Social distancing sidestep: the DC restaurants that buck the trend.

I rarely feature material as timely as this; in fact, I deliberately avoid content with a short shelf life, mainly because, if one posts as infrequently as I do, one has little to gain from an article whose relevance will fade within 72 hours, as advancements on the subject quickly supersede it.  But in mid-March 2020, an era of epidemic, this sight is such a rarity that it seemed worthy of a blog post.

  IMG_2488

It’s an “open” light outside a restaurant window in Washington DC, and it’s functioning just like they always do.

I’ll leave the business anonymous because I don’t want to incur a rush to this place (a rush would be a blessing and a curse), though I’m sure some of my readers will recognize it.  Regardless, this two-story coffee shop in the Navy Yard neighborhood—one that features the pastries we expect from coffeeshops, as well as some customizable sandwiches—is fully open for business, albeit with reduced hours.  Not just carry-out.  The first floor is the domain of the cashier, barista, restroom, and food on display, and it looks absolutely no different than it did three weeks ago, when COVID-19 was a looming threat but not yet a force that spawned various prophylactic counter-measures from federal, state, and local governments, restricting operability to bars and restaurants by encouraging—if not outright imposing—the social distancing recommended by public health officials to preclude the spread of this highly contagious strain of influenza that can worsen to pneumonia.

Virtually everyone in the country understands this situation already.  If they’re not experiencing it firsthand—which is likely to anyone who lives in a city—they’re well aware of others who are managing with these restrictions, thanks to the relentless media coverage.  So that’s no surprise.  What’s interesting about this Washington DC coffee shop is the second floor, above the food prep, which historically has hosted all of the business’s seating.  Here’s what it looks like now:social distancing at a DC coffee shopPretty roomy.  The proprietors have arranged their furniture to meet the Mayor Muriel Bowser’s standards for social distancing: a minimum of six feet separating tables, and no table capable of accommodating more than a party of six.  These standards function like occupancy laws and businesses must undergo scrutiny akin to code enforcement.  In truth, the coffee shop (perhaps inadvertently) abides by the most recent standards of preventing a groups of ten or more.  From the vantage point of this photo, only one other deuce remained, meaning that the establishment offered exactly ten seats with tables.  And what about the rest of the floor space behind me?IMG_2487Carefully stacked, but blocking nothing of interest to patrons.  The rearrangement of the furniture here probably took the proprietors less than fifteen minutes, and while the place is operating at far less than normal capacity, at least it’s operating.  And—in an era where most restaurants are disproportionately dependent on carryout—this place can still use its washable cups and saucers.  I can’t imagine the recent spike in the consumption of those wasteful carry-out containers: many of them sturdy and reusable plastic, but just as many become soiled and non-recyclable cardboard/paper, and some establishments still use one of the most environmentally unfriendly materials known to commerce: the notorious polystyrene or Styrofoam.  (But we won’t see that in DC; the District has banned Styrofoam’s use for nearly five years.)

I congratulate the owners of this coffeeshop in particular for finding a way to retain viability during these challenging times, made all the more difficult because of the relentless uncertainty.  Though I’m certain there are others, it’s the only business so far that I have discovered in the District that I can confirm is operating under these conditions, with seating to promote social distancing.  Time will only tell weather these draconian measures restricting restaurants and retail will help “flatten the curve”, because many restaurants and retailers in dense urban environments depend on conditions antithetical to social distancing for their prosperity.  And I have a sneaking suspicion that, upon further judgment, we’ll find that this exercise of police power in the event of a public health catastrophe will disproportionately impact people of moderate means.  After all, most white collar service-oriented businesses (as well as the federal government) can adapt relatively easy to remote working; their most critical and commodifiable activities depend exclusively on laptops and smart phones.  Meanwhile, many blue-collar industries have pushed their work force into employment limbo; their enterprise depends on the physical presence of humans engaged in manual labor in actual buildings.  They had no alternative.

If these social distancing conditions persist, one cannot hold high hopes for the purveyors of durable goods, or for the waitstaff that allow restaurants to hybridize prepared food with a service-oriented experience.  If the COVID-19 threat looms for weeks or months, it may only amplify the woes that the retail sector has suffered for years, all while giving Grubhub, Doordash, and Amazon (the juggernaut most responsible for the retail apocalypse) an added boost.  I’ve pondered in the past that kitchens may increasingly form a commercial undertaking divorced from restaurants: in this era of food trucks and take-out counters, let alone remote ordering and food delivery apps, the idea of patronizing a restaurant to sit down and receive table service may soon become passé.  Conversely, other entertainment-centered services that once featured kitchens may decide that in-house food prep is too expensive (or too risky), turning instead into venues that mere host people for large events and featured catered food, or eliminating food altogether and devolving into nightclubs.  Time will only tell, but regardless of how long this lasts, the retail and restaurant landscape will almost certainly look very different when we re-emerge from quarantine for that collective sigh of relief amidst unpoisoned air.

