Home Rule on 14th Street shut its doors at the end of March.

Home Rule on 14th Street shut its doors at the end of March.

A friendly neighborhood store can help people feel rooted in their community. Customers develop emotional attachments to their favorite restaurants, bars, grocery stores and nurseries.

So what happens when those businesses close up shop? And how can small businesses in particular survive in the high-rent, high-risk Washington region?

We’ll discuss with local business owners as well as regional real estate and restaurant experts.

Produced by Julie Depenbrock

Guests

  • Jessica Sidman Food Editor, Washingtonian; @jsidman
  • Dan Reed Urban Planner, Real Estate Agent, Author, "Just Up The Pike"; @justupthepike
  • Balraj Bhasin Owner, Bombay Curry Company
  • Stephanie Fleming Owner, Behnke Nurseries
  • Greg Link Owner, Home Rule

What Business Closings Broke Your Heart? Join Our Conversation On Twitter.

Transcript

  • 12:16:13

    KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Friendly neighborhood businesses, especially those that have been around a long time, help people feel rooted in their communities. And recently, a number of beloved local businesses have announced they're closing up shop, from Behnke Nurseries in Beltsville, Maryland, to Home Rule Meridian Pint ,and now Meiwah in DC. So, what happens when those places shut their doors? How do neighborhoods change when local shops vacate, and how can any small business survive in the high-risk, high-rent Washington region?

  • 12:16:43

    KOJO NNAMDIJoining me in studios, Dan Reed. He's an urban planner, real estate agent and author of "Just Up the Pike," a blog about the life and times of Montgomery County's east side. Dan, good to see you.

  • 12:16:53

    DAN REEDHey, thanks for having me.

  • 12:16:54

    NNAMDIAlso in studio is Jessica Sidman. She's a food editor at Washingtonian. Hey, Jessica, how's it going?

  • 12:16:59

    JESSICA SIDMANHi, Kojo.

  • 12:17:00

    NNAMDIYou wrote about the closing of Meridian Pint, a Columbia Heights gastro pub that isn't shutting down so much as moving to Arlington. What reasons did the owner give for the move?

  • 12:17:12

    SIDMANSo, the reason that that owner John Andrade gave -- which is something that I've heard echoed by a lot of restaurateurs -- is that there are too many restaurants in DC. And the competition is super-fierce, and they're all competing against each other. And it's very difficult, these days. Now, to a certain extent, you know, I think the question is less, you know, are there too many restaurants, or are there enough diners to go around, and more that it's an issue with so many new restaurants, it's very hard to stay relevant, and everyone wants to go to the cool, new hotspot. And there's very much a culture of what's happening right now.

  • 12:18:04

    SIDMANSo, you know, if you've been around even a year, you're not as relevant as the place that opened four weeks ago. And there's going to be a dozen more restaurants that open, you know, in the next few weeks. So, it's very, very tough.

  • 12:18:23

    NNAMDIToday, the owner of Meiwah announced he'll be closing the DC location of that Chinese restaurant. And our production team, at least, that was a bit of a shock. Were you surprised by that news?

  • 12:18:34

    SIDMANYou know, it's such a shame, because this is, in many ways, an eating institution for DC. So many presidents, politicians, celebrities have been there over the years. In that case, the owner has said, you know, a big reason for the closure was that the landlord is looking to raise the rent and maybe redevelop the property. And, you know, that's what's happening also to a lot of businesses in DC, and to some extent, you know, maybe it's not surprising.

  • 12:19:07

    NNAMDIYes. As a matter of fact, full-service Chinese restaurants have been disappearing from DC for years. There are still a lot of carry-outs, but Meiwah was one of the few full-service Chinese restaurants left in town. What are some other closures that took you by surprise?

  • 12:19:20

    SIDMANWell, a big one for me was Sally's Middle Name on 8th Street, which was a top restaurant on our 100 Very Best Restaurants list, had been getting a lot of acclaim, you know. But I think, a lot of times, there are places that seem, on the outside, to be doing very well, and they may have excellent cooking, but you never know what's going on behind the scenes. The same with Meridian Pint, where, you know, it seemed, to some extent, to be doing well. And the owner said, hey, we still make millions in revenue, but, you know, we have a really large space. We have a large staff, and, uh, you know, that's not enough.

