Friday, April 24, 2009

Dupont ANC Taking Aim at Saint-Ex?

Is 14th Street brunch/dinner/bar spot Saint-Ex a restaurant or a tavern?

This is the question that has confronted it and numerous other restaurants in the Dupont/Logan/U Street area in recent months, as the city has moved to clamp down on establishments that don't meet the "restaurant" requirements for food sales. Tavern licenses, which offer much looser restrictions on food, can be difficult to obtain because converting an establishment from a restaurant to a tavern necessitates a change in the liquor license, which is nearly always protested.

With Saint-Ex, the issue is a particularly intriguing one, and serves to highlight the problems inherent in both the District's liquor license laws and the way in which such licenses can be protested.

Thanks to a recent article in the Dupont Current, we learned of Saint-Ex owner John Snellgrove's attempt to convert the liquor license of his business from a restaurant-class license to a tavern. The reason, according to Snellgrove, is that "keeping a chef on premises until two hours before closing time [as necessitated by the restaurant-class liquor law] makes no financial sense." So he's seeking to convert Saint-Ex's license to that of a "tavern" which would significantly loosen the restrictions on the hours of food service.

The point to keep in mind here is this: Snellgrove is adamant that Saint-Ex is dependant upon food sales to survive. The establishment currently exceeds the amount required to meet the restaurant-class quota, and Snellgrove has no intentions of scaling back or otherwise changing his food service. He is merely looking to escape a burdensome regulation that is costing his business money.

If you think that this sounds straightforward enough, then you clearly aren't familiar with the way liquor license protests function in our neighborhood. Practically every single license application —be it for a new license, renewal or change — is protested, frequently by the ANC in which the establishment resides. The U Street Commission has already voted to protest the license change in an attempt to negotiate a new "voluntary" agreement with Saint-Ex. I wasn't in attendance at the U Street ANC meeting when this decision was made, so I can't comment on what changes they are looking for. But that move by itself should have been sufficient to address any concerns the neighborhood might have with Saint-Ex.

Not for Dupont Circle ANC Commissioner Ramon Estrada. You might remember Estrada for his ardent opposition to Constantine Stavropoulos's plans to open a 24 hour diner and comedy club at a still-vacant building at 14th and T streets. Well, Estrada is back, and this time he's taking aim at Saint-Ex.

His complaint? Well, Estrada, who lives across from the establishment, is quoted in the Current article as saying "It’s common for 15 to 20 people to congregate on the sidewalk outside the establishment . . . I’m getting e-mails, calls. People are coming to my door saying that late-night noise shouldn’t go on.” Oh, do tell. You mean people are congregating on a block which sits in the middle of one of the most popular late-night corridors in the city and includes both a late might pizza takeout and a Yum's carryout? You don't say.

Never mind that Estrada can't identify which establishments these clusters of people have been patronizing, at what hours they are congregating, or how much of a disturbance they are actually creating (a fellow T Street resident is quoted as saying "We never have problems [with noise]"), it's got to be the fault of Saint-Ex.

And never mind that Saint-Ex doesn't even reside within Estrada's ANC — he led the charge for a unanimous vote (with one abstention) 6-1 vote (with commissioner Jack Jacobson in opposition) by the Dupont ANC to protest them anyway. And yet, the most absurd statement made by Estrada must be this:

“On its face, I cannot accept that you can’t keep your kitchen open until two hours before closing." To which I say: On its face, I cannot accept advice on running a food-serving establishment from someone who never has.

It is not clear what about Saint-Ex's voluntary agreement the ANC is seeking to amend--information and minutes from the respective ANC1b and 2b meetings are not yet available. Presumably though it would be something along the lines of enforcing the "peace, order and quiet"--a catch-all term that is frequently used to protest liquor licenses and which most certainly is already included in Saint-Ex's VA. Regardless, one has to wonder what other steps Estrada and others have taken to address concerns about crowds and noise associated with Saint-Ex prior to filing the protest.

