A New Day, A New War: Empty chairs at empty tables

There are 290 empty red cushioned chairs at Sholl’s Colonial Cafeteria, a restaurant seating 300. Rows of broccoli, mounds of meatloaf and lines of blueberry pie sit untouched on the long serving counter.

On a good day hundreds of students would be chatting loudly and grabbing food. The only sound heard there today is the quiet clinking of 10 forks and whispers from the wait staff. It is not a good day for Sholl’s Colonial Cafeteria. Since Sept. 11, there have not been any good days.

The 73-year-old cafeteria will close on Dec. 5. The D.C. institution could no longer afford to pay $32,000 a month for rent and utilities after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Sholl’s is not just a business, it is a part of the community,” manager Van Fleishell said. “This has been a terrible year.”

The 1900 K St. restaurant lost 35 percent of its business after the attacks. Fleishell said the cafeteria depends on student and senior citizen tourist groups for the majority of its business. Since the attacks, she said, tour groups have been too afraid to visit the capital.

“All the student groups canceled after Sept.11,” Fleishell said more than two months after the attacks. “They canceled until July 2002. Without tour groups we cannot survive in this location.”

Fleishell said she is looking for a new location for the cafeteria and hopes customers will follow the cafeteria wherever it may go.

Jale Penzo is asking the community for help, too. The owner of Branch Office Supply Co., a small office supply and gift shop under the Watergate, said her store has lost between 60 to 70 percent of its business since Sept. 11.

“We are going to wait and see how the holidays go,” Penzo said. “And then make a decision about whether to close or not,” she added quietly.
Penzo said she used to get many European and South American tourists in her shop. Since the attack she said she has not had one.

Penzo said most days it’s not worth going to work. She said she often loses money after paying the $13 fee for parking in the garage.

“I think I am the worst hit,” Penzo said, staring out her store window. “For restaurants and markets, at least people still have to eat. For the pharmacy, people still need to buy medicine.”

Plights like Penzo’s and Fleishell’s are becoming more common in the District after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and anthrax scares that followed. Business is slow, and those most hurting are businesses that cater to tourists.

According to a study by the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, Washington’s hospitality businesses, including hotels and restaurants, lost more than $24 million between Sept. 11 and Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. Non-hospitality businesses reported a 10- to 30-percent drop in revenue from the same time last year.

Juanita Cook, 59, is feeling the loss. She sells sweatshirts, hats, gloves and scarves outside the Foggy Bottom Metro stop. She has been at it for 30 years and said business is the worst it has ever been.

“Business is almost non-existent,” Cook said. “The few people here are not buying. It is usually slow, but now it is dead.”

Cook said she hopes more people will buy gloves and scarves as it gets colder, because the Washington memorabilia is not selling.

“I come to work every day and wait,” Cook said. “It is the only thing I can do.”

Some storeowners said they have been lucky and managed to escape the economic repercussions of the terrorist attacks relatively unscathed.

Tyrone Hester sells flowers outside Foggy Bottom Metro stop next to Cook. He said his sales decreased the first week after the attacks, but gradually they are getting back to normal.

“People whose work does not depend on tourists are doing OK,” Hester said. “But if I were selling T-shirts it would be worse.”

GW graduate Barbara Levi owns “Chocolate Moose,” a Georgetown gift shop. Levi said her business has been relatively unaffected since the attacks because most of her clients are local residents, not tourists.

“I am very lucky,” Levi said. “I think it would have been much worse if we catered most to tourists.”

Rob Oursler, general manager of the Double Tree Inn on New Hampshire Avenue, said he has been lucky compared to other hotels in the city.

“We only had to lay off three people. For this city now, that is outrageously low,” Oursler said.

Oursler said the hotel has been able to hang on because it does not depend on large business conventions for most of its revenue. Most business comes from GW and federal employees.

“If businesses have the choice of having their big meetings in New Orleans or Washington, D.C., they are going to have them in New Orleans now,” Oursler said.

Liz Debarrios, director of communication for the Hotel Association of D.C., said 10,500 of 26,000 hotel employees in the District have been laid off since the attacks. She said the attacks came at a particularly bad time because hotels use the money made during the usually busy months of September, October and November to tide them over during December and January.

“We have been hit pretty hard,” Debarrios said. “But we are working to market the city.”

The Hotel Association is working with the District to combat the revenue loss through a $3.5 million promotion campaign called “Be Inspired,” said Sue Porter, director of tourism for the Chamber of Commerce.

“We want people to come back to the city, the seat of national monuments and government,” Porter said.

Free Metro rides Oct. 13-14 were part of the campaign.

The city will sponsor a holiday campaign from December through January with advertisements to entice people living in the Metro area to visit the District. Porter said next year the campaign will extend throughout the country and, after that, internationally.

“The time is not right to target the entire nation because many people are afraid to travel,” Porter said.

D.C. City Council passed a bill to provide $100 million in low interest loans to companies in need. The bill must pass Congress before businesses will see any money. Porter said she is unsure how long the progress will take.

“We hope it is sooner that later,” Porter said.

Porter said before it happens some business will be forced to declare bankruptcy or close.

But for people like Fleishell and the 30 Sholl’s employees help could not come fast enough.

“Many of our customers are still praying for a miracle so we can stay open,” Fleishell said. “But there just is not enough money. It is a big loss for us, our customers, our employees and Washington.”

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