Sputtering summer sales, dwindling federal aid cripples D.C.’s small businesses

Christel Deskins

But as summer wound down, Rozeboom exhausted his grant money and lost all hope that normalcy would return with fall. He had seen the coronavirus spread around him, watching neighboring office buildings, once flush with loyal customers, remain vacant. With little left to do but wait for Congress to pass […]

But as summer wound down, Rozeboom exhausted his grant money and lost all hope that normalcy would return with fall. He had seen the coronavirus spread around him, watching neighboring office buildings, once flush with loyal customers, remain vacant.

With little left to do but wait for Congress to pass another round of legislation that would help small businesses, Rozeboom made deep personal sacrifices to keep his business afloat. He recently decided not to renew the lease on his house in Northern Virginia that would have allowed his five children to enroll in the public high school of his choice.

“The reality that this will not just be over the summer is really hitting us,” he said. “Our whole family has to sacrifice now.”

Like Rozeboom, small-business owners across the District were buoyed for months by an influx of funding from federal and local government programs and propelled by hope that gradual reopenings would breathe new life into their storefronts. But as summer stretched on, sales sputtered and pandemic-relief grants ran dry. Now, as Congress squabbles over how to help the millions of struggling businesses nationwide, owners of small firms across the region are left teetering on the edge of financial ruin.

“The severity of the pandemic, the uncertainty, has crippled our local economy,” said D.C. Council Member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who chairs the committee on business and economic development.

More than 70 small restaurants, coffee shops, entertainment hubs and fitness studios in the city have permanently closed since March, with around 20 closures in July alone, according to a Washington Post analysis of data provided by 11 nonprofit Business Improvement Districts. And that number is likely only a fraction of D.C.’s total small business closures, which have gone largely untracked by local and national groups.

Neighborhoods dependent on office workers or those that lacked resources before the pandemic have been particularly hard-hit, according to local officials and The Post’s analysis.

Those who are still in business have found themselves increasingly dependent on piecemeal agreements with landlords, innovative business strategies and, often, deep personal sacrifices from owners and employees to make ends meet.

While small businesses nationwide have been pummeled by the economic fallout from the pandemic, those in the District have been particularly impacted. Toast, a restaurant management platform, reported that D.C. is one of the five cities nationwide that has experienced the most acute drops in restaurant revenue, bringing in only 50 percent of last year’s daily earnings.

Officials say the region’s sustained economic losses can be explained in part by the confluence of rising coronavirus cases and rule-abiding residents. The greater Washington region saw an increase in the seven-day average of new cases between late June and mid-August, climbing from an average of 900 to close to 2,000. The average leveled off by late August, but residents have remained hesitant to venture into public spaces such as indoor restaurants and shops.

“People are adhering to the restrictions in D.C.,” said John Falcicchio, interim deputy mayor for planning and economic development. “It is something that actually really helps on the public health side, but it could be detrimental to the small businesses.”

The burden of the pandemic’s economic collapse is not distributed evenly across the city. Officials say downtown D.C. and neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River have been particularly hard-hit.

In the DowntownDC Business Improvement District, which includes 45 percent of the city’s total office space, foot traffic has plummeted to a record low of 12 percent of last year’s activity, with only 5 percent of employees frequenting their offices in the area, according to Gerry Widdicombe, director of economic development for the DowntownDC district. As a result, at least 10 restaurant and retail shops permanently shuttered downtown, including Maddy’s Taproom, which had been a community staple for nine years.

“It’s a ghost town,” Widdicombe said.

While businesses falter downtown, storefronts in Historic Anacostia are also in particularly desperate shape. Because of “historic inequities,” many businesses in the area had subsisted for years without back office support, which left some of them without updated paperwork and licenses necessary to qualify for federal loans, according to Stan Jackson, vice chair for the Anacostia Business Improvement District.

“There were a number of businesses that were marginalized at best prior to the pandemic and it is not a surprise to anyone that the pandemic simply moved to exacerbate some of those challenges,” Jackson said.

Anticipating heightened economic hardship in Wards 7 and 8, the District allocated $800,000 in grant funding specifically for businesses in those areas. Still, a handful are on the brink of closure.

Elsewhere in the city, Cleveland Park’s Firehook and Twins Jazz on U Street, neighborhood staples, permanently closed after months of depleted sales. B Too, a popular brunch spot, has also shuttered after eight years on 14th Street, citing financial hardship.

“We kept on adding everything up and it didn’t make any sense as a business to keep on running it,” said B Too’s chef and owner Bart Vandaele. “I have one life.”

But Vandaele hopes his other two D.C. restaurants, Belga Cafe and Betsy, will make it through the pandemic.

“I am thinking about it every day and every night,” Vandaele said of whether he will keep his two restaurants open. “But we have to try, we have to see where we will go.”

While a running list of businesses have collapsed, hundreds of businesses are determined to survive and a handful of others have even opened anew in the District. Boston’s Tatte Bakery & Cafe opened its first of three D.C. locations in August. And Shibuya Eatery, a Japanese restaurant, opened in Adams Morgan in late July.

The future for small businesses in the nation’s capital is partly in the hands of the city’s landlords, who will ultimately have to decide whether to accommodate flailing owners or oust them in favor of more profitable alternatives.

“The greatest determination of whether a restaurant can be successful is whether they can work out an agreement with their landlord,” Falcicchio said.

D.C. banned evictions in March, but the moratorium will end 60 days after the mayor lifts the public health emergency. That means landlords will have to decide whether to evict their tenants who will probably still be making only a fraction of their pre-pandemic profit, or develop flexible rent plans that give businesses time to get back on their feet.

Timothy Lowery, a landlord employed by global real estate firm Hines, oversees CityCenterDC, a development with apartment buildings, a luxury hotel and a variety of retail and restaurant destinations including Fruitive.

Lowery said he is committed to working with each business owner to ensure they can stay afloat throughout the pandemic, even once the moratorium lifts.

“I don’t think we are thinking in the mentality of replacing existing tenants,” he said. “The strategy since the beginning of March has been to help the tenants we have.”

Not all business owners will be so fortunate, especially those working with independent landlords who may not be able to subsist if their tenants do not pay rent in full. Kathy Hollinger, president and CEO of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, predicts that 25 percent of all restaurants in the region will not reopen after the pandemic.

Yet, there is reason for optimism that D.C. will emerge from the crisis with small businesses at least partly intact. Since March, more than 45 new businesses have opened or prepared for imminent openings, according to The Post’s analysis of data from the Business Improvement Districts.

Much of that growth has been driven by residential neighborhoods, where a quarantined lifestyle has driven more residents to frequent storefronts close to their homes instead of those near office buildings. In an area known as “North of Massachusetts Avenue,”or NoMa, there have been no permanent closures and four new openings, according to its Business Improvement District. And in Georgetown, where dozens of clothing stores have shuttered, there are also new signs of life.

Call Your Mother Deli, a trendy local bagel shop, opened its doors in late July to lines of socially distanced customers spilling out of its new bright pink storefront in Georgetown.

Over the past five months, the deli has added three new locations and doubled its pre-pandemic revenue. And its signature bacon, egg and cheese with spicy honey bagel? Almost always sold out.

“Growing during a pandemic sounded crazy before we did it and then it worked,” said Andrew Dana, co-owner of Call Your Mother Deli, adding that his business model built on comfort food and embedding in residential neighborhoods has proved advantageous throughout the pandemic.

Dana recalled one day in late July when he drove from one booming storefront to another, hardly believing the number of orders flowing in that day. He stopped at a red light and looked at his fiance and business partner, Daniela Moreira, smiling.

“I guess people still want bagels,” he said.

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