  • 12:20:08

    NNAMDIWhen you talk to DC residents, what restaurants do they say they'd most like to see come back?

  • 12:20:14

    SIDMANOh, wow. So, I asked this question on Twitter yesterday, and I was overwhelmed by the responses. I think I got more than 300 responses, so people are very passionate...

  • 12:20:25

    NNAMDI(overlapping) We miss a lot of places.

  • 12:20:27

    SIDMANYes, yes. I would say the number one restaurant that people mentioned was Palena, in Cleveland Park. But it really ran the gamut from Taylor Gourmet, which recently shut down, to Citronelle which was fine dining in Georgetown, and places going back even further. So, you know, people have this very strong sense of nostalgia.

  • 12:20:55

    NNAMDI(overlapping) We miss a lot. Dan Reed, I'd like to talk with you more broadly about the importance of small businesses. What do they offer to a community?

  • 12:21:02

    REEDI think they give a community a sense of rootedness, both in, like, the larger place and also in yourself. You know, I think about, when I was in fourth grade, I had moved from my neighborhood school in Silver Spring out to this magnet school in Rockville. And I was so proud to bring in a cake from Posin's Bakery on Georgia Avenue for my ninth birthday. And none of the kids knew about it. It was very exotic to them, and my teachers were horrified that I'd bought a cake from DC. But it made me feel very special, like this is a special place that I know about and I care about, and I really wanted this cake.

  • 12:21:36

    NNAMDIAnd teach some people about it.

  • 12:21:37

    REEDExactly.

  • 12:21:38

    NNAMDIYou've talked about how much you miss Jackie's in Silver Spring. What was special about Jackie's, and why did it ultimately close down?

  • 12:21:46

    REEDI think Jackie's, you know, helped put Silver Spring on the map. It was a community that had seen a lot of disinvestment. And here was not only a higher-end, American-style restaurant opening, but one opened by a local, right, that gave Silver Spring a lot of positive attention and notoriety. And when Jackie's added Sidebar next to it, it was this really cool, dark cocktail bar where they made really nice, high-end, you know, products. It was also something people didn't expect to see outside of DC.

  • 12:22:16

    REEDAnd for me, personally, it taught me about cocktails and about drink-making. And it was also -- I could afford going to Sidebar in a way I couldn't afford going to Jackie's, right. So, I really mourned it closing.

  • 12:22:29

    NNAMDIYeah, Sidebar always seemed to more crowded than Jackie's, didn't it?

  • 12:22:31

    REEDOh, absolutely. And Jackie's gave a lot of reasons for why she closed. She blamed the county's restrictive liquor laws, but she also pointed out that it was hard for her to get traffic to her restaurant in Silver Spring. I remember her telling me that her friends in DC pretended like it was China. It was too far away, and she worried that that, combined with the opening of a lot of other less-upscale restaurants in Silver Spring, were threatening her customer base.

  • 12:22:57

    NNAMDIYeah, she talked a little bit about that on this broadcast. How are Jackie's DC restaurants faring?

  • 12:23:02

    REEDProbably good. I don't go to any of them.

  • 12:23:05

    NNAMDI(laugh) I used to go to Slash Run on Upshur Street, but I think she got rid of Slash Run, and it's now under new ownership. How has the landscape for small businesses changed in the Washington region generally?

  • 12:23:19

    REEDThere have been these huge seismic shifts in how people buy things, right. We don't buy as many physical products in stores anymore. We're doing it first at big box stores out in the suburbs, and then later, that shifted to online. So, a lot of these smaller businesses, where their business model was you're going to walk to the store or drive a short distance to the store, they simply can't function anymore. And as people increasingly seek out experiences -- that being a thing that you cannot download off the internet -- we're seeing more and more places that focus on either the experience of buying a physical good, or places that emphasize services, right.

  • 12:23:55

    REEDRestaurants are a thing you cannot replace with the internet. Bars, you cannot replace with the internet. So, you're seeing a lot of stronger restaurant and bar concepts, and also banks. There seem to be a lot of storefront banks.

