The midnight closing of Metro on weekends is an inconvenience to most Washingtonians. For restaurants and bars that cater to late-night crowds, however, the curtailing of train service that would otherwise extend until 3 a.m. is a huge deal. The changes take effect this Friday night and will continue for approximately the next year, though no end date has been specified.
"For us small businesses, it’s going to make a difference," said chef Tim Ma, who recently opened Kyirisan, his first restaurant in the District. He'd been planning to debut a new Thursday-through-Saturday late-night menu of Asian tacos and drinks that would have been available for two hours after the Shaw restaurant's last seating at 10 p.m. He nixed the idea once Metro announced its SafeTrack plan, which also includes a series of single-tracking and total shutdowns of various rail segments over the next year.
As it is, Ma said he is "pushing it" to get staff home on weekdays, when Metro already closes at midnight. Shutting down a restaurant is much more than just ending service and sending customers on their way. Equipment has to be turned off and cooled down. The refrigerators used during service must be emptied out, with items returned to and organized in the walk-in storage. Even at 12:30 a.m., employees can still be washing dishes, pots and pans, not to mention the grills and ovens than must be scrubbed down for a minimum of 90 minutes, Ma said.
"You can't just turn everything off and walk out," he said.
On a staff of 25 people, Ma is one of the five who live in the city. Ma said the great thing about Shaw and other growing D.C. neighborhoods is that they're thriving, but that growth comes at a price when staff can't afford to live near where they work. They also can't afford to take a taxi or Uber at the end of the night, unless they want to burn through whatever they've made. The core of Ma's team relies on Metro to get back to their homes in places such as Springfield and Takoma Park, and while he's thought of using some kind of car service, he doesn't think he can pay for it or make it work logistically given the spread of where employees live.
Arianne Bennett, president and chief executive of Amsterdam Falafelshop, said she also doesn't have the resources to try to build some kind of carpool for her staff. Of the six people who work the late shift at the chain's three locations around town (a fourth in L'Enfant Plaza closes nightly at 6 p.m.), she knows of at least two who ride Metro home. Some get off at midnight, others at 1 or 2 a.m. The very late shifts, when some of the restaurants are open until 3 or 4 a.m., are reserved for those who live nearby or can take a bus.
The people most affected by the changes? Bennett said it's those who live farther out so they can afford their rent, in Anacostia or Maryland. She's also worried that the pool of people who can staff late nights will shrink and that eateries like hers will find it harder to compete with restaurants in terms of hiring.
Pete's New Haven Style Apizza has decided to close one hour earlier, at 10 p.m., to give staff time to get home. Co-owner Joel Mehr said not too many of his employees are affected, but those that are include managers, some of whom live the farthest away.
Steve Uhr, director of mid-Atlantic operations for chef Michael Schlow's restaurant group that includes Tico, the Riggsby and Alta Strada, said the early Metro closings are going to have a "double whammy" effect for some of his employees. The restaurants rotate who works the late shift, and those who can't participate because of their commute not only miss out on wages but the tips that are pooled at the end of the night.
Interestingly enough, the Riggsby in Dupont Circle just rolled out a new "Nightcap" menu that will be available until 11:30 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and 12:30 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Uhr said the new menu is intended to meet demand for late-night food, not surprising given the restaurant's location inside the Carlyle Hotel.
Uhr said the company is trying to find out who already drives (most managers do) and possibly arrange internal carpooling, which it might be able to subsidize with money for parking or gas. At Tico on 14th Street NW, at least, a lot of the staff already lives nearby, Uhr said.
Uhr doesn't anticipate too much of a customer drop-off, especially at the Riggsby and Alta Strada, near Mount Vernon Square. Those two restaurants are frequented more by neighborhood guests, as opposed to Tico, which might see a higher proportion of patrons who take Metro to get to 14th Street.
Sara Norman, general manager of Penn Social, anticipates a more dramatic impact at the large bar in Penn Quarter. On weekends, a lot of business happens between midnight and 2 a.m. "People count on the Metro to get here" and, in many cases, home, she said. The one-day shut-down of Metro in March gave her a glimpse into the key role the rail system plays in sustaining business -- "it was deads-ville in here" -- and while the reduced hours aren't quite as dire, close to six fewer hours of service a week is nothing to sneeze at. On Fridays and Saturdays, Penn Social does last call at 2:15 a.m. and a staggered exit beginning at 2:30 a.m., which was fine given people were heading out to catch the last train before Metro's 3 a.m. close anyway.
"If our bottom line is that affected, I can see salaries going down," Norman said. She may even have to cut staff. "I have a large staff and they need to feed their families. I don't know what's going to happen."
Norman and others readily acknowledged the need for safety but also worry that the impact on industries like theirs -- from a logistical and revenue standpoint -- weren't fully considered. They're not alone.
In a letter to Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld last week, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) suggested that the agency augment and adjust bus service to make up for the rail disruptions. "Other changes may be necessary to address the possible loss of transportation options for the late night riders who support and sustain the District's economy," Bowser wrote. She also asked Wiedefeld to reconsider the midnight closures, implementing rotating closures on one or two lines at a time instead of a year-long, system-wide cut. Metro, however, said it does not intend to change its plans. On Thursday, city officials said they were considering extending hours for the D.C. Circulator bus until 3 a.m.
"It's going to hurt the city pretty bad," Ma predicted. He anticipates a trickle-down effect at least in his neck of the woods, where some of his staff like to gather for a drink or two at nearby bar All Souls after service. That's probably going to happen less often once the Metro closes at midnight. Who's going to want to blow their nightly earnings on not only drinks but also an Uber ride home?
"It's definitely going to impact a lot of restaurants negatively," Uhr agreed. "Washington is poised to put itself among some of the other great restaurant cities, and this hurts."