And to a point they were.
For more than a decade, business in Washington has been booming, led in part by growth in the bar and restaurant industry. From 2008 to 2016, the city saw a 77 percent increase in bar licenses and a 37 percent increase in restaurant licenses. We collectively added an estimated $13.9 billion in taxable retail and restaurant sales in 2016. Bon Appétit named D.C. the “Restaurant City of the Year” in 2016, and there are now 18 Michelin-starred restaurants here, along with some of the most recognized bars in the country, helping boost tourism.
Money isn’t all we contribute to the city. We run the places where Washingtonians meet, work, celebrate and play. We contribute to community-based food halls, business incubators, restaurants focused on fair and sustainable local food systems, job development, and strides in diversity and equity in the workplace.
But covid-19 has threatened to end our successful partnerships with our landlords.
None of us could have predicted that on Monday, March 16, we would be shut down by the mayor because of a global pandemic. Thankfully, some of our landlords were quick to understand that this emergency would cause not only immediate but also long-term impact, not simply on our business, but on theirs. To those who offered relief in the form of rent abatement or cancellation, we extend our eternal gratitude.
Yet even though conditions under which we opened our businesses and made our lease agreements no longer exist, some landlords still expected us to pay the rent as if it were business as usual.
Many of us are surviving on a sliver of our previous sales, if we have any sales at all. If, and when, we do reopen, we will be facing a loss of consumer confidence and enforced spacing restrictions because of social distancing measures.
We understand why 41 percent of our customers said they would not come back to restaurants and bars right away, because reopening is as scary for us as it is for them. As operators, we are ready to go to extraordinary lengths to make our guests and staff safe, but that will come at a cost to us, too. The smallest among us — women, people of color, immigrants, first-time and single-location operators, and other marginalized people — cannot shoulder that cost in addition to fixed rents from a pre-coronavirus world. With less revenue and additional costs to keep our guests and staff safe, our business models will change in unprecedented ways.
The boom is over, and it does not appear to be coming back soon. If hospitality was hard before, it’s nearly impossible now.
Even before the pandemic, bars and restaurants already operated with frighteningly thin margins. Creating an alternative model where the margins are even thinner, or nonexistent, is not an option without sharing financial pain.
If we do not receive some rent relief soon, landlords’ alternatives won’t be other tenants paying boom-time rents: It may well be no restaurant and bar tenants at all. Nobody wins if D.C. storefronts are left empty and our once passionate and thrilling bar and restaurant scene is no more.
We need commercial tenants and landlords to act like the partners we signed on to be for each other. A shared rent program for truly independent bars and restaurants based not on fixed amounts but on rent calculated as a percentage of total operating costs could be a vital bridge to our new normal. Eliminating “kick-out clauses” or personal guarantees that would make our businesses subject to the highest bidder or take our personal property would also be a gesture of good faith.
Together, we can sustain this city and our vital hospitality industry. But we need landlords to understand that each one of us must take our fair share of the burden. Otherwise, our city’s independent restaurants and bars risk closing forever, leaving a social, cultural and tourism void in the District.
Help us get to the other side of this crisis by keeping us in our restaurant homes, and we will happily reserve a seat at our tables for you.
Adam Greenberg and Emily Cipes, Coconut Club
Al Goldberg, Mess Hall
Amy Brandwein, Centrolina and Piccolina
Andy Shallal, Busboys and Poets
Anwar Saleem, H St Main Street
Ariel Pasternak, Pineapple Collaborative
Ashish Alfred, Duck Duck Goose
Bobby Pradachith and Seng Luangrath, Padaek, Thip Khao, Sen Khao and Hanumanh
Brent Kroll, Maxwell Park
Cameron Raspet, Red Bear Brewing
Chad Drummond, Please Bring Chips
Chipp Sandground, Central Michel Richard
Constantine Stavropoulos, the Tryst Trading Company
Daniella Senior, Colada Shop, Serenata, Zumo
Dante Datta, Daru
Dave Wiseman, Nick Wiseman and Ronen Tenne, Little Sesame
Derek Brown, Columbia Room
Dina Daniel, Fava Pot
Donna Henry, Soup Up LLC
Gabriela Febres and Ali Arellano, Arepa Zone
Greg Algie and Nathan Beauchamp, Blagden Hospitality Group
Jamie Leeds, Hank’s Oyster Bar
Jill Tyler, William Jensen, and Jon Sybert, Tail Up Goat & Reveler’s Hour
José Andrés and Rob Wilder, ThinkFoodGroup
Josh Phillips, Espita
Josh Saltzman, Ivy & Coney
Katsuya Fukushima, Yama Jewayni, Daisuke Utagawa, Daikaya Group
Kaz Okochi, KAZ Sushi Bistro
Kevin Tien, Emilie’s and Hot Lola’s
Khalid Pitts and Diane Gross, Cork Wine Bar & Market
Kim Bryden, Cureate and Cureate Connect
Latino Economic Development Center
Mandy and Joe Neuman, Sloppy Mama’s BBQ
Marla Bilonick, Latino Economic Development Center
Matt and Lindsay Baker, Gravitas
Michael Babin, Neighborhood Restaurant Group
Mike Lenard, TaKorean
Nizam Ali, Ben’s Chili Bowl, Ben’s Next Door
Paolo Sacco, Massimo Fabbri, and Fabio Trabocchi Group
Patrice Cleary, Purple Patch
The Popals, Lapis, Lapop, The Berliner, and Café Bonaparte / Lutèce
Rachel Fitz, ANXO
Rahul Vinod and Sahil Rahman, RASA
Raj Aggarwal, Think Local First
Rock Harper, RockSolid Creative Food Group, LLC
Rose Previte, Maydan, Compass Rose
Saied Azali, Perry’s
Sebastian Zutant, Primrose
Shannan Troncoso, Brookland’s Finest Bar & Kitchen
Simone Jacobson and Eric Wang, Thamee
Sofia Grace, Soussi Restaurant
Soophia Hussain, Cusbah
Tara Smith and Demetri Mechelis, Martha Dear
Toyin Alli, Puddin’ LLC
Victoria Lai, Ice Cream Jubilee
Violeta Edelman and Robb Duncan, Dolcezza Gelato