Though we rarely stake out such defined positions on this blog, I'm going to do so now: that the Dupont ANC is involving themselves in a protest against an establishment that was one of the first restaurants to open along a blighted stretch of 14th Street, is not seeking to change its operations and, by all accounts, has served as a good neighbor is preposterous.

We're not against the proper regulation of businesses in the neighborhood, and we're not opposed to protesting said businesses when legitimate issues arise (such as issues related to The Space in Shaw, and their treatment of neighbors there). But there appears at times to be almost an undercurrent of hostility directed at business owners in the neighborhood, and particularly those with liquor licenses, by some in the community. We've mentioned this before, but it's critical to maintain perspective on these issues: are the complaints emanating from a couple of loud voices, or do they represent a recurring, systemic problem with the establishment?

The irony in all of this is that it is oftentimes these very business which have contributed towards the skyrocketing popularity of the neighborhood as both a commercial AND residential destination. We applaud the work of those in the community who seek to make it a more hospitable environment for residents and businesses alike, but this situation presents yet another example of the pitfalls that can arise when the majority of cooler-headed voices in the community are drowned out by a vocal minority seeking to mold the neighborhood into one of their own personal taste.


Anonymous said...

I largely disagree with your post. The natural tendency of business development in the District is toward zones of 100% bars/restaurants, due to their relatively high profit margins, and their popularity with young urbanites. Adams-Morgan is the best example of this tendency. Already 14th Street has seen a proliferation of lounges, cafes, bars, and restaurants. I believe the ANC has an interest in a diversified retail environment, that caters to a range of incomes, ages, and tastes - not just the bar-hopping 20-something "scene".

- JM

Anonymous said...

I'm with you 14 and you! At least Saint Ex is a good establishment with good food. The ANC needs to evolve with the neighborhood, not against it.

Joel Lawson said...

JM: Please tell us how your warnings regarding a saturation of establishments catering to the "bar-hopping 20-something 'scene'" applies to the situation in this article?

Saint-Ex is largely patronized by a diverse age group. Yes, younger customers gather downstairs, and a the bar upstairs, but I certainly would peg them at well above "20-something," and the dining clientele is a beautiful range of ages, sporting hair from full and dark to receding and gray.

I'm not happy, generally, if a restaurant applies to convert to a CT (tavern) license. Familiar with Saint-Ex's excellent operation, and their willingness to sign a Voluntary Agreement that maintains their focus on food, however, I don't fear their application. I've also spoken with the building's owner, who is known in this neighborhood as an ally on past efforts to guide balanced growth, and to contain the very threat you fear. The owner provided a solid explanation, and even backing documents, to allay any concerns.

Mr. Other Upper NW said...

JM - Sorry, but I'm not certain I understand your point. The issue here isn't whether a new bar/restaurant should be allowed to open on 14th; the issue is how much of a protest should be levelled against Saint-Ex--a longstanding establishment--for wanting to change to a different class of license. Those are two different issues.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps ABRA should reconsider the restrictions of CR licenses to avoid an onslaught of establishments changing from a CR to a CT license. Now that ABRA has suddenly decided to enforce there regulations there will likely be other establishments that seek to change their license to avoid unnecessary restrictions. It seem a bit restrictive and impractical to force establishments to keep their kitchen open and serve food at midnight on a Tuesday, when the only patrons that frequent the place at that time are out to have a late night drink.

Jimmy D said...

How about working to change the part of the law that requires the chef to be on hand until two hours before close for this license?

Seems like Saint-Ex has a reasonable argument for why the law, as it stands, is a hindrance for businesses. A change would make it easier for restaurants to function as such, without changing their licenses to "tavern" and beginning the slippery slope toward actually becoming a bar more than a restaurant. Seems switching to a tavern license will inevitably scare some people into opposition.

Jack Jacobson said...