  • 12:24:07

    NNAMDIJessica, how has the landscape -- he mentioned bars and restaurants. How has the landscape changed for bars and restaurants in the Washington region?

  • 12:24:15

    SIDMANI mean, first of all, there's so many more of them. (laugh)

  • 12:24:22

    NNAMDIMore competition.

  • 12:24:22

    SIDMANWhole new dining neighborhoods. I mean, just look at the Wharf, for example, the way Shaw has developed in recent years. And in some cases, you know, the core areas that, in the past, have been more restaurant-heavy, you know, with rent going up, restaurants are going to new neighborhoods that maybe they hadn't been in as much in the past, more neighborhood-y type places, which I think is actually a good development, although, you know, the downtown core is now so dominated by chains.

  • 12:25:03

    NNAMDIHere is Rahl in DC. Rahl, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:25:07

    RAHLYes, thank you for taking my call. I've been a long-term resident in Northwest area, and I was very excited about the addition of Meridian Pint. But when I got there, and to follow, I was always disappointed by the menu. Not necessarily what was on the menu, but the execution, and to a point where I was pulled in with friends that'd go there and eat, and begrudgingly. So, the fact that they're moving probably has to do with their execution. The idea was great, the concept was great and their other restaurants stand out and work. But that menu doesn't work. So, I don't think it's necessarily contributing to the area or the overwhelming amount of restaurants. It just comes down to execution and pulling your customers in.

  • 12:25:58

    NNAMDIJessica?

  • 12:25:59

    RAHLBut thank you. Oh, wait, and to the closing of Taylor? Taylor closed because they supported Trump, and everybody boycotting it. It has nothing to do with saturation of restaurants. That was a clear message to Taylor, that DC people didn't want him. But Meridian Pint, people like them. It's just, yeah, they don't execute well. Thanks.

  • 12:26:19

    NNAMDIJessica Sidman?

  • 12:26:20

    SIDMANWell, I'll leave Taylor aside for now, but, you know, I think it is, as I was saying, very hard to stay relevant when there's so many new places coming. And it's not just being relevant. It's also the staffing, because there's a major staffing shortage. So, just like diners, top employees also want to go to other places. And, you know, I'm not necessarily saying this is the case for Meridian Pint, but just speaking generally, you know, the best servers are also going to flock to the new places, the best sous-chefs, the best chefs. And so sometimes, the quality can suffer at places that have been around longer just because, you know, the staff knows they're not going to make as much money there.

  • 12:27:12

    NNAMDIDan, what are some of the other reasons that a mom-and-pop business might close its doors?

  • 12:27:17

    REEDI think one of the things we often forget is that restaurants are operated by people with lives and needs and concerns. And sometimes, they don't want to open a restaurant anymore. My aunt bought a building in Petworth in 1986, and operated a small grocery store there for 20-odd years. And then she and my cousin decided to open a Caribbean restaurant there. We're from Guyana. And that ran for a couple of years, and then she was tired and she didn't want to do it anymore, so it closed. And she decided she could rent, for more money, to another user. So, people and the needs of those people play into this a lot.

  • 12:27:50

    NNAMDIWe got a Tweet from Esther, who said, I still miss Karibu Books and Kemp Mill Records. Yes, there are those people who remember Kemp Mill Records from way back in the day. And the owner of Karibu, at one point, owned several book stores in the Washington region, but, as you pointed out, they're closed. Here's Alex in Washington, DC. Alex, your turn.

  • 12:28:10

    ALEXHi. I live in Petworth, and I really miss Ruta del Vino. It closed earlier this -- I think it was earlier -- no, no, late last year. It was a Spanish restaurant, and they had like this really good sandwich that had pork filling in it. And, oh, yeah, I really miss it. Now, it's, like, a barbecue place...

  • 12:28:32

    NNAMDI(overlapping) Yeah, right. As a matter of fact, DCist.com has a piece, if you go to their website, on the new place that has replaced it, Barbecue and Whiskey.

  • 12:28:39

    ALEXYeah, yeah, we'll try it, but I really wish Ruta stayed.

