Chef James Robinson opened KitchenCray in October 2020 because he wanted to bring his Cajun and Caribbean soul food to a historically Black neighborhood. He says he closed the restaurant in August after fighting with the gentrified neighborhood.
Chef James Robinson didn't expect to close his H Street restaurant, KitchenCray, just three years into operation. Robinson, who overcame homelessness and is now a chef to the stars, opened it back in October 2020 because he wanted to bring his Cajun and Caribbean soul food to a historically Black neighborhood.
"This was like the Chocolate City," Robinson, who goes by JR, tells DCist/WAMU.
He closed KitchenCray at the end of August, he says, because the gentrified neighborhood wore him down. He was tired of having to compromise with the Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC), a hyperlocal body that has the power to protest liquor licenses.
Robinson believes elected commissioners and neighbors unfairly targeted KitchenCray because he is Black, and so is most of his clientele. He says the neighborhood's complaints about KitchenCray are lodged at other Black-owned businesses too.
"You're in the neighborhood where it's white, Asian, and other races and not Black," Robinson says. "They don't want us to be here."
ANC6A says that is not the case — that elected commissioners and volunteers they appoint to help them review license applications sought to treat KitchenCray and all other businesses fairly, and are sad to learn the restaurant closed.
But according to DCist/WAMU's analysis of new license applications and renewals during the last five years, Black-owned businesses on H Street NE faced liquor license protests from the ANC or neighbors more often than other businesses. Four out of six businesses protested were run by Black operators.
"Control your people"
D.C.'s ANCs don't have much authority, but city agencies do give them deference over a few critical things like liquor licenses. The Alcoholic Beverage and Cannabis Administration (ABCA), which approves liquor licenses, gives ANCs "great weight" if commissioners protest an establishment's application. Some ANCs, including H Street and Dupont Circle, take advantage of that and regularly move to protest a new business in order to secure a say in how it operates and fits into the neighborhood — a process that can create an adversarial relationship.
KitchenCray recently became subject to ANC scrutiny when Robinson and his business partner, Sudon Williams, decided to try something new with the restaurant and convert their vacant basement into a lounge with a DJ. They wanted to take advantage of the nightlife corridor, and to bring in more revenue to offset the more than $24,000 rent they paid for a 6,000-square-foot space, Robinson says. As the industry saying goes, vodka pays the bills. So the owners dreamed up "Flight Lounge."
The change required KitchenCray to apply to ABCA for a "substantial change" to its license, because the business wanted to add live entertainment. Because the owners had signed an agreement with the ANC on how they would operate their restaurant when it first opened, they had to meet with the ANC to discuss the license change. Even though it's not required, the owners believed they had to enter into the agreement because commissioners and neighbors have the power to protest.
"I just hope when we find our next location that the neighborhood accepts us," says Chef James Robinson of KitchenCray. "We become like good neighbors and a good team."
So in April, Williams, KitchenCray's director of operations and lawyer went before the ANC6A liquor license committee, which is made up mostly of neighborhood volunteers, not elected commissioners. The ANC says the six commissioners don't have the bandwidth to review all applications, so they rely on appointed individuals.
"Many members of the community spoke up on the call to raise concerns about issues they have had with Kitchen Cray, including with respect to communication, parking, and behavior of staff and patrons, among other things," according to a written summary published on ANC 6A's website. A committee member and several neighbors accused staff and patrons of smoking weed, and told KitchenCray to "control your people," according to the restaurant's director of operations, who asked not to be named so as to not jeopardize her other job. "They are not monkeys in a zoo. They are not animals," she said. "We can't control them. Nor do we want to control anybody."
Commissioner Robb Dooling, one of two commissioners present for the meeting, confirmed a few individuals said something to that effect. "That language went too far," the commissioner said through an ASL interpreter.
Robinson felt disrespected. He was not there in-person but heard about the committee meeting from his colleagues. "Would you talk like that to José Andrés or any other chef that's doing the same business that I'm doing in my industry?" he says of the two-hour meeting, which was contentious enough to prompt another meeting between KitchenCray, the neighborhood, and the mayor's office.
That initial meeting kickstarted a months-long feud between KitchenCray and the ANC that spilled over into social media.