A slight correction - there was not an abstention in the Dupont Circle ANC vote. I voted in opposition to the Commission's action. Classifying the vote as unanimous is incorrect. I saw no reason for the Dupont Circle ANC to become involved in the matter.

Jack Jacobson, Commissioner, 2B04

Mr. Other Upper NW said...


Our apologies. We were basing that off of what appeared in the Current, where you're listed as "abstaining" in the vote. Thanks for the correction. And for the vote of reason.

IMGoph said...

i lived in both ANC2B09 and ANC1B02 before moving to bloomingdale, and while i couldn't be called someone who frequented saint-ex, i certainly went there now and again, and i remember what the block was like just 5 short years ago. saint-ex has been nothing but a good neighbor to everyone around there.

mr. estrada (and the rest of 2B sans mr. jacobson) are wrong headed about this. i fully support saint-ex.

Tom Lewis said...

I agree 14th and You!!!! I live across the street from Saint-Ex and they are a great neighbor. My parents come to town and love going over there for meals. Why should he have to serve food after 11:00PM?!?!?!?! It doesn't make financial sense. People are not going there for a meal after 10:00PM they are going there to socially drink. If you want a bite walk over to Manny and Olgas or Yums....DUH.

Anonymous said...

The Dupont ANC, sans Jacobson, have proven themselves to be NIMBY busybodies like most other affluent ANCs in this great city. The great silent majority of "live and let live" people rarely embroil themselves in petty ANC hostility, so this is what we get: ANCs who are unreasonable, ask too much, try to find obscure loopholes to sideline businesses that bring jobs to the city, and just vote out of their own personal self-interest of (usually) preserving the status quo. end rant

That being said, ANC commish is a thankless job and I suppose I thank them for stepping up. Just wish it wasn't only the "community activists" who got involved...

Anonymous said...

Isn't Estrada the same guy who was photographing people in gay bars - - he had some sort of vendetta against one of the Latino gay dance parties, IIRC.

Anonymous said...

Ramon Estrada, please stop this kind of behavior. Saint-Ex is a local establishment with a very good track record and reputation.

DC is already known as one of the most senselessly and inefficiently bureaucratic cities in the country (try opening a business here--and we wonder why storefronts stay empty).

Don't contribute to the red tape unless there's a neighborhood outcry.

andydc said...

St. Ex and founder Mike B. have been good neighbors. But w/Mike & family's situation changed & the economy shifted, it's a good time to move forward with a voluntary agreement to guarantee neighbors in both ANCs that late night disturbances don't get out of control. Mike & company have been super. But, what if they have to sell? How do we know that new owners will be good neighbors, too? Having St. Ex as a restaurant is great, but if it switches to a tavern and doesn't have to sell any food, it could cause a heap of trouble. How can it stay a restaurant and still comply?

mannyb said...

ANc guys have to listen to the people they represent. The protest thing is normal to work it out. Its good to sit down and work things out with these palces to keep things cool for owners and people who live here. Its already crazy Fri and sat. Dont let it become Adms Morgan with too many bars. Keep restaurants.

Anonymous said...

Reading these pontifications about people, places, issues, there are so many preconceived notions and forgone conclusions. Why not gather some facts, talk with the people, go to the vicinity for a hour at closing time and then let us know your comments.

Joel Lawson said...

andydc is right: when a "good neighbor" business operator sells, the license conveys to someone who may, or may not, be as good a neighbor.

But a Voluntary Agreement also conveys, and the owner has expressed every willingness to sign a VA that includes a food requirement.

Anon is right too, that people should come to their own conclusions, based on reaching out and actually speaking with the people involved. Too often, a business or property owner will only encounter concerned residents at the end of a process, instead of earlier on.

I rec'd a copy of an email from the partner of my ANC Commissioner, alarmed at this possible license change. The email encouraged people to contact the property owner. I promptly did, in addition to speaking with the protestant leading the largest number of signatures in the neighborhood on this matter.

For my part, while usually opposed to this sort of shift to a CT license, I'm okay with the change if that good VA is signed.