  • 12:28:44

    NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. Joining us now by phone is Stephanie Fleming. Stephanie Fleming owns Behnke Nurseries in Beltsville, Maryland, which is closing in June. Stephanie, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:28:57

    STEPHANIE FLEMINGHi, there. How are you?

  • 12:28:59

    NNAMDIWe're well, but Behnke Nurseries is a place that, for many, taps into this well of nostalgia. Stephanie, you're the current owner, and Behnke will be closing its doors in June. Can you tell us the story of how this nursery came to be?

  • 12:29:14

    FLEMINGWell, I'm just one of a few owners. My whole entire family are part owners of Behnke's. We started in 1930. My grandparents met on a ship. They were both from Germany, and they were both in America, going back and fell in love. And came back together and got married, and the rest is history. They just worked very hard. He decided to find some property on US1. He rented some property, and then slowly started buying different lots up. And that became what is known as Behnke Nurseries.

  • 12:29:52

    NNAMDIBehnke's is really beloved by so many in the surrounding community. What do you think makes it such a special place?

  • 12:29:59

    FLEMINGI think it's the people, it's our employees. We have people that have been there 57 years, for our President Alfred Millard, 40 years, 30 years, 20 years or even a year or two. Our staff is probably some of the best people around. They love what they do. They have the plant knowledge. And then we also give the selection of plants for our customers, and then we go to our customers, who are some of the most wonderful people in the world. They love us, and we love them. They come out, and you can just see the pressures of the world come off their shoulders as they walk though and just enjoy what we have out there.

  • 12:30:45

    NNAMDIThat's it. Why close the nursery?

  • 12:30:49

    FLEMINGBecause it's time. My family is pretty much in their 80s. The buildings are 80, 90 years old. I mean, they're pretty old, and we have a lot of staff that's getting ready to retire. So, it's an exit plan we've been working on for over six years. We've worked closely with Prince Georges County former councilwoman, and the Beltsville Civic Center, Community Center, I guess it's called, and our neighbors. We've had meetings. We've let our employees know. They've known pretty much what's going on every step of the way for the last two years.

  • 12:31:28

    FLEMINGAnd we worked with everybody, decided what would be the best use for the property, because as your former guest said, sometimes it's just time. And, like I said, we've been really blessed to have some of the best employees and...

  • 12:31:41

    NNAMDI(overlapping) You have employees who have been with Behnke's more than 50 years. One of them, it's my understanding, for 57 years. Is that correct?

  • 12:31:50

    FLEMINGRight. Yes, Alfred Millard started when he was 13. Just had his 70th birthday. He is president of the company. He started pushing a wheelbarrow for my grandfather. And, you know, they become family. Our CFO, Hank Doong, I think this is the only job he's ever had, and he's been there 50-some years. We have people that have been there 40. There's John Reed, who people will come in and ask for the cowboy. He wears a big cowboy hat. You know, our customers, they love our staff.

  • 12:32:30

    NNAMDIIt's like family. You've said that Behnke's Nurse...

  • 12:32:32

    FLEMINGIt is family.

  • 12:32:33

    NNAMDIIt is. You've said that Behnke's Nursery sits on 12 acres of land. Do you know what's next for the property?

  • 12:32:37

    FLEMINGRight. Yeah, we've been working, like I said, with Prince Georges County and seeing what would be the best use for the property. And it's been pretty much decided that it's probably going to be townhouses. We'll have some nice, beautiful townhouses and green space. Yeah, I think it's going to be a little -- everybody will own a little piece of Behnke's.

  • 12:33:03

    NNAMDIHow do you feel about all of this?

  • 12:33:06

    FLEMINGIt's really hard, as these last two weeks have been really overwhelming. I'm very sad that it's coming to an end, but I know it needed to. It's what's best for my family. And it just was time, but it's bittersweet at the same time. The outpouring of love and affection that we're getting from our customers and even our competitors, our friendly competitors. Local, independent garden centers in the area have been reaching out to us, reaching out to our employees, offering jobs. It's such a wonderful, wonderful business to be in.