Some members of the ANC accused KitchenCray of opening an illegal nightclub without neighborhood approval, and the committee voted to recommend a protest of the business' license application with ABCA unless they could reach a new agreement with KitchenCray on its operations. The ANC says regardless of the circumstance, its policy is to vote against any new license unless they reach a settlement agreement, which is intended to be a voluntary contract between operators and commissioners.
Chief among the ANC's concerns was that KitchenCray's entrance for Flight Lounge is on 13th Street NE.
"This is about opening a nightclub, Flight Lounge, on 13th Street. And I don't know of any precedent of a nightclub opening on a residential street," Erin Blumenthal, a volunteer member of ANC6A's liquor license committee, said during a June meeting.
"Settlement agreements" between the business and the ANC hold owners accountable to various things, like putting up signs reminding patrons to be quiet, not loiter, or give money to panhandlers.
Meanwhile, KitchenCray maintains that it did not break any laws and that it isn't even trying to open a nightclub.
"There is no dance floor downstairs. There are barely any bar stools and there are a lot of couches," the director of operations said at the June ANC6A meeting.
She said they've operated Flight Lounge under ABCA-approved temporary licenses. ABCA did receive a complaint about KitchenCray in April, an agency spokesperson says, but they monitored KitchenCray and found no violations.
Robinson says his business has been unfairly targeted — most evident, he says, when a commissioner went into Flight Lounge when it was closed and took promotional material stored there; he shared the surveillance video on his Instagram page and the director of operations reported the alleged theft to the police.
"If a Black man did that, if I went into a restaurant and stole some materials, I'm getting locked up," Robinson says.
The ANC says Commissioner Mike Velasquez went inside KitchenCray's basement, but police did not pursue charges after its investigation. Velasquez had returned the material but was barred from the restaurant, per the restaurant's director of operations.
The ANC ended up missing its deadline to file a protest against KitchenCray. But Blumenthal filed a protest with neighbors, arguing the establishment will affect "peace, order, and quiet."
Robinson did not want to have to spend more money trying to reach an agreement, having already spent a significant sum on security to alleviate crowd concerns, so he decided to shutter KitchenCray on H Street. (He still has locations in Maryland and Virginia.)
Forced to settle
Recent clashes between KitchenCray and its ANC magnify longstanding conflict on H Street NE. Ten current and former bar and restaurant operators in the corridor, along with their supporters, tell DCist/WAMU that the ANC – including unelected neighborhood volunteers serving on its liquor license committee – overly scrutinizes businesses, even before doors open, leading to headaches or hardships in obtaining their desired licensing. Owners with businesses elsewhere say this maddening process is not unique to H Street and is sometimes even worse elsewhere.
Multiple commissioners, meanwhile, argue they are simply trying to represent the interest of neighbors who elected them and prevent unsafe operators who can be hard to shut down once they open.
Several Black business owners (current and former) along H Street identified with KitchenCray's struggles, calling the neighborhood's power over liquor licenses unchecked and unfair. To have to pitch their business concept to a majority-white ANC in what used to be a majority-Black neighborhood is frustrating, they say, and to be forced into an onerous agreement adds insult to injury.
At least one data point backs up that feeling: Black-owned businesses account for less than half of H Street businesses with active liquor licenses, but accounted for a majority of protests the ANC or neighbors filed against licenses in the last five years, according to data from the Alcoholic Beverage and Cannabis Administration reviewed by DCist/WAMU.
Since 2018, six out of 36 businesses on H Street NE were protested by ANC6A, ANC6C, or a group of neighbors — five of those are owned by people of color, and four are Black-owned.
A protest filing kicks off a hearing process before the Alcoholic Beverage and Cannabis (ABC) Board unless a protest is dropped or dismissed.
Longtime restaurant attorney Andrew Kline says his advice to clients is if they can afford to go to a protest hearing instead of automatically entering into an onerous agreement, they should.
"You will get a better deal almost 100% of the time," Kline says. But the cost is not insubstantial; Kline says legal fees for going through a protest can range from $15,000-$50,000.
It takes at least seven months for a business to get a liquor license if an operator decides to go to a protest hearing, according to two restaurant lawyers.
Of the businesses whose licenses are protested, 88% are resolved through settlement agreements, according to ABCA.
ANC6A commissioners say they've entered settlement agreements with 15 businesses owned by people of color since August 2020, avoiding hearings. The process is well-defined and standardized in a public document, they say, which was revised in December 2021 to include a commitment to dismantling systemic racism following the racial justice uprising of 2020.
