Tony Tomelden cannot hold still. He is constantly moving behind the bar at The Pug (1236 H St. NE), filing receipts, cleaning glasses, stopping only to answer a phone call or to assess if a text message should pause the conversation he is having.
In addition to The Pug, Tomelden is owner or partner of three other DC establishments: restaurant Brookland’s Finest; whiskey bar Union Trust; and the Public Option, which he helped owner David Perry reopen after a 14-month pandemic closure.
And on top of all those ventures, in April, he also became Executive Director of the Capitol Hill Association of Merchants and Professionals (CHAMPS), Capitol Hill’s Chamber of Commerce.
So he needs all that restless energy.
CHAMPS is a membership organization that serves the business community through advocacy, education and networking, with the overall goal of continuing to make Capitol Hill not only a great place to live, but also a great place to do business. The 150 or so members of CHAMPS are the types of small businesses that make DC unique.
“We are very fortunate to have Tony as our new Executive Director,” said Brad Johnson, CHAMPS President and Principal at Johnson Law Group. “Tony’s long experience as a small business owner in the District and his understanding of its challenges makes him an especially effective person to lead CHAMPS.”
By now, most people on the Hill who have even a fleeting interest in the local food and beverage scene know who Tomelden is. Many met him back in the 90s when he helped Joe Englert open the Capitol Lounge. “The Hill didn’t change because of the Capitol Lounge, but when we opened the Capitol Lounge is when the Hill –when the city in general –really started changing,” Tomelden reflected.
Tomelden had a front-seat view of that change. Born in the District, he was raised between DC and Prince George County with a brief digression at Villanova University. Tomelden met his wife, Stephanie Coleman, at the Capitol Lounge where she was a server. They have now been married for eighteen years and have three kids aged 10 to 14.
He lives in Brookland, near the house his father was raised in. “I love Brookland, but Brookland doesn’t have as big a commercial presence as Capitol Hill does,” Tomelden said. “Capitol Hill –it’s just a great neighborhood. My kids come here to hang out,” he said, thumbing to the back of the bar where his daughter will shortly come to collect her bike.
The Pub is a small enterprise. Right now, Tomelden employs two people at the bar. He said the issues and concerns faced by businesses like his, with staff the size of extended families, are different from those larger organizations (the Small Business Administration (SBA) defines a small business as having 500 or fewer employees).
“I think that the politicians, they always say that the small businesses are the backbone of America –and they really don’t mean us when they say that,” Tomelden said. “But I do believe that small businesses are what gives DC its character, and I just want to make things a little better for us.”
Tomelden wants to work even more closely with the Main Streets and Business Improvement Districts (BID) to ensure coordinated promotion and advocacy.
Executive Director H Street Main Street Anwar Saleem said business owners work hard every day, and organizations like his, CHAMPS and a few others are their eyes and ears as well as the advocates to identify and address their needs. Saleem said he looks forward to working with Tomelden and CHAMPS to do so.
Saleem, who has been affiliated with merchant associations since 2002, said a challenge for Tomelden is that he’ll need to hit the ground running to get to know other business types and owners to find out what their needs are. “It’s always good to have someone who’s directly related to the businesses to get that feedback,” Saleem said.
Doing the Work
Roneeka Bhagotra knows Tomelden is going to do an excellent job as the new CHAMPS Executive Director. She said that is because he has been working to support the business community for years.
“He is someone who has brought business owners together,” said Bhagotra, who together with husband Ryan Gordon owns the Queen Vic (1206 H St. NE). “If there’s an issue going on, if there’s something that somebody needs to address, he is the one who will create a group to work on the issue.”
A few years back, businesses along H Street NE were struggling with high insurance premiums. Tomelden got several small businesses together and spoke to an insurer who tailored a package to meet their needs. “Anything that he finds that is beneficial for his own business, he will share it straightaway with the other businesses,” Bhagotra said. “He just thinks if his community is doing well, he’ll do well. It’s about the community always.’
It was Tomelden who encouraged Bhagotra and Gordon to open the Queen Vic on H Street, even giving Gordon a temporary job after he quit his job to build out the pub that would essentially act as The Pug’s competition. “When we opened the Queen Vic, it was successful because Ryan already had a neighborhood following –and the reason he had that following is directly because Tony invited him to work at The Pug,” Bhagotra said.
When their pub first opened, Bhagotra and Gordon became members of CHAMPS, but they later let the membership lapse. “It really wasn’t beneficial for any of the H Street businesses at that time,” she said. “We were sort of ignored, and not really considered Capitol Hill. So, obviously we are hoping that is going to change.”
That change is one of Tomelden’s –and CHAMPS’–goals for the future. When he was opening Capitol Lounge in the 90s, Capitol Hill was a smaller community; now he sees Capitol Hill as extending all the way from H Street in the north to Navy Yard in the south. He wants to bring those businesses together. He also wants to help bring in more bars and restaurants to an organization that has been built on professional services and retail.
He sees CHAMPS as having a role in the recovery, helping businesses operate safely and navigate the challenges. “I think there is still some trepidation. We do still have a lot of bridges to cross coming out of this pandemic, and I think CHAMPS can help with it.”
He also wants to continue the work CHAMPS has done educating business owners on the myriad things they need to understand and track as they run a business. He is following legislation being introduced at DC Council, including a bill introduced by Ward 3 Councilmember Brooke Pinto (D) that would streamline the licensing process for new and existing businesses. He has reached out to ask for a presentation and to get answers to member questions about the Legacy Business Grants, offered by the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) to businesses that have operated in the District 25 years or more.
Improving Business, Building Community
But the role of CHAMPS ED involves more than improving business. For Tomelden, it is also about building the neighborhood, starting with the unique little places and services that are run by the neighbors you know. “Small businesses make a neighborhood better,” Tomelden said. ”I think a lot of people feel that way –and that makes Capitol Hill like a little town.”
That means tackling issues not immediately linked to sales. Last month, CHAMPS wrote a letter to Mayor Muriel Bowser, opposing the inclusion of a Home Depot in plans for development at Reservation 13. He is also tackling the need for affordable housing.
“It doesn’t fall under my purview, except it does, because entry-level employees aren’t going to make as much,” Tomelden said. He thinks access to affordable housing and health care could be expanded so that wage workers can live where they work. He would like to see District government help to bridge the gap between wages and cost of living, perhaps government-issued affordable housing or health care vouchers.
Protecting the small businesses builds not just the neighborhood, but the city, he argues. He borrows an image used from his friend the architect Chris French, who compared the District to a forest. Standing outside a forest, French told Tomelden, all one can see is the trees; similarly, from afar all one sees of DC is the monuments and tall buildings. But, on the inside of a forest, there is a ton of undergrowth; that is where the most vibrant life is, and it is where most of the nutrients are produced.
It is these, the smallest business that nurture the District’s culture and its economy, that are under threat. “If we’re not careful there won’t be any undergrowth in this city,” Tomelden said. “And I want to protect the undergrowth.”
Tomelden is gesturing around at the interior of The Pug, but he could be referring to CHAMPS as well. “That’s why this place is here,” he said. “Because we’ve always not been… well, the trees.”
Learn more about the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce (CHAMPS) by visiting https://capitolhill.org/