  • 12:33:46

    FLEMINGAnd, you know, you all were talking about big box stores. We don't really worry about the big box stores, because when people keep buying plants and they keep failing with them, they end up in a garden center, an independent garden center like Behnke's. And once they come in, they see and they learn, and that's what makes gardening so much fun.

  • 12:34:06

    NNAMDIStephanie Fleming owns Behnke Nurseries in Beltsville, Maryland, which is closing in June. Stephanie, thank you so much for joining us. Good luck to you.

  • 12:34:13

    FLEMINGAnd I just want to make one more mention.

  • 12:34:16

    NNAMDISure.

  • 12:34:16

    FLEMINGEverybody look for their gift cards. We want them to come in and use them before June.

  • 12:34:22

    NNAMDIOkay, good. Thank you very much.

  • 12:34:24

    FLEMINGOkay.

  • 12:34:24

    NNAMDIDan Reed, Stephanie pointed out that there's likely to be townhouses on the development that replaces where Behnke's is. Now, we do have affordable housing issues in this area, so that may not be a bad thing, necessarily.

  • 12:34:36

    REEDThere is a tremendous housing shortage in this region, and we're going to certainly see some of our older commercial spaces being used for housing. Not just retail spaces or places like Behnke's, but office complexes, too, is the way people work shifts. But I will say Behnke's holds a special place in my heart. I grew up shopping there. One of my best friends has worked there for ten years, and I'm not going to lie. I teared up a little bit when Stephanie said that everybody's going to get to own a little piece of Behnke's.

  • 12:35:03

    NNAMDIThank you very much again, Stephanie. Here is Jim, in DC. Jim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:35:09

    JIMHello, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I own a deli at 20th and K. We've been there since 1987. I've seen many businesses come and go, but one thing that I didn't hear any of our callers or your guests mention is the impact of property taxes on the rent. There's two different ways to look at this. One standpoint is that my rent comprises my charges by square foot. And then there's water, and then there's the CAM charges. And the CAM charges include the property tax. And the property tax on all these buildings has gone up by so much, that that's the major impact on rent for restaurants and carry-outs in DC.

  • 12:35:52

    JIMAnd from the other standpoint, I also own a few small buildings in the city. And it makes it hard for me to charge my tenants rent that I would like to charge them, because I also have this what's called a pass through for the property tax. And the property tax is so much money that the tenants struggle. So, that's something that I didn't hear mentioned.

  • 12:36:13

    NNAMDIJessica Sidman, care to comment?

  • 12:36:14

    SIDMANYeah, I mean, I think it just goes to show, again, that this is a complicated issue. There isn't always just one reason that restaurants suffer. I mean, another factor that we haven't mentioned yet is labor costs on the rise. Obviously, big hikes in minimum wage coming in DC and the surrounding areas which, you know, is a good thing. But, in a lot of ways it, does hurt some businesses that maybe don't feel like they can raise their prices accordingly. And so, there's just so many factors.

  • 12:36:54

    NNAMDIHere's Jeff, in Washington, DC. Jeff your turn.

  • 12:36:59

    JEFFKojo, hello.

  • 12:37:00

    NNAMDIHello, Jeff.

  • 12:37:01

    JEFFJust calling in about Jojo's, where I book the music, Jojo's Jazz Bar on U Street. And we're lucky, I guess. We're kind of a small, intimate spot, and we remain full of customers. But I've seen tons of places go by the wayside. My favorite is the Palace of Wonders on 8th Street, loved especially by New Orleanians who would visit DC. If I took them there first, they always had a good time in the city thereafter. But...

  • 12:37:36

    NNAMDIWhy'd they have to close?

  • 12:37:39

    JEFFI think they experimented. There were several bars over there next to each other, and they moved them around, made it into a music spot, took away all the sword-swallowing and burlesque and magic shows and various things that they were doing. Then it was something like the Red and the Black, and now it's totally redone, sort of a typical big bar, and I know a lot of people miss that place.