"ANC 6A and its Alcohol Beverage Licensing Committee have a track record of voting to support nightlife establishments that operate with transparency and good faith as well as within DC law," commissioners said in an emailed statement.
H Street Main Street executive director, Anwar Saleem, says the data on license protests reflects the disparate treatment he's heard about from Black operators or witnessed himself since joining the business nonprofit 20 years ago. "They come at us so hard," Saleem says. "Businesses already have challenges getting their permits."
Bernard Gibson of Smokin' Pig is another Black business operator to be protested by the ANC. "If my business model don't fit what you like to do, you're going to fight against it."
One of the Black owners to face a protest in the last five years is Bernard Gibson of Smokin' Pig on H Street NE.
In 2019, Gibson says he faced issues when he tried to transfer his liquor license from Twelve Restaurant & Lounge, which allowed for indoor entertainment, dancing, and a cover charge, to his new business. After he lost his lounge's lease in 2017, he says he decided to open Smokin' Pig, a barbecue joint, across the street.
Commissioners of 6A protested, saying in a preliminary hearing that the move would have an "adverse impact on peace, order, and quiet." Within a month, Gibson reached an agreement with commissioners. He didn't want to hold up his opening, so he agreed not to charge a cover for Smokin' Pig events — which he says basically makes offering live entertainment a no-go, financially.
"I had my arm behind my back and I had to go along with it," Gibson tells DCist/WAMU.
The ANC says in a joint statement via email that Smokin' Pig did not request a cover charge when it came up for a license renewal last year, and that they do not know why the charge was originally rejected. They say the longest-serving current commissioner, Amber Gove who started in 2017, was not on the liquor license committee at the time.
Gibson says his experience with the ANC "has never been pleasant." He faced pushback when he was opening his first H Street business over a decade ago, a franchise called Cluck-U Chicken because commissioners argued there are "potentially objectionable aspects of fast food restaurants."
In 2010, the ANC also protested Twelve, eventually leading to a requirement that Gibson hire security for events and not pass out promotional fliers. (Twelve did have problems. The police chief temporarily shut down the lounge in 2014 because of repeated violent incidents that happened inside the business and that the operator allegedly did not handle correctly. ABCA also fined Twelve for those incidents.)
Gibson is convinced that he faced more hardship than white-owned establishments that were also boisterous, namely Rock And Roll Hotel and H Street Country Club.
The ANC agreements of all three businesses looked similar, pulling from a template agreement, which set outdoor operation hours and required things like signs that reminded patrons to be quiet, not loiter, or give money to panhandlers. But Rock & Roll Hotel and H Street Country Club were allowed to have live outdoor music before 8 p.m., while Twelve could only have pre-recorded music.
"If my business model don't fit what you like to do, you're going to fight against it," Gibson says of his neighbors.
Allegations of racial bias
When Avery Leake was opening up his own bar on H Street in 2012, he came to the ANC meeting with his family. Black business owners on the block advised him to present as a family man, he says.
"I was told that because when they saw me, they just saw me as another African American person that was coming to H Street to create a bar that's going to draw trouble," Leake tells DCist/WAMU.
He did what he thought he had to do at the time, he says, although it bothers him a lot now. He went to an ANC meeting before he was even on the agenda, just to familiarize himself with the process. He watched a white business owner breeze through with minimal questioning. When he returned to the ANC's liquor license committee meeting because his bar was on the agenda, he recalls having to answer what he felt were irrelevant questions about his business model — questions he hadn't heard the white owner be asked. He didn't have a lawyer like some operators do.
"I know you want to fight for your community," says Leake, a D.C. native who frequented H Street growing up. "Here's the issue I have: Historically, H Street was businesses for African Americans."
Erik Bruner-Yang of Taiwanese/Cambodian restaurant and cafe, Maketto, recalls Leake's encounter with the ANC because he was trying to get his liquor license at the same meeting.
"I got zero objections," says Bruner-Yang, who's Asian. "He had a really hard time. And it was very clear during those meetings it was inappropriate."
Unelected neighborhood volunteers were running their ANC committee meeting, according to committee notes, with no commissioners present.
Leake suspects it's harder for Black people to open a bar on H Street right now because of the uptick in crime.
"You have every excuse to discriminate against a person of color because on the news, they're showing us creating the crime all the time," Leake says. "When we're opening a bar, all they can see is who we're bringing to the neighborhood."
