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.