  • 12:38:08

    NNAMDIHey, Jeff, thank you very much for your call. We've talked to artists on this broadcast about music venues that feature live music and the struggles they're having. So, a lot of that is going on. We're going to have to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:38:43

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about beloved businesses closings with Jessica Sidman. She's food editor at Washingtonian, and Dan Reed. He's an urban planner, real estate agent and author of "Just Up the Pike," a blog about the life and times of Montgomery County's east side. Joining us now in studio is Balraj Bhasin. He was a co-owner -- along with his wife, Nikki -- of Bombay Curry Company in Delray, Virginia. Balraj, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:39:08

    BALRAJ BHASINIt's a pleasure being here.

  • 12:39:10

    NNAMDIAnd joining us by phone is Greg Link. Greg Link was the owner of Home Rule on 14th Street. Greg, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:39:19

    GREG LINKOh, you're welcome.

  • 12:39:20

    NNAMDIGreg, when we asked our listeners to tell us what DC businesses they missed most, the name Home Rule came up again and again. What did Home Rule, the home goods store on 14th Street, offer that made it so unique?

  • 12:39:32

    LINKWell, you know, I think Dan got into that. It gave people that sense of local. It gave them a sense of belonging. You know, we sold neighborhood clocks. We had the name Home Rule that really, you know, spoke to the people of DC. So, it's just people in DC long for that sort of connection. It's a very international-national city, but it didn't sometimes feel very local. And that's what the shop offered. It was that neighborhood, local feeling.

  • 12:40:03

    NNAMDIWe've discussed how retail can be a tough business, yet your store managed to survive for nearly 20 years in this tough market. But 14th Street has changed a lot in the past 20 years. How did that affect the store?

  • 12:40:16

    LINKWell, you know, I think one of the things that used to -- over the last few years that actually probably irks me more than anything, when people would say, wow, you must really enjoy what's happening to the neighborhood. You must just really get a kick out of all this new traffic. And it was ironic, because when we first opened in September of 1999, we had lots of traffic. You know, we were sort of a destination. And then a few other stores opened next to us, and that became a destination in and of itself. So, we always had a lot of people and a lot of traffic.

  • 12:40:48

    LINKAnd then, as the neighborhood progressed, you started to see people on the street that walked by. And, all of a sudden, it became, you know, a thing where, wow, where are all these people going? You know, what are they doing? So, traffic, in a sense, became, why aren't they coming in the store, type of question.

  • 12:41:08

    NNAMDISo, what were your reasons for closing down?

  • 12:41:11

    LINKI think, you know, I echo a lot with Stephanie, in a sense. You know, I mean, and I want to congratulate her for making it through that stretch. That's an amazing amount of time to contribute. And it was time for me and for the two people that helped me run this shop. I grew up in retail. My father died in retail, and I had no desire to, you know, just to keep running the wheel like that. You know, it just becomes a time, after 20 years, it's not fun anymore. We created it, and it was sort of a theater for us, but, you know, eventually, it's just work. And that's what I think people -- and I think Dan got into that somewhat. You know, it's actually also work. And at some point, you have to say, okay, I need to do something else. I need to do something else that enriches my life.

  • 12:42:06

    NNAMDIHow did longtime customers react when they heard the news?

  • 12:42:10

    LINKOh, gosh, Kojo. You know, I got so many reactions across the board. I mean, some people congratulated us. Some people thanked us. And then I had some people that were actually angry at me. I had some people stand at the counter and actually...

  • 12:42:23

    NNAMDI(laugh) How dare you?

  • 12:42:24

    LINK...said, you can't -- yeah, how dare you. You can't close this store. And I was actually really taken aback, you know, that that was their reaction. That was their experience. You can't do this to us. And it was really hard, and I know that Stephanie's going through that. It was really hard, because one of the things you dread is telling people, it's like you lived in this beloved neighborhood. You have great friends, and then you have to tell them that you're moving on. And that's not a great conversation to have.

  • 12:42:53

    NNAMDIOh, Greg Link, thank you so much for joining us. Greg Link was the owner of Home Rule on 14th Street. Thank you.

  • 12:43:00

    LINKYou're welcome.

  • 12:43:02

    NNAMDIDan, the response that Greg got from some people: how dare you? Don't you realize that this store has become an integral part of my life? How does it affect the community when a beloved small business like that has to vacate?

