July 14, 2011 | by Mark Lee
Duplex Diner pioneer hands over the keys
Eric Hirschfield

Eric Hirshfield opened the 18th & U Duplex Diner in June 1998, which quickly caught on with gay patrons who dubbed it the ‘Cheers for Queers.’ (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Eric Hirshfield, the founder and now former owner of 18th & U Duplex Diner, has proven to be, above all else, a gracious and dedicated gentleman entrepreneur.

His recent announcement that he had sold the business spread like a wildfire among the Duplex’s network of neighborhood patrons and gay community movers-and-shakers alike. An appropriate reaction for a venue attracting a bevy of local gay men and lesbians and their friends where a portion of deceased LGBT and AIDS activist and Clinton administration official Bob Hattoy’s ashes are kept in a martini shaker on a shelf behind the bar.

Following a 13-year anniversary “BAR mitzvah” celebration on June 25 heralding a month-long closure to “refresh” the venue and after a series of weekly “Road Trip” signature Thursday night events currently underway at neighboring establishments, long-time Duplex Diner bartender and new owner Kevin Lee will re-open the venue at the end of the month and continue the popular and well-regarded landmark enterprise.

Referring to his decision to quit his job sporting a pocket protector as a civil engineer to open a community restaurant and bar “a seduction” that began three years prior to the Duplex Diner’s June 1998 opening, Hirshfield jokes that the hospitality industry is the “world’s second oldest profession” — if not the first.

Like a teenager constantly riding his bike down the street in front of a cute neighbor boy’s house, Hirshfield would walk by the abandoned property just north of 18th and U streets at the intersection with Florida Avenue, N.W., on the way home from his downtown office, pressing his face against the glass and dreaming of what it would be like to feel passion, excitement and commitment in his professional life.

It didn’t matter to him that the object of his affection was more than a little rough around the edges. In fact, the conjoined structures at 2002 and 2004 18th St. had seen better days. The weeds inside the building would grow to the height and thickness of trees in the summer and the hollow shell was rapidly deteriorating.

As a young man intent on chasing his desires, Hirshfield threw caution to the wind and told himself that this was the moment to make his move.

Disapproving neighbors

But the challenges involved in consummating such a relationship in the District often prove to be a cruel mistress, indeed.

Despite the fact that he was proposing to rehabilitate a prominent eyesore located at the southern gateway to the Adams Morgan neighborhood where it rubbed shoulders with Dupont Circle, a small group of area residents was quick to disapprove of this new prospective venture.

In a scene re-enacted to this day across the city, they insisted on intervening in this affair. They knew that local tradition allowed them the opportunity to interrupt the courtship and bestowed upon them the potential to call the whole thing off.

Several years later, Hirshfield would join with hundreds of other local business owners in opposition to small citizens groups and Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) members advocating even more onerous restrictions on local businesses, describing the nearly two-year-long ordeal he had endured under the city’s cumbersome alcohol licensing process.

First testifying before the D.C. Council in 2004 during public hearings on the proposed Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) law revisions, Hirshfield captured the attention of city officials by detailing the outlandish elements of a lengthy so-called “Voluntary Agreement” he was forced to sign with a small group of liquor license protestants in order to move forward with his contingency lease and property renovation, eventually opening for business.

The document stipulated, among other things, the hours he could open the front windows facing the steady stream of buses, cars and trucks filling this major transportation artery and commercial intersection lest his patrons generate too much noise. It dictated the exact location of his trash containers and required that he install an “airlock” double entrance chamber leading into the small 1,000 square foot establishment.

Confessing his ‘sins’

Council members sat up in their seats in rapt attention as Hirshfield freely “confessed his sins” and announced in a characteristically devilish manner that he was in violation of a number of these stipulations.

His only defense: common sense.

Plus the fact no one had noticed, owing to the reality that these intrusive and nonsensical requirements clearly provided no real or ongoing benefit to those complaining about imagined problems in advance of their existence. Hirshfield learned first-hand that local hospitality business operators in Washington are deemed “guilty” until proven “innocent” in the eyes of the few neighborhood nannies necessary to manipulate and abuse the regulatory system and impose their will with ease, regardless of the actual merit or fairness of their supposed concerns.

Hirshfield went on to illustrate how the arbitrary sales percentage requirements dictating the amount of revenue derived from alcohol vs. food sales are counterintuitive to his business model as both a small neighborhood restaurant and bar.

Explaining that his patrons could order an entire homestyle meal for which the restaurant operation was well-known – with signature dishes like meatloaf and mac ‘n cheese and its popular tater tot side, of which a large number of patrons are worried will not make the new menu version (they will) – for a modest price, Hirshfield totaled the cost of an adult beverage with the meal and, heaven forbid, another drink (or two) at the bar either before or after.

A guest enjoying the evening and visiting with friends was, in fact, making it harder for the business to comply with the law the longer they hung around. All this despite the patron wanting to support this community business and help it succeed.