[UPDATE: As of April 1st, in response to the District-wide enforcement of “shelter in place”, non-essential businesses have closed.  Though this coffee shop remains open, the seating is off limits, and, like all other restaurant businesses, it is carryout-only.]

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on email

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on email

24 thoughts on “Social distancing sidestep: the DC restaurants that buck the trend.

  1. Dena Eben Kernish

    We are scared to even get take-out. It seems like germs could easily get into food during prep. Although, I guess that’s true at all times. And how would we know if tables and chairs and other surfaces are being wiped effectively? Am I just paranoid?

    Reply
    1. Maytte

      yes. Do you think employees don’t want a safe work environment as well and risk their lives to serve patrons? Believe they will wipe clean everything!

      Reply
      1. Dena Eben Kernish

        Well, even if we don’t go to the restaurant, we donated to a local GoFundMe that is buying take-out for hospital workers (hospital is right down the street).

        Reply
        1. Dana W.

          Restaurants already have extremely high hygiene requirements just to stay open, and I’m sure they’re increasing those right now. When I get annoyed with the food in my house, I will definitely order in on occasion.

          Reply
          1. AmericanDirt

            I’m with you. I’m impelled to support a few local small businesses that I neglected in the past. And the walk to pick stuff up will be a chance to get fresh air…

            Reply
        2. Caille Sugarman-Banaszak

          and how often -even now- do they clean the sides and under the edge of the table? I’ve seen it once in my whole life.

          Reply
          1. AmericanDirt

            Yeah, probably not so good about that. But the nighttime cleaning crews–the good ones that get lots of business–should distinguish themselves for that attention to detail, don’t you think? Of course, a lot of the smaller mom-and-pops can’t afford a cleaning crew, which puts double pressure on them…

            Reply
          2. Caille Sugarman-Banaszak

            I hope so but I don’t believe so. The number of people who are really surprised when I mention it would indicate via straw poll that that isn’t true.

            Reply
            1. AmericanDirt

              Yeah, it probably isn’t the norm. The above-and-beyond cleaners might do it. But it’s probably rare. (Almost as rare as the hotels that routinely wash the bed comforters and duvets.) Maybe this situation will encourage greater awareness of the need to clean those overlooked nooks and crannies. Probably not.

              Reply
      2. AmericanDirt

        My experience working at the movie theater in high school suggests exactly what you’re saying. Any time there was a slow period, we were expected to spray the countertops with disinfectant–even when they looked clean.

        Reply
    2. AmericanDirt

      Good point with the take-out. It seems to me like the truth is somewhere in the middle. Yes, we should be cautious and avoid lingering closely to people; wash hands frequently. But, given the possibility that an unwittingly infected person is preparing the food and could be transmitting it to all those carryout orders, it may be no more/less risky to dine in at a restaurant with good spacing among the tables (like the one featured here). It all depends on how much we’re willing to put extreme limitations on day-to-day activities, or if we prepared enough in advance to hibernate for several weeks. After all, a grocery store stocker could just as easily carry the virus (unknowingly) and cough on that can of beans…or the plastic package to that toilet paper.

      I felt fine going to the coffee shop featured here. They keep a clean environment even in normal situations, so I intend to return–keeping my distance and washing hands regularly. Paranoia as a status quo will get exhausting real fast.

      Reply
      1. AmericanDirt

        Prohibits taking your own mug? Interesting. DC is a pretty regulated place, but a San Francisco-based chain that’s popular here (Philz Coffee) actually encourages it: if you bring your own mug (no matter how big) you pay the price of a small coffee.

        Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Thanks for sharing, Marcus. Your pics make Manhattan seem deader than DC is right now. (Granted, this is peak tourism season in DC, and the tidal basin, though not slammed like most years, still seemed busy this morning.

      It’s almost inevitable that the more computer-dependent one’s job is, the easier it will be for them to adapt. The construction industry seems to be holding its own (at least where I am). My hope is that wait staff can compensate for their loss of work by doing deliveries, but if they’re inexperienced (or don’t own a car) it could also create a whole new set of liabilities for the restaurant owners. Neither bike nor car delivery is something that many people can easily just jump right into.

      Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Not a bad idea during these times! Judging from the photo above, these were some big honker windows and probably don’t open. Too bad!

      Reply
  2. Jerry

    There actually is a place in Greenwood, Indiana, that features Broadway-type shows with meals prepared off site. It’s appropriately called Catered Cabaret. Perhaps they were ahead of the notion of completely separating dining and food prep. https://cateredcabaret.com/

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Good observation; I wasn’t aware of it! I can’t help but wonder if the same is happening to some of those old downtown churches that get turned into events planning spaces. Granted, most churches have rudimentary kitchens, but maybe not the really old ones. The one I featured here a few years ago, called The Sanctuary https://dirtamericana.com/2013/02/montage-salvaging-a-sacred-space-by-expanding-its-use/ , had an open bar in its lower level but I don’t recall a kitchen. It probably has based most of its event hosting (both weddings and wedding receptions) on partnerships with local catering companies…which might also absolve them of some liability.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. You are not required to sign in. Anonymous posting is just fine.