Restaurants and Rats: The Latest Chapter Involves Famous Local Chef
by Larry Janezich
Capitol Hill residents have heard about rats. But residents who live near restaurants know them. As retail outlets give way to the higher rents available from restaurants, the rat problem has grown – let us say by leaps and bounds. The widely publicized rat wars on Barracks Row spurred ANC6B to set a goal of best operating practices for Barracks Row restaurants – a standard that encompasses indoor trash and grease storage and noise and odor abatement. Now those issues are being prioritized for restaurants on the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue – particularly those between 2nd and 4th Streets, S.E.
The C Street neighbors behind Pennsylvania Avenue restaurants – a mix of longtime residents and newer ones, some with children – say that the trash disposal practices of these restaurants are attracting rodents to a degree greater than anything in their recent experience. Residents have been complaining to the restaurants and to the ANC but have little leverage in a city which is disposed to put the welfare of its commercial base over the welfare of its citizens. The renewal of liquor licenses every two years and requests for exceptions to the ban on fast food outlets are two of the few points where pressure can be applied on behalf of residents.
The restaurants near the intersection of 3rd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue is a case in point. Four commercial spaces which used to be a barber shop, a drug store, a bank, and a dry cleaners have all been converted to eateries. Rat problems have grown accordingly.
CHC has interviewed or had email exchanges with some half dozen nearby residents of the Pennsylvania Avenue restaurants in question. All say that their quality of life has suffered as the result of problems brought to the neighborhood by restaurants including trash and grease management and noise and odor issues.
Residents on the 300 block of C Street, SE, are particularly at odds with the three restaurants owned by celebrity chef Spike Mendelsohn – The Eatery, We the Pizza, and Bearnaise. The complaints include bad trash and grease management practices, illegal parking in public alley, illegal construction of a roof deck and a fence, noise and odors.
Nearby residents appealed to then-ANC6B01 Commissioner Dave Garrison in 2013, who tried to mediate an agreement between the restaurateur and neighbors. When Bearnaise appeared before the ANC in 2013 to support the application for a liquor license, a restaurant representative told the ANC that the restaurant had made arrangements for twice a day trash pick-up at 8am and 6pm, and had ordered heavy metal covers for trash bins (see ANC6B minutes for that month).
Neighbors say that the metal covers were installed but do not help when bins are filled to overflowing, and the promised twice a day trash pick-up is not happening and has never happened. An unexpected downside of the metal covers is the late night crashing when they are closed by restaurant personnel.
This past summer, neighbors appealed to ANC6B01 Commissioner Jennifer Samolyk, who succeeded Garrison. Samolyk appealed to the Mayor’s office, and one of the Mayor’s Ward 6 representatives – Seth Shapiro – visited the site and, in attempt to improve alley cleanliness, facilitated the repaving of the alley which happened on short notice and apparently without consultation with the neighbors.
Since then, according to nearby residents,
- The dumpsters continue to leak debris and liquids especially when emptied into trucks on C Street
- Frequently open and overflowing dumpsters remain in the alley and in a “corral” behind al illegally constructed fence in space leased from an adjacent bank
- The pizza delivery autos of the restaurant park illegally on public space in the alley, blocking it to access by emergency vehicles and presenting a danger to pedestrians when the vehicles back out onto C Street
- An illegal deck has been constructed atop Bearnaise with the intent of growing a roof top herb and vegetable garden which will further exacerbate the rat problem
- Open buckets of used fryer grease are stored in the open behind The Eatery
Several nearby residents have paved their back yards with concrete to prevent rat burrows. All of them complain about the abundance or rats – alive and dead – plaguing their lives and preventing the use of their yards. One resident claims he was told by DPW that “restaurant quality grease” disposed of in a sewer line was responsible for sewage backup in his basement. Another has taken a pet to the veterinarian twice to be treated for eating rat poison.
All restaurant liquor licenses will come up for renewal in March of 2016. Perhaps because of this, the Mendelsohn restaurants have apparently become more receptive to addressing resident concerns. This week, a representative of the restaurant group told CHC that they are “installing a refrigerated walk in trash room which is being custom made to have a wide enough door that accommodates wide trash bins.” In addition, the representative said, “We currently spend over $165,000 a year in keeping our restaurants extremely clean for our customers. As a family business we are constantly working within our community to enhance our neighborhood.”
In February of this year, Mayor Bowser appointed Spike Mendelsohn to Chair the District’s newly created Food Policy Council.
According to the Mayor’s press release, “As Chair of the Food Policy Council, Spike Mendelsohn will spearhead efforts to promote the food economy and entrepreneurship, improve food access and equity in all 8 wards, and promote urban agriculture and production.”
Neighbors hope that in addition, Mendelsohn will set an example for other restaurants in the city by adopting best operating practices – as one of his competitors on Barracks Row (&Pizza) – has been willing to do.
14 responses to “Restaurants and Rats: The Latest Chapter Involves Famous Local Chef”
Maybe Spike could put some of that “environmental fee” towards preventing rodent issues. What a crock.
Back in the day, there would be picketing, people handing out leaflets saying “Don’t Eat Here Until they Clean Up the Rat Problem (name of restaurant) Has Caused.” Petitions, too. Bad publicity hurts, Maybe some of the residents might consider this method of dealing with the problem?
Ever since Spike’s pizza restaurant opened he’s been charging customers an “environmental” surcharge to carryout orders — and possibly for those dining in. I wonder where the additional 1% he collects is going!
