Thousands of dollars in debt, Foggy Bottom’s only ice cream shop to serve last scoop

Media Credit: Elise Apelian | Senior Staff Photographer

Cone E. Island shut its doors last month after three decades on Pennsylvania Avenue.

The Foggy Bottom’s only ice cream shop will close its doors after 27 years next month due to declining profits and mounting debt.

Cone E. Island, known for its black-and-white checkered floors and fluorescent wall signs in the Shops at 2000 Penn, has struggled for years as big-name businesses have cropped up in Foggy Bottom, its owner said last week.

“Today we are making half of what we were seven years ago,” one of the owner’s Alan Rubin said. Sales first slumped in 2008, he said, when CVS Pharmacy opened in place of Tower Records and students started buying cartons of ice cream there to bring back to their dorms.

In the last three years, Cone E. Island has also seen competition from Sweetgreen, Whole Foods and even J Street, which opened a self-serve frozen yogurt machine last year.

He said he was forced to cut pay for staff last year, while his wife, who is also an owner, forfeited her own paycheck for months.

As the shop struggled, Rubin said he tried to seek help from his landlord: GW’s real estate office. But Rubin said officials dismissed him, refusing to meet to negotiate a new lease or give him extra time to pay off what he owed.

He said he had an investor lined up and willing to back the back rent if they could get a lower rate, but the management at 2000 Penn declined.

“They don’t really care what businesses or people are in there so long as they are making money,” Rubin said.

The Shops at 2000 Penn – one of the University’s most valuable properties, which it has owned since 1984 – is worth about $140 million, according to city records.

Noel Esmilla, who began scooping ice cream when the shop first opened in 1987, said sales had dropped in recent years but he had noticed lately that “business is picking up.”

He said he has tried to convince the owners to change their minds, but said he knows “it’s about business decisions,” and said the shop is several thousand dollars in debt.

The ice cream and frozen yogurt shop boasts strong ