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H St. Businesses Struggle to Survive COVID

DC Harvest Co-owner Jared Ringel said he couldn’t believe how quickly COVID-19 devastated his business. 

On March 15, as COVID-19 cases surged, he sent employees home. On March 16, as a food delivery arrived at DC Harvest (517 H St. NE), Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) ordered District restaurants to close. By the next day, the restaurant donated the delivery, shut off some utilities and closed for the foreseeable future. 

“It was like that light in the distance coming at us, getting bigger and bigger,” Ringel said. “It just happened so fast.” 

A family-owned restaurant serving all-day brunch and dinner, DC Harvest is part of the H Street Corridor, a stretch of formerly vacant buildings developed into a commercial and residential district. The corridor, which was “burned down” during the four-day riots following the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., was an example of successful revitalization in the District, H Street Main Street Executive Director Anwar Saleem said.

Since revitalization began in the early 2000s, H Street has seen the opening and occasional closing of over 300 businesses. In 2013, H Street Main Street won the Great American Main Street Award for its redeveloped commercial scene. But closures and economic losses caused by the pandemic have dented H Street’s business scene. 

“This pandemic really shook us to our knees to a certain degree,” Saleem said. “Especially to restaurants.” 

Restaurants, bars and small retailers — many of which employ a handful of people and often operate on narrow profit margins — have faced the brunt of economic downturn, with several closing already, Saleem said. 

Pow Pow (1253 H St. NE), a plant-based fast-casual restaurant that adapts “classic Chinese, Japanese and Korean techniques through corporate American food models,” has managed to endure the pandemic by shifting its internal operations. Since February, anticipating COVID-19’s arrival in the U.S. as the virus devastated Italy, Pow Pow chef Margaux Riccio has worked the graveyard shift. Preparing food and cooking at night to avoid customer interaction has not been easy, Riccio said. 

“Since COVID started,” she said, “we have to work twenty times harder to stay where we were on our slowest day.”

DC Harvest has also faced a tumultuous few months. In March — the extent of COVID-19’s danger then unknown — Ringel and his brother Arthur decided not to open the restaurant for takeout. But a month later, with “very little cash left,” the two opened a previously unused window and created an outdoor carryout system. 

Another month lapsed, and a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan allowed the brothers to bring back some kitchen staff. But with only takeout in place, DC Harvest was operating at around 15 percent of its normal revenue. When the District moved to Phase 2, service expanded to a four-table patio — a far cry from the restaurant’s 70 indoor seats. Then funding from the PPP loan ended, and closure seemed imminent. So Ringel took to Twitter.

After having done “everything we possibly could” to keep the business afloat, in a chain of tweets he called upon the community to help save the restaurant. Nearly 200 people have retweeted Ringel’s call to action, and nearly 150 have liked it. The replies are filled with customers, new and old, pledging to order from DC Harvest. 

“It’s our jobs, it’s our passion, it’s our life. We built this thing from scratch,” Ringel said. “As part of this up-and-coming neighborhood in H Street, as part of the improved dining scene in DC, we have a lot of pride in what we’re doing.”

With H Street Main Street, Saleem is helping businesses safely “bring business to the sidewalks.” Delivery, takeout and especially word of mouth are the most powerful tools in preserving the H Street Corridor, he added. But establishing public space for outdoor dining has been difficult, and Saleem continues to work with businesses and officials to create safe dining spaces. 

Until then, the H Street business community leans on one another through the pandemic. 

“A lot of businesses have taken the stance of, ‘If you need something, let us know,” Riccio said. “If someone needs something on the street right now, everyone is trying to help out.”

Eva Herscowitz is a journalism student at Northwestern University currently interning with the Hill Rag. She writes for Northwestern’s student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern. You can reach her at eva@hillrag.com

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