Although providing a robust and popular neighborhood eatery serving a wide swath of local demographics — Hirshfield often describes the actual bar top as being “not a gay bar, not a straight bar, but a curved bar” which, in fact, it is, and will remain — to this day the business struggles, along with many others, to meet these abstract revenue formulas.

Unintended consequences

Hirshfield’s impassioned public articulateness regarding the issues facing local community small business owners over the years has helped create a virtual industry standoff with alcohol licensing opponents. These efforts have contributed to a growing understanding among city residents that the entire license approval process has remained seriously out of whack.

Looking back on the licensing process he underwent, Hirshfield said that his naiveté was his most advantageous attribute, along with persistence and tenacity — otherwise, he might have just given up. After all, he now reflects, a rational businessperson would have simply moved on.

And therein lies the rub. For all the grousing about unruly crowds and late-night drunken revelers clutching pizza slices at the end of a weekend night overwhelming the sidewalks and spilling onto the streets of Adams Morgan, it is the extraordinarily obtuse and out-of-balance licensing process that discourages both sanguine and successful hospitality industry players from locating in the area.

Cumbersome licensing obstacles and hostile regulatory hoop-jumping required by groups such as the long-notorious Kalorama Citizens Association (KCA) and its miniscule active membership are the creators of these unintended consequences, according to Hirshfield. Add the small ad hoc license protest groups formed to oppose local business applicants along with neighborhood ANCs all too eager to extract their own pound of flesh — all wielding what he refers to as an “Involuntary Agreement” as their weapon of choice and demanding acquiescence to their demands — and soon seasoned and savvy community business operators begin looking elsewhere.

Hirshfield contends that it is these licensing opponents who have, in fact, “manifested what they sought to eliminate.”

Without a marketplace mix of hospitality businesses contributing to each other’s success and providing a blend of offerings, Hirshfield argues, those operating on the edges resort to cheap drinks, plastic cups, and college-age promotions to reap volume sales, larger margins and the ability to pay the bills.

Hirshfield points out — from his perspective as a neighborhood resident, consumer and business owner — that the diverse neighborhood enjoys a long tradition as host to a broad range of responsible establishments and a rich history offering an eclectic mix of cuisines and environments and continues to be a vibrant destination for well-regarded dining and entertainment options.

He believes that the neighborhood’s best days are yet ahead, and that the community will successfully confront the problems it is currently experiencing as a result of the misguided policies of the past.

You might think that a business owner would fear the presence of alternatives in close proximity or be concerned with competition from other establishments.

Not the case in Hirshfield’s mind, as he is quick to point out the long-time contribution that the also gay-owned L’Enfant Café and Bar French-inspired bistro with its comfortable outdoor seating area next door, the adjacent Bobby Lew Saloon on the opposite side, and the addition of several recently refurbished new businesses across the street, including The Blaguard and the Jack Rose Dining Saloon.

Hirshfield is proud to share in the ongoing development that has transformed this southernmost neighborhood area since those early days of entrepreneurial romance.

That is what it takes to grow a neighborhood and expand the amenities available to residents, Hirshfield said, quoting the adage “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

Many would credit his vision and hard work and perseverance with being the anchor that has allowed this to happen over time along the once abandoned and neglected high-profile block that many now refer to simply as “LoMo” (for Lower Adams Morgan).

Hirshfield’s future plans

After taking some time off, Hirshfield plans to expand his involvement with business development activities in the area, sharing the lessons he learned the hard way and continuing to be an important part of the neighborhood he loves.

He takes some comfort in observing both that the city government has made progress in streamlining its business permitting departments and that the ABC Board has recently begun to cast a wary eye on those who seek to stand in the way of economic development and a fair and equitable application of alcohol licensing law without undue delay due to frivolous protests.

He hopes that Mayor Vincent Gray will encourage the continuation of these advancements when appointing new members to the ABC Board.

Although not yet detailing any specifics, what most excites Hirshfield is the opportunity to continue to be a part of a dynamic urban locale with a long-irreverent spirit and business camaraderie more akin to collaboration than competition.

In the meantime, his legacy will continue at the soon-to-reopen Duplex Diner under the stewardship of proprietor Kevin Lee — along with the familiar faces that have been key to the venue’s longstanding success continuing to serve appreciative “stakeholder” patrons. Both Hirshfield and Lee have been quick to assure inquiring customers that the popular and long-serving staff personalities “conveyed” with the sale.

New owner Lee has undertaken a “micro-renovation” to give the place a “Diner 2.0” facelift, some menu tweaks, and an expanded wine list. The “Tater Tot” lobby has proven as effective as any big-name K Street special interest advocacy firm, the Madonna-themed bathroom stays, and patrons are invited to submit suggestions on the diner’s Facebook page for a new theme for the other bathroom. Images of the venue’s renovation progress will be available on the Facebook page.

An excited Lee wants to honor the successful formula that Hirshfield introduced and nourished while adding some new touches and creating traditions of his own. Most of all he wants to continue what Hirshfield lovingly refers to as a “cool space at a great location, where a popular restaurant and bar happened along the way” — a sort of “Cheers for Queers” where everyone feels welcome and it doesn’t take long for them to remember your name.

Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.

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