As local business owners sweep up the physical damage from recent protests, some are weighing in on the larger toll.
In the past few months, local businesses have struggled with one challenge after another. First, a shutdown and dramatic revenue losses from the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, difficulty securing aid to keep operating and paying workers. Most recently, phased reopening guidelines that create more opportunity, but also present new questions.
"You feel like you're in a tunnel with these sharp objects coming at you and you have to keep ducking to get through," says Busboys and Poets founder and owner Andy Shallal.
But as D.C. finds itself in a days-long (and what could become a weeks-long) series of protests sparked by the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, local businesses are dealing with a new set of challenges. Owners whose buildings have been caught in the fray are sweeping up broken glass, restocking lost inventory and assessing the impact — on their shops and on the country. And many are more concerned with addressing the cause of the protest than their bottom line.
"There's a very different dynamic at a very different level between a broken window and a lost life," Shallal says.
A window at the Busboys and Poets location near Mount Vernon Square was broken Sunday night. Shallal says his insurance can cover the cost. And while he didn't enjoy the experience of driving across town late at night to deal with the broken window, he says it's crucial to "put things in perspective."
"It's important for us not to take the focus away from the purpose of the protests and turn it into, 'Oh, look at the looting and the violence that's happening,'" Shallal says. "These two should be separated and should not be mixed together to water down the importance and the gravity of the moment and why these protests are taking place."
Shallal moved to the D.C. area from Iraq in 1966, a couple of years before four days of protests ravaged the District. Though he was only 13 during the 1968 demonstrations, he says he can still remember the smell and sight of smoke drifting across the Potomac to his Arlington home.
"Those are images that stay in your head, you don't forget them," Shallal says. "It just shapes how you think about this country."
'We Just Decided To Get Out Of The Way'
The protests come as the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the local restaurant industry, with eateries forced to close dining rooms for months. Owners have had to lay off the vast majority of staff and try to get by on curbside pickup and delivery. And only a few days ago, city restaurants were allowed to start seating patrons outdoors in the first stage of a phased reopening.
Ellen Kassoff has helped lead Equinox restaurant with husband and chef Todd Gray through several obstacles: 9/11, the Great Recession and a 2010 fire that closed the business near Farragut Square for nearly half a year. When the pandemic hit, she saw it as yet another test of the restaurant's resilience.
"We were like 'OK, challenge accepted. We've got to do what's right for the city, and we've got to do what's right for people,'" she says. "It was actually an amazing experience to ... connect with customers on such a personal level during such a scary time."
Though the restaurant lost about 75% of its regular revenue during the shutdown, it pivoted to curbside pickup and delivery, with many of the meals personally delivered by Kassoff. And in the first two days of reopening their dining space, Kassoff says they filled every table.
"It was so nice to see everybody back," she says.
Less than 48 hours later, the restaurant was closed. On Saturday night, Kassoff got a call from her manager around midnight about crowds damaging property on Connecticut Avenue, and she and Gray decided to head to the scene.
"It's like a mother seeing her child pinned under a truck and you suddenly have the strength," she says. "We were worried; we just took so much care in putting it back together."
The restaurant had graffiti, and neighboring businesses also incurred damage. Kassoff boarded up windows and she and Gray decided to leave the next day for their out-of-town condo while the demonstrations continued.
"This protest has a real substance to it," she says. Kassoff, a D.C. native, says she has participated in many protests over the years, including the 2017 Women's March. "This conversation has to be had. So we just decided to get out of the way."
A couple of days ago, Kassoff tweeted about the damage to her restaurant, and the industry in general, saying it was "being pushed to a limit beyond comprehension." She has since removed the tweet.
"I took it down because it sounded selfish and self-serving, and it's not the time for that conversation, although it will come," she says. "What we're dealing with is nothing compared to what the country's dealing with right now."
Moving Forward After Financial Losses
Nolan Rodman co-owns Rodman's Discount Food And Drug store with his father, Roy. Nolan's grandfather, Leonard, started the Friendship Heights shop in 1955.
Around 8 p.m. Sunday night, Nolan says, someone threw a chair through a front window of the store, an event he watched from his home through a security camera. Police soon arrived and Nolan and Roy went to the store to block the broken window from further damage, but left shortly afterward when the police moved elsewhere.
"I didn't want to be in there alone, frankly, with my dad. If you were out there at that time, it was a scene," Nolan says. "It was horrifying."
Shortly after Rodman returned home, he says, people entered the store and began taking alcohol, drugs, watches and jewelry. He can't comment on the extent of the damage or whether it will be covered by insurance, but he did say that community members have offered to pitch in with cleanup.
"I'm grateful. I just don't want people to get hurt in any way," Rodman says. "It's kind of like a Catch-22; yes, I want all the help we can get, but I don't know what that looks like in a way that's not going to cause more issues or problems."
Rodman declined to comment on the actions of those who damaged his store. But of the wider protests, he said he's "understanding of what's going on just in general."
Just down the street from Rodman's is Paul's Wine and Spirits, a 67-year-old store that has been run by brothers Rick and Steve Bellman for three and a half decades. Two windows were shattered Sunday night, but no one entered the store, Rick says, and his insurance policy is likely to cover the damage. But they won't replace the glass just yet.
"We're going to wait and see what happens in the coming days — I hope not weeks," he says.
Joseph Smith operates two Bobby Van's restaurants in D.C. Computers, TVs and alcohol were stolen and interior property damaged at both locations this weekend.
"It just wasn't taking — it was destroying," Smith says. "They beat everything up inside. It was pure destruction."
Smith estimates it will be four to six weeks before he can reopen the eateries, and it may cost him up to a million dollars in lost revenue — something insurance likely won't cover. He says having to close down for another several weeks is a lot to bear for staff who have already been out of work for the past 12.
'A Moment That Really Shook Me'
At least one D.C. business with property damage from the protests is re-purposing its temporary facade of boarded-up windows. The K Street location of Israeli street food restaurant Shouk suffered broken windows and fire damage. The restaurant is donating proceeds from this week's orders to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, according to an email, and is inviting community members to add messages of "love and hope" with provided supplies to the plywood.
As Kassoff watched news coverage of protesters near the White House last night, she could see her restaurant in the distance. The song "Ohio" by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young — written in response to the 1970 Kent State shootings — kept running through her head, she says.
"I truly had tears in my eyes seeing that unfold on our block, and that was a moment that really shook me," she says. "What could go on here right now? Where is this going?"