Great post and a very succinct description of the problem. The biggest frustration here is the absolute lack of understanding by a lot of these restaurants as to why their disregard for a standard level of cleanliness is a problem. Residents aren’t asking for onerous new standards, just a modicum of respect and common courtesy. Is it that hard to ask a restaurant to just keep your trash in your dumpsters and not overflowing, to keep the dumpsters clean, and dispose of your restaurant grade grease in the appropriate way (rather than letting it sit out or throwing it into public sewers?). I hope something is going to be done about this as a resident who lives on 2nd St and still has to deal with this issue.
So the alley gets re-paved pronto – because Mendelsohn is a ‘star’? Is Chair of the Mayor’s ‘Food Policy Council’ (whatever the heck that is…)?. Clearly the sad answer is yes. The whole business over him, like his total unconcern for the debris from his three places, stinks! Of course, he is not the only offender. Let’s hope this article is not only read but acted upon by the alleged powers-that-be. Meanwhile, huge praise to CHC for this great piece of journalism (words and photos).
How much has Mendelsohn contributed to the PAC (political action committee) created by Bowser’s friends?
According to a WPost article of 10/17/15, “More than $300,000 has poured into the pro-Bowser PAC, mostly from corporations that either have business before the city or that are actively seeking it, according to campaign disclosures filed last week.” The PAC goal is to raise $1 million which Bowser will be able to use to support “her friends.”
same problem on 1100 block of Penn for years has met by an utter indifference ANC despite repeated violations and major infestation impacting neighbors in adjoining alley. Guess the problem has to impact the upper end of Hill real estate for anyone to give a ___
I am so appreciative of this article. I live on the block that gets to enjoy the poor trash disposal and rat invasion, as a result of the poor trash disposal, of the “Celebrity Chef’s” restaurant. We have suffered with this reality since they moved into OUR community. They are not neighborhood friendly. Would a neighborhood friendly restaurant say, after they received their liquor license in 2013, “what do you want me to do about it, the rats were here when we got here”. Would a neighborhood friendly restaurant have their attorney’s write nasty emails because we say we are going to protest their establishments when they ignore us for years.
They completely ignore the fact that their negligence has increased the rat population. The rats nest near those trash bins and feast at night. Then in the morning it is like the horror movie ” The Birds”, the crows come in and eat the food droppings of the rats as well eat out of the trash bins. Between sunset and sunrise, it is like a jungle in the alley and in the trash bin area. The restaurant staff at night can be heard screaming as a result of rats running. They slam the metal trash bin tops down to scare off the rats. Imagine hearing trash bin tops slamming 4 and 5 times in a row up until 1:00 am in the morning.
Public information: They recently had an “impromptu inspection” by the Liquor Board. The day of this “impromptu” inspection, staff were power washing the trash bins and surrounding areas. The metal staircase was hidden or removed….who knows. A few days later we were told they passed they passed inspection…..what a joke. They are all in cahoots together as far as I am concerned. They are creating a favorable paper trail to counter the communities concerns in preparation for March 2016. They DO NOT CARE ABOUT THE NEIGHBORHOOD. They care about their family name and profiting in the city.
One of the them had the audacity to say, “we cannot please our neighbors”. Sure they can, put your trash inside your restaurant; remove the jailhouse wooden and metal fence so we can get access to our backyards through the alleyway; remove the disgusting trash bins completely; allow others to use the alley as IT DOES NOT BELONG TO YOU; and give a @!#$^ about our community. Start with these suggestions, and then come and talk with us. OR, YOU CAN LEAVE and let us start with new restaurants that are willing to comply.
One last thing, the owner of the location where the BB&T bank is located- the one that rents the back space to the “Celebrity Chefs” for storage of the trash bins….stop hiding behind your Property Management Company and come see how they are destroying the back of your property.
Terrific reportage Larry. Thank you. This post resonates with all who live near eateries on Capitol Hill, near H Street NE, or anywhere else in the city. The city effectively places the burden of rodent prevention and abatement on the individual residents, shirking their legal and, I might add, moral responsibiity to enforce compliance with health and sanitation laws. The one department that tries to help has been the Department of Health, particularly on the storage and disposal of restaurant grease.
perfectly stated. never needed rodent abatement around my home until the past few years. it’s a constant struggle and bad actors are exacerbating the problem even as I spend out of pocket to keep it under control. I don’t even live adjacent to any of these places but the impact is noticeable
If you want them to pay attention, you need to incentivize people to not come to their restaurants. You need to have customers know what these places do. Maybe showing pictures of rats in the dumpsters, handing them to people as they enter, asking them to stop patronizing until the problem is cleaned up. Maybe just picketing on the sidewalk. I hope that is still legal. or has the PAC money found a way to arrest ordinary picketers? Larry?
it’s such an awkward conversation with friends. people get really invested in supporting neighborhood restaurants but sometimes they don’t want to know what really goes on. some of us are unfortunately better positioned to understand the depth of the problems because it spills over into our yards
Don’t they notice rats running around?
Maybe the way to deal is to find out who among your neighbors are concerned, and then circulate a flyer (physical or email) signed by as many neighbors as possible. Neighbors react differently to one or two people, vs. the majority of their neighbors; they understand that it is a big problem, not just a couple of people who can be dismissed for whatever reason.
sorry, but unless you live on that alley you probably have zero interest in visiting that. The restaurants pass health inspection because they’re evaluated primarily on the interior of their property. They get dinged on interior waste disposal but not as much on exterior, and those rats could be anyone’s rats. Yes they are supposed to keep dumpsters closed and properly dispose of grease, but they won’t get shut down as they would for signs of interior rodent infestation or improper food handling. Maybe fined if you can prove it and even then it’s a slap on the wrist. They have perverse incentives because it’s all about getting stuff out the door and the community impact be damned