  • 12:43:14

    REEDIt can be heartbreaking. I was heartbroken when Sidebar closed, and I was angry at the restaurant that replaced it, which is also closed. On the other hand, I learned how to make my own cocktails at home. So, there's a natural progression, sometimes.

  • 12:43:26

    NNAMDIJessica, do you think there's this same kind of nostalgia for DC restaurants which seem to turn over rather quickly?

  • 12:43:30

    SIDMANAbsolutely. I mean, restaurants are so personal to people. Think of all the major life moments that often happen in restaurants, whether it's birthdays or anniversaries, proposals. You know, when Millie and Al's closed in 2016 -- which, you know, was a bar in Adams Morgan that had been there for 53 years -- I found so many people who'd either met there or had been on their first date there. So, you know, there are probably dozens and dozens of love stories that started at Millie and Al's. And, you know, think of the restaurant that, you know, some couples, they go to every year on their anniversary for maybe a decade or more, and it closes. That's heartbreaking.

  • 12:44:17

    NNAMDIWhen I first opened the door to Millie and Al's about 40 years ago, it was so dark inside, I was, like, can I really go in here? And you go in here, and you find it's really a nice place to be. Let's talk about a Virginia restaurant. Balraj Bhasin, you and your wife Nikki opened Bombay Curry in 1995. Was that something you always wanted to do?

  • 12:44:37

    BHASINYes because we came to this country and we were working, and we had expertise in hospitality and Indian cooking. And we were told that if you have to get somewhere in this country, you have to do it yourself, rather than work for somebody else. So, we always wanted to open an Indian restaurant, and we kept scouring the place to look for a spot. And we wouldn't find anything. And then we found this little sign that said “For Lease” a couple of blocks from our neighborhood, and things just got rolling.

  • 12:45:17

    BHASINAnd we read, actually, a little survey that the neighborhood had done at that time. And they had polled this neighborhood to find out what they wanted in the neighborhood. And there's a bakery, there's an ice cream shop, and at number three, was an Indian restaurant. And I said, well, why not? Let's go for it. And things worked out, because the landlord was very kind to us. And he loved Indian food, so he gave us an opportunity. Landlords are not good to you when you are starting out, because they want to find out how much money you have, how much experience you have, not as a restaurant worker, but as a business owner. And so, nobody would talk to you. But this gentleman, he was very kind, and he said, go right ahead. And that's what he did.

  • 12:46:17

    NNAMDIBombay Curry was named to many top 100 and top 50 restaurant lists over the years. But you say the restaurant's big break came when Washington Post food critic Phyllis Richmond gave her glowing review. Here's some of what she wrote in 1997, quoting here, "The only thing more nondescript than the name of this Indian restaurant is the restaurant itself, a small, plain storefront at the end of a shopping strip. What is distinctive is the important part: the cooking. The Bombay Curry Company makes curries that taste totally different from one another, with seasoning that unfolds in waves as you savor it." What did positive reviews like that do for the success of the restaurant?

  • 12:46:56

    BHASINThis lady gave me a big break, the biggest, and, of course, I have this lady from the Washingtonian.

  • 12:47:02

    NNAMDIJessica Sidman.

  • 12:47:02

    BHASINBut I still have to say, Phyllis Richmond was the lady, and she could really get people in. We were a small restaurant. She gave us a glowing review. And the Post, you know, the Post, the magazine section comes out a day ahead. So, we went at night to get a paper and to open the magazine, because we knew it was going to come that particular day. And when we said -- we looked, we opened the magazine to the review, and we said, oh, my God. You know, she butchered us, because she said she went there with a friend, and this restaurant has no -- I don't know the word she used, it had no character. And we said, oh, my God. We are dead.

  • 12:47:50

    BHASINAnd then she started talking about the...

  • 12:47:52

    NNAMDI(overlapping) The food.

  • 12:47:53

    BHASIN...the food and everything, and she loved it. And, apparently, she had come there with other people, and they told her how close it was to what home cooking is. And she went off, actually, in another way, which was she started talking about the owner, you know. And she said, Balraj Bhasin, the chatty host, you must meet him, and all that kind of stuff, which actually put a different spin on things, because people started coming there. And they would feel that they didn't get their money if the host didn't talk to them.

