(Updated at 10:20 a.m.) Signs are up for a pair of new businesses in Crystal City, even as the coronavirus outbreak has left others closed and fighting for survival.
Bowlero — a bowling alley, arcade and restaurant — was hoping to roll into an empty retail space at 320 23rd Street S. in June. It’s not clear whether the opening will be further delayed amid ongoing social distancing measures; Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s new stay-at-home order is tentatively set to expire on June 10.
Nonetheless, construction is continuing and within the past few days a bright blue “Bowlero” sign went up outside its future home.
Also this week, signs for The Freshman went up.
When it opens, The Freshman plans to offer “high-quality coffee, teas, and craft cocktails,” in addition to “breakfast, lunch and dinner options made in-house with fresh local ingredients.”
Owner and local restaurant veteran Nick Freshman tells ARLnow that interior construction stopped as the signs went up and he has no idea when the restaurant will open.
“We’re just trying to lay low and allow this thing to pass, then be one of the first ones to open,” he said. “We’ll meet the community on the other side of this.”
Freshman said that delays that set back the planned Valentine’s Day opening of the restaurant by a few months may end up saving it.
“We’re very fortunate we’re not open,” he said. “The effects of this are going to be devastation. A lot of businesses that people know and love will not return. Businesses that make up the fabric of the community, that people rely on, will close.”
Freshman declined to say how many restaurants he thinks will close permanently, but said others in the industry he’s talked to are predicting anywhere from 10% to 75%.
“It’s real and painful,” he said. “It breaks my heart.”
On the plus side, at least two long-time Crystal City restaurants are planning to reopen when the time comes. Billy Bayne, co-owner of Crystal City Sports Pub and owner of the Crystal City Restaurant gentleman’s club, says both of the 23rd Street S. establishments will be back open.
The Sports Pub, like many local restaurants, has pivoted to offering curbside pickup and delivery, but ultimately it’s game day crowds sipping beers and munching on nachos that pays the bills.
“The restaurant business is a tough business to begin with — this will be devastating,” he said. “Ultimately, the strong will survive. The Sports Pub and Crystal City Restaurant will survive.”
Bayne predicts that 30-40% of all restaurants will close as a result of the coronavirus shutdown.
Staying open for takeout helps Crystal City Sports Pub keep key personnel, like cooks and managers, on the payroll. Other employees aren’t as lucky.
Waiters and bartenders who rely on tips are “being crushed,” Bayne said. Dancers at Crystal City Restaurant have nowhere to dance.
“I feel really sorry for them,” he said. “It’s tough on them.”
“This is just a microcosm of what’s going on across the country,” said Bayne. “The bigger thing is, once we reopen, we might have an initial pop but it’s going to change the way we do business. It’s going to be difficult to make money in the restaurant industry going forward. The restaurant and the hotel industry will be changed forever.”
Freshman was a bit more optimistic about what will happen once the virus abates enough to reopen cafes, restaurants and bars.
“People are so desperate for the physical connection with other people that we can see a boom in our business as people emerge,” he said. “An extraordinary boom in our business is… very real and very possible. It’s what we’re planning for.”
Just don’t expect it to happen any time soon.
“This thing is not going to be open by the end of April or the end of May,” Freshman predicted. “That this is going to wrap up quickly and we’re going to get back to work — anyone suggesting that is foolish.”
Freshman, who also operates a restaurant advisory and investment company, was optimistic that landlords and retail-level tenants will figure out a way forward in terms of rent payments.
“Unless landlords want all their buildings to be dark at the ground level, they need to work with us on rent,” he said, adding that deferring rent for a few months could be a viable option. “But it’s important to understand that landlords have obligations as well. We’re all in it together and we need to work together.”
Asked whether the mass closing of other restaurants may benefit those that survive, due to less competition for diners, Freshman demurred.
“It’s not a good time to talk about it,” he said.