok Bajaj, a D.C. restaurateur who owns the Oval Room across the street from Lafayette Square, was watching the protest from home late Saturday night when he saw crowds move toward his white-tablecloth restaurant on Connecticut Avenue. Bajaj drove to the restaurant about 1 a.m. to see the damage himself.
“By the time I got there, all the windows were smashed. They put a tablecloth on fire,” he said. “I haven’t seen anything like this.”
There was one intact glass pane by Sunday morning, and it had a message in red spray paint: “The rich aren’t safe anymore!”
It will take some time to repair the windows and reopen the restaurant. After a strong Saturday reopening, Bajaj said he is “a couple steps backward.”
“Demonstrate, and I will demonstrate with you, but not this way,” he said.
Tim Carman contributed to this report.