  • 12:48:29

    NNAMDIAmbiance isn't everything. The food is very important in a restaurant. So, why did you and your wife ultimately decide it was time to close Bombay Curry Company?

  • 12:48:40

    BHASINYou know, I've been listening to this broadcast for the past, like, 30 minutes, and a few people have come on. And I think the phrase is, it was time. And after 20 years, numerous things happen. It got tough. It got tough, because finding people to work for you is getting really, really tough. And finding good people and finding good people for an ethnic restaurant is really scary. Then competition, that's something people talked about. The competition came in, and I was talking to Jessica, and explained to her how we were blessed, because financially, we were very secure. So, when competition came in, you know, you could kind of ride it through.

  • 12:49:32

    BHASINWe had five more Indian restaurants open up in Alexandria in the past four or five years. And people go check them out, and then, if they feel that you are good, they'll come back to you. But a lot of times, the small businesses don't have that luxury of waiting for them to come back. But we were lucky, they did come back. But because of staffing and everything, we found that you know, at least, I was the person who worked more of the restaurant. You were kind of married, besides to my wife. I had a second wife.

  • 12:50:17

    NNAMDI(laugh) Just to the restaurant.

  • 12:50:18

    BHASINAnd my mother was getting old in India, and I had not been able to visit her for, like, almost five years. And...

  • 12:50:26

    NNAMDISo, as you said...

  • 12:50:27

    BHASINExactly.

  • 12:50:27

    NNAMDI...it's just time.

  • 12:50:28

    BHASINExactly.

  • 12:50:28

    NNAMDIWe're running out of time very quickly. But, Jessica, not all small businesses are alike. What kinds of small businesses are the most vulnerable? Is it harder for restaurants or retail to survive in the Washington region?

  • 12:50:38

    SIDMANOh, well, I'm less an expert on the retail end, but -- and I imagine the reasons retail closes is often very different than restaurants. I mean, retail, you're competing online, a lot of times. Whereas restaurants, you're competing with the guy down the block or across town. You know, I don't know that there's one kind of business that is more vulnerable than the next. I think, you know, it's hard for everyone. And, at the end of the day, it's about great food and great service. But also a great business plan, because, you know, if you go into a terrible lease deal, it doesn't matter if you're the best chef in the world, and everyone, you know, is raving about you. So, there are so many factors.

  • 12:51:33

    NNAMDIAnd, finally, Dan Reed, I'd like to turn back to you one more time and ask, what does this all mean? When a community staple closes down, particularly in a place like Silver Spring, what does it say about that neighborhood?

  • 12:51:44

    REEDI'm not sure. I think you should support your local business while they're there and enjoy the times that you spend in them, because there are so many factors that go into why someone opens a business and why it closes. It is temporal, like life itself. So, you have to keep that in context.

  • 12:51:58

    NNAMDIYet, it's my sense of identity, (laugh) as a matter of fact. When it moves, it's, like, maybe I should be moving, too. Dan Reed is an urban planner, real estate agent and author of "Just Up the Pike," a blog about the life and times of Montgomery County's east side. Dan, always a pleasure.

  • 12:52:12

    REEDYes, thank you.

  • 12:52:13

    NNAMDIJessica Sidman is food editor at Washingtonian. Jessica, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:52:18

    SIDMANThanks, Kojo.

  • 12:52:19

    NNAMDIAnd Balraj Bhasin was a co-owner, along with this wife Nikki, of Bombay Curry Company in Delray, Virginia. Balraj, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:52:27

    BHASINPleasure being here.

  • 12:52:29

    NNAMDIGreg Link joined us by phone. He was the owner of Home Rule on 14th Street. Our show on local businesses was produced by Julie Depenbrock. And our update on Washington memorials was produced by Mark Gunnery. Coming up tomorrow, we get local reactions to the Mueller report, plus, we take a look at the Washington region's growing standup comedy scene and hear from local comedians about what makes Washingtonians laugh. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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