Standing vigil over the entrance to her restaurant, Froggy Bottom Pub owner Hien Bui greets students and local residents with hugs and humorous comments. These extra touches are what keep her afloat in today’s competitive restauraunt market.
Small businesses owners on campus said they are surviving – despite a large number of national chains – because of their superior food, service and atmosphere. As TONIC and Johnny Rockets enter a campus flooded with corporate dining, students said they still prefer the services of smaller establishments.
Bui said her business survives because she has confidence in the decency of her price, the quality of her food and the service she provides.
“I strongly believe that when (students) come in to eat, (they) feel homey,” Bui said. “Bottom line, I do care.”
She remembers all of her customers, and some even by name.
“The Frog is just like my baby. You have to take care of your kids to grow up decent,” Bui said.
Students attested to the attention Bui and other small-business owners pay to their customers.
“It’s a better atmosphere,” said sophomore Nicole Williams. “I love coming back to school and going back to the little places we have here. I can have Wendy’s whenever I want at home.”
Olivia Del Campo, a sophomore, agreed.
“I feel like you can get a little bit of everything (at the smaller businesses),” Del Campo said. “At J Street, everything is pre-packaged and preset.”
One small business in particular is under threat because of the recent campus plan. The building that houses GW Deli on G Street is not included in the Campus Plan. John Ambrogi, owner of the deli, said that he tries not to think about it because talks have not gotten to a serious point yet.
He said he does not want to leave the neighborhood that has kept his family in business since 1945.
“As far as I’m concerned, Foggy Bottom is the best location in the country you can’t get much better,” Ambrogi said. “I can’t imagine leaving.”
GW Deli was originally opened by Leo Ambrogi, father of John Ambrogi, and has been family owned and operated since. Ambrogi said he makes money because – like the other small businesses on campus – he has a fair product, a fair price, good service and he knows the clientele and what they want. Ambrogi also added that in his business, the owners are on site.
“At other places the managers come and go,” Ambrogi said. “They just don’t care about the business as much.”
Sophomore Matt Kamisher-Koch said he prefers places such as GW Deli to University-owned dining options because they are more conducive to student’s lives.
“Places owned by like Sodexho are really inconvenient and the food isn’t want I want to eat,” Kamisher-Koch said. “The service is pretty crappy. it’s not nice.”
Kamisher-Koch said other places on campus such as GW Deli keep hours that fit the collegiate lifestyle.
“They have a wide variety of food that’s edible and their employees are really nice, normal, functional people who don’t yell at you,” Kamisher-Koch said.
Unlike Bui and Ambrogi, Gallery Group owner Paul Park has several businesses on campus. He has developed and operated more than thirty markets, delicatessens, hot food bars, dry cleaners and cafes in the D.C. area. There are four Gallery-owned businesses on campus.
Though his business model is more expansive and ambitious than Bui or Ambrogi, Park still manages to act like a small business owner.
“We provide good food at reasonable prices, and all of the employees have a vested interest in the business,” Park said.
Park said he eats at his locations on campus whenever he is in town to make sure everything is up to par. He also noted that for huge companies such as Sodexho, the business is not as personal for them.
“(For us) it’s more of a personal relationship with the students, as opposed to somebody sitting in an office in another city, or stock holders or something like that,” Park said.
Bui and Ambrogi deal with the University on a regular basis, paying rent and coordinating with area development. Bui said that her relationship with GW is good because they have been reasonable landlords. She has tried to be a good tenant in return.
“They do their part, and until now, are not messing up,” Bui said. “Their price is fair for me.”
Tracy Schario, a spokesperson for the University, said that GW is proud of its relationship with small businesses on campus and hopes for their success.
“GW is committed to locally owned and operated businesses,” Schario said. “They provide excellent neighborhood – serving retail as well as provide students with a homegrown option, rather than nothing but chain solutions.”
Schario added that it is healthy-in a retail environment-to have a mix of small businesses and chains.
“You don’t want exclusively big box,” Schario said. “You don’t want exclusively any one particular category of business.”