WASHINGTON – The line of hungry people spilling onto H Street in Northwest betrays the closing sign on Capital Q BBQ’s front door.
“Farewell BBQ Bash Saturday July 14th,” it reads in bright red and orange paint.
Inside, dozens of patrons tackle generous portions of brisket, chicken and ribs slathered in sauce.
“It’s a disaster. I don’t want to see this place close,” says longtime customer John Tamny, who has been frequenting Capital Q BBQ since 2003. “Also, all the employees are so nice.”
Jeff Gilley agrees. He has been visiting the restaurant since it opened, and counts owner Nick Fontana among his close friends.
“It’s sad to see them go,” he says. “The atmosphere is great. The boys are great. You see a lot of return customers in here.”
The Texas-style eatery has been a Chinatown staple for 15 years. But increasing rent and a stagnant economy finally caught up with the restaurant, forcing Fontana to shut his doors even while loyal customers continue to pour in.
“It’s sad to be leaving, but it’s not like we’re leaving because the business isn’t here or because we’re going out of business,” he says. “It’s more of a business decision, and 15 years is a long time.”
Across town, the shell of Armand’s Chicago Pizzeria in Tenleytown remains on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Veazey Street where it operated for 37 years. The dim lights and piled up chairs hint at the financial troubles that have been haunting the D.C.-area institution since the 2008 recession.
“Business had been slowing down for the past several years,” says co-owner Ron Newmeyer. “People were conserving money, and if they were eating out two or three times a week, maybe now they’re only eating out once or twice a week.”
Couple that with a looming increase in rent, and “it became untenable,” he says.
Fontana can relate.
Last year, a new landlord came in and wanted to raise the rent, which was already at $8,000 a month. Taxes alone were costing the small business owner $2,500, up from $400 when he first opened in 1997.
But with a $10 to $12 price point, any increase in rent would have been too much.
“It’s kind of cost-prohibitive for small, privately owned little guys to do a concept and pay that kind of rent and make money,” he says.
Many D.C. eateries are struggling with increasing rent or decreasing clientele. Within several weeks this summer, 14 restaurants were slated to close. The casualties included Casa Nonna, Sauca Food Trucks, Heritage India and Buddha Bar. Potenza and Zola will complete what DC Eater called “30 Days of Terror” when they shut down.
Despite a high turnover rate, restaurants are doing better than ever before. In 2012, national industry sales will reach a record high of $632 billion, up more than 3 percent from 2011, says Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research at the National Restaurant Association.
D.C. is responsible for $3 billion of those sales.
“In general, restaurant conditions are the best of the past several year period,” Riehle says.
“Americans love to use restaurants,” he continues. “Over 90 percent of Americans report that they like to go to restaurants, and it’s difficult to get 90 percent of Americans to agree on anything.”
Local restaurantuer Jackie Greenbaum – who also owns Jackie’s, Sidebar and Quarry House in Silver Spring, Md. – is taking advantage of those numbers. She debuted a new Columbia Heights taqueria, El Chucho, just last week. The addition boosts an already robust food scene on 11 Street NW where local favorites like Red Rocks Pizza, Room 11, Meridian Pint and Maple draw crowds from all over the region.
Localizing has quickly become the most sustainable business model for the service industry, Fontana says. The key is knowing the customer and what he or she wants.
When he first opened Capital Q BBQ, Chinatown “was pretty desolate.” But now, thousands of people pour into the area every day to shop, eat and see movies. There are countless restaurants to pick from, many of which are nationally recognized chains or feature celebrity chefs like Jose Andres, who owns Jaleo and Oyamel nearby.
“D.C. went from not really being a restaurant town … and then it just explodes,” he says. “It’s just incredible how fast it’s grown and how much more competition and how much more concepts there are.”
While Chinatown has become “like a food court,” many area residents flock to smaller neighborhoods like Adams Morgan or Columbia Heights to get a more local feel. And for business owners, non-commercial areas mean cheaper rent.
“Big names come in from other cities, [but] D.C. is a little different,” Fontana says. “Instead of them spending time with the local restaurant people … they just open a place.”