How 5 D.C.-Area Restaurateurs Are Handling Plans To Open New Locations This Year
The coronavirus has created significant pain for the existing restaurant market as owners have tried to pivot to takeout and keep their business afloat, but for restaurateurs who had planned to open during this period, the challenges have been even more complicated.
The D.C.-area dining scene had been growing at a rapid pace prior to the pandemic, and given the time it takes to open a new bar or restaurant, a host of deals had already been signed for locations that planned to open this spring or summer. Some of these restaurants have opened for takeout during the pandemic, while others have been delayed but still plan to open when government restrictions are lifted — D.C. and Virginia both plan to begin phased reopenings Friday.
Other restaurant openings been delayed even further by supply chain issues and additional hurdles that could keep them closed for several more months. Bisnow spoke with five restaurateurs who had planned new openings to hear their experiences.
Bing & Bao
Rachel Wang and her husband, Mark Shen, had planned to open their first restaurant in March in Falls Church.
The Chinese restaurant, Bing & Bao, is fully built out and ready to open at the Idylwood Plaza shopping center. The owners decided not to open for takeout during the stay-at-home period because they don't have brand recognition or a loyal customer base that would support them during the pandemic, Wang said.
"For a brand-new restaurant, it's really hard to start business during a pandemic because nobody knows you, and normally people just go to their go-to spot when they order takeout or do online ordering," Wang said.
Bing & Bao plans to begin a soft opening Friday, the date Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has pegged for Northern Virginia communities to begin the first phase of reopening. Wang said it plans to start by rolling out takeout and delivery before serving people inside at a limited capacity, and it also will not have the grand opening party she had envisioned.
The restaurant owners, who were represented by Neighborhood Retail Group's Bethany Kabaza in the lease negotiations, have received rent forgiveness for the months that they have been unable to open. But the new small-business owners have still made significant investments to build out the space and have not yet yielded any revenue.
"It is frustrating to wait for another two months to open," Wang said. "We spent a lot of money on this restaurant."
Wang immigrated to the U.S. from China to attend graduate school at the University of Maryland studying finance. Shen's family owns a Japanese restaurant in Alabama and he has always dreamed of opening his own, so the two decided to team up to start a new business.
"He always wanted to open a Japanese restaurant, but after we moved to Virginia we realized there's a lot of Japenese restaurants, but we didn't see the concept of offering modern Chinese street food and Asian fusion," Wang said. "We think it's better to bring a new concept to the DMV area."
Junction Bistro and Donahue
But when the coronavirus pandemic hit and the stay-at-home orders were put in place, Landini decided to close the Junction Bistro, Bar & Bakery on Capitol Hill rather than try to pivot to takeout.
"Because of where it was located, and because people working on the Hill stopped coming to work and Union Station was significantly reduced in traffic, and us being so new, we didn't really know a lot of people in the neighborhood," Landini said. "So we made the decision to focus on our older restaurants."
The location was the second for Junction after its original outpost in Alexandria, and Landini is also planning a third in Chevy Chase. That restaurant is now in the construction phase, but Landini said the pandemic has caused delays that will push back its targeted opening from late summer to the holiday season.
Landini is also planning to open a new bar in Georgetown — those plans have also been delayed. He has teamed up with Luca Giovannini, previously the beverage director for Fabio Trabocchi Restaurants, to open a new concept at the former home of Smith Point at 1338 Wisconsin Ave. NW.
The 3,400 SF bar will be called Donahue. Landini said it will be a speak-easy-style lounge that will feature seating areas and host private events, making it better positioned for social distancing requirements than other crowded bars in the area, such as Bar Deco in Chinatown, which he also owns.
"For the speak-easy, I think it will be a little easier because it's more a lounge atmosphere than a bar atmosphere," Landini said. "There's a little more room to mitigate that issue, but also because of the type of business we think we're going to be doing, we don't want it to be packed."
Landini said he had aimed to open around mid-summer, but it now looks like it could be pushed back to September or October. One of the primary hurdles delaying the opening has been supply chain issues. He said it has ordered handmade chairs from Poland and other furniture and materials that have experienced major shipping delays.
Landini also worked with NRG's Kabaza on the lease and said his landlord has been flexible. But he said he has a host of additional expenses that have put a strain on his business as these openings are delayed, such as utility bills, insurance and staff training.
"There's going to be a lot of robbing Peter to pay Paul going on," Landini said. "We got hit at the most vulnerable time you could ever get hit, just having opened one restaurant and in the middle of opening two more. Had this been a year prior, as far as liquidity is concerned, we would be in a much better position."
Doi Moi and Chicken + Whiskey
The group announced in December it was coming on as the operator for Doi Moi with plans to renovate the space and revamp the menu. The renovation will create an indoor-outdoor bar with a patio, and they are planning a dedicated alley for delivery drivers to pick up food, two ideas they had in mind before the pandemic that look even more logical today.
The SRG team, led by Kris Carr, Desmond Reilly and Stu Damon, accelerated the renovation plans once the stay-at-home order was issued, and they now aim to open in August.