Bruner-Yang, who's run businesses on H Street for over a decade, believes ANC meetings lend themselves to racial and economic bias. He says he doesn't understand why volunteers are allowed to "interrogate" businesses after those businesses have passed government inspections.
"Why does it exist at all if the actual governing and regulating agency [ABCA] already exists?" says Bruner-Yang.
Roger Caruth used to volunteer on ANC6A's liquor license committee and believes his colleagues were more critical of Black businesses. Caruth recalls being the only Black person on the volunteer-led committee, on which he served for at least five years.
"It showed up in a lot of different ways," from overly scrutinizing new Black applicants to complaining about existing ones, Caruth says.
He recalls committee members faulting Black businesses for traffic issues that would happen at two in the morning. He questioned why they were always so quick to point the finger at those specific businesses.
"I felt the committee went from an advisory committee to acting sometimes as an executive or enforcement committee because of the actions they would take," he tells DCist/WAMU.
A process in need of reform
Elected commissioners defend their role in the liquor license process, saying it can create a harmonious relationship between neighbors and businesses.
But how the process works varies from neighborhood to neighborhood (there are 46 ANCs), with an unknown number leaning on non-elected volunteers. Some ANCs, like those on H Street, regularly move to protest as a backup in case they don't reach an agreement with a business within the 45-day window to file to protest.
It can be expensive to fight the ANC or other protesting groups on the restrictions they're requesting because a fight means hiring a lawyer and being delayed in licensing. The only way to avoid a protest hearing is to enter into a settlement agreement.
Other ANCs, like ANC1C in Adams Morgan, have taken a softer approach over the last year or so, attempting to convince owners of the benefits of entering into a tailored agreement. Owners generally do this because they either want the neighborhood to patronize their establishment or have heard the ANC could be a thorn in their side, says ANC1C Commissioner Peter Wood.
Multiple commissioners argue that settlement agreements address nuances that local law fails to, like regulating trash pick-up and parking — issues that can put the two sides at odds if not addressed at the outset.
Agreements also offer a clear enforcement mechanism for commissioners, who field complaints among the roughly 2,000 neighbors they represent. It can be hard to shut down bad actors after the fact, commissioners say.
Commissioner Bob Link of ANC6D says sometimes the only way to secure a "meaningful" agreement is to file a protest. He wishes the city reformed the process because protest "has a somewhat negative connotation."
Some do not require agreements as often as others; ANC6E, for example, says they no longer have a policy of requiring liquor license establishments to sign settlement agreements, but may seek one from a business if a "legitimate need" arises. Commissioner Chris Hart says commissioners haven't entered into an agreement since January.
Business advocates say the settlement agreement process is in need of reform because it lends itself to disparate treatment that's not unique to ANC6A.
Small business attorney Richard Bianco says the big problem is that ANCs can protest without having to clarify their actual concern with a particular business; they simply have to say in their petition that the business will have an adverse effect on "peace, order, and quiet" or "real property values." This is especially troubling for new businesses, Bianco says, because it's speculative.
"The burden of proof is on the establishment," Bianco says.
Sandra Basanti of Pie Shop on H Street NE, who heads the D.C. Nightlife Hospitality Association, called the ANC settlement agreement process the "biggest pain."
The former nightlife association head, Mark Lee, agrees the entire process requires further reform. Lee sees a value in an agreement if the protestant can name "known and existing problems" because if ABCA had to respond to every one, the agency would be overwhelmed. But he thinks an ANC should not be allowed to protest a new business if they are judging an operator on speculation alone. He also thinks non-elected volunteers should not be making liquor license decisions.
"They attempt to use the system to create micro-regulations that are more restrictive than city laws," Lee says. "It makes it impossible for emerging markets, entrepreneurs, or groups that don't have backing of restaurant groups to be successful."
Robinson of KitchenCray would like to see the ANC diversify; there are currently no Black ANC6A commissioners. But he suspects that will be a challenge if fewer Black people live around H Street NE.
He's looking to open KitchenCray in another D.C. neighborhood — he already has thousands of dollars worth of liquor he purchased for his lounge.
"I just hope when we find our next location that the neighborhood accepts us," says Robinson. "We become like good neighbors and a good team."
This story has been updated to clarify that an ANC committee voted to recommend a protest vote against KitchenCray, and to correct the spelling of Commissioner Amber Gove's last name.
This story originally appeared on DCist.com