An advanced degree in mathematics did little to prepare Cuban-born local restaurateur and chef Raynald Mendizabal for the regulatory calculations and financial considerations of an often byzantine and always naysayer-centric process for acquiring a venue liquor license in D.C.
Mendizabal learned that lesson as a result of the convoluted process experienced at the recently opened specialty burger eatery Black & Orange, in a colorful storefront space at 14th and U streets in northwest Washington’s fastest growing neighborhood corridor, commercial zone and entertainment district.
Like other proprietors, he found himself subjected to the protestations of “two or three” die-hard opponents and a couple of Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) members, including longstanding alcohol licensing interventionist Ramon Estrada from the adjoining Dupont Circle ANC territory. That’s all it takes under the District’s liquor licensing process to pummel a small business owner into surrendering to the whims of the few.
I sat down last weekend to talk with Mendizabal – the owner of Black & Orange on 14th Street and another location on Connecticut Avenue (formerly Rogue States), and chef and partner at nightclub Lima Lounge and Fujimar restaurant at 14th and K streets – over a glass of wine at window seats looking out on the bustling commercial thoroughfare on the first day he was permitted to serve alcohol at the popular casual dining establishment. Our conversation was punctuated by beer and wine deliveries streaming in through the front door.
Passersby flashed the gregarious and charming Mendizabal knowing smiles and “thumbs-up” gestures when they spied the newly permitted wine bottle situated between us. Neighborhood supporters of this newest addition to the area’s growing restaurant scene familiar with the liquor licensing controversy and permitting delays were eager to signal a spontaneous shared celebration of his liquor license acquisition.
But it came at a steep price. Called the “Voluntary Agreement” process, Mendizabal says there isn’t anything “voluntary” about it.
Originally intending to serve customers round-the-clock – as the McDonald’s fast food location does across the street – Mendizabal quickly discovered that a small group of opponents planned to utilize alcohol license protests to thwart his business plan. He credits the young 29-year-old new ANC 1B-02 commissioner Alexandra Lewin-Zwerdling, filling a vacancy by special election last October, with mitigating the objections of “less-than-a-handful” living on adjacent Wallach Place when scaled-back hours were subsequently proposed.
Acquiring the necessary business permits from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), Black & Orange finally opened Feb. 1 with liquor license and outdoor patio applications still pending. “Always ’til 5AM” was the well-publicized slogan.
Serving alcohol, anticipated until the city’s current standard legal cut-off hours of 2 a.m. on weeknights and 3 a.m. on weekends, would be critical to the grilling joint’s financial success.
Opponents knew this provided them leverage to force a further rollback in operating hours. Startling restaurant supporters, the objectors also demanded that alcohol service end earlier than allowed by D.C. law.
To avoid further delays in a now year-long development process and unwilling to jeopardize his investment, Mendizabal says he was compelled to acquiesce – agreeing to end alcohol service two hours before the law allows during most of the week, at midnight, and an hour less on weekends, at 2 a.m. Thursday would be the only night that the city’s alcohol service timeframe would apply. Newly announced operating hours have now been adjusted to a 2 a.m. closing Sunday-Wednesday, remaining open until 5 a.m. Thursday-Saturday.
Awaiting 18 regulatory approvals for the capacity-undetermined 14 to 20-seat sidewalk patio, Mendizabal knows only that it is required to close even earlier – at 11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and midnight Friday-Saturday.
Acknowledging that the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) has streamlined licensing adjudication, he notes that resolution can take up to six months. It might as well be an eternity.
What astonishes Mendizabal is that the city tolerates manipulation of the licensing process with so much at stake. His two busy burger restaurants alone are projected to contribute $400,000 in annual sales tax revenue.
In a modern city experiencing rapid population growth and slowly accommodating more diverse work-live schedules, Mendizabal points out that “night is not a time of debauchery.”
“We have to stop scaring people away from living their lives,” he says, adding with a hint of hope, “progress is coming.”
Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.