"When COVID struck, we decided to close the restaurant and take advantage of the downtime to renovate now," Reilly said.
The team has also pivoted its Chicken + Whiskey restaurant on 14th Street, its Walrus Oyster & Ale House in National Harbor and The Walrus in Columbia, Maryland, to focus more on takeout service. It has turned the front window of Chicken + Whiskey into a cocktail bar for takeout service, and it is in negotiations to lease an adjacent parking lot that it would turn into patio seating.
One week before the stay-at-home order, SRG signed a lease to open another Chicken + Whiskey location in a 4K SF space at 1250 Half St. SE, Jair Lynch's development across from Nationals Park, Reilly told Bisnow.
"It's a super sexy, exciting, up-and-coming area," Reilly said. "But suddenly it's like, 'Whoa what are we going to do now, because baseball is maybe not going to happen.'"
The team, working with Pulse Retail principal Josh Miller, has received flexibility from Jair Lynch to push back the commencement of the lease because of the pandemic, Carr said. He said they now aim to open the Half Street location by fall 2021.
"They've been understanding," Carr said of his landlord. "We were fully transparent that we needed more time, we're not going to be able to live in the timeline signed by the lease. They completely understood and came back and said, 'Talk to us about your biggest concerns. What are you scared of? What are the hurdles?'"
Call Your Mother
Popular bagel shop Call Your Mother managed to open its second location on Capitol Hill in mid-April despite the District's stay-at-home order.
Co-owners Andrew Dana and Daniela Moreira had reduced the staffing and focused on takeout and delivery at the first location in Park View in response to the pandemic, and their catering and farmers market business lines were halted. But they wanted to keep all of their staff on the payroll, so they decided moving ahead with the planned Capitol Hill opening was the best way to achieve that goal.
The Capitol Hill shop had planned to open in mid-March at 701 Eighth St. SE, and the space was fully built out and received its inspections by the time the District shut down restaurants. The co-owners surveyed their staff and found that many of them lived in the Capitol Hill area and could travel to the shop without taking public transit, so it still made sense to open for takeout.
"We realized we have the staff, we have the capacity to make more bagels, the shop is built out, and this is a way we can drive more revenue," Dana said. "We said, 'I know it sounds crazy when you say let's open a shop in the middle of the pandemic,' but it checked all the boxes."
Dana said sales at the new location have been better than he had hoped for during the pandemic. The shop is operating with a smaller-than-normal staff wearing masks and gloves with hand sanitizer available to customers. It has also shifted all orders to online so customers can pick up their bagels at the door.
Dana said Call Your Mother has been fortunate because bagel shops are naturally suited for takeout service.
"We didn't have to reinvent our business model, we just had to tweak how we order and do pickups," Dana said. "I do think the restaurants that are based on more of a service model are having a tougher time because that's what people expect, and they really have had to reinvent the wheel."
Call Your Mother is also planning a third location in Georgetown, but that opening has been delayed by an ongoing Board of Zoning Adjustments case. Dana said the shop is ready to open within two weeks of when that case is finalized. He also said he plans to look at additional opportunities to expand to other neighborhoods.
Matt Rofougaran, owner of Hops N Shine in Alexandria and previous owner of the now-closed Tysons Biergarten, is moving forward with plans to open two new beer gardens in Tysons and Herndon.
He signed a deal with Cityline Partners to open a 25K SF beer garden on the developer's Scotts Run site near the McLean Metro station. The venue, lined with shipping containers, will be called ShipGarten.
In addition to German and Belgian beers, ShipGarten is planned to feature several food offerings including German food, Asian fusion cuisine, barbecue and Mediterranean fare. Rofougaran said he had originally aimed to open June 1, but he is now pushing that back and hopes to open by September at the latest.
"We're slowing down and taking our time," he said. "We want to make sure we do this right. First impressions are key, and we want to make sure everything is right. We want to learn from other people's mistakes."
To respond to the coronavirus, ShipGarten will no longer have large, communal tables and will instead have picnic tables with at least 6 feet between them. It will also add sneeze guards between the bartenders and customers, use disposable cups instead of glass, and limit the overall capacity.
"We have to now change our entire way of thinking and how we can have people in the space," Rofougaran said.
He said Cityline has agreed to push back the start of rent payments until ShipGarten opens.
"It might be slow to start when we open up, but one of the things that we have in Tysons that's really lucky is the amount of space ShipGarten will have," he said. "That will allow social distancing and a safe environment, and it makes our investors and ourselves feel comfortable in opening."
Rofougaran's team also acquired a warehouse building in Herndon where it plans to open another beer garden. He had hoped to open the beer garden at 771 Center St. in August or September, but he is now targeting an opening by the end of October.
"We don't have the rush to speed that one open as quickly, because we're going to learn from ShipGarten and the rest of the world on how to do that properly," he said. "But we're going to be open."
CORRECTION, MAY 28, 10:20 A.M. ET: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the broker working with Chicken + Whiskey on its Half Street lease. Pulse Retail principal Josh Miller is the restaurant's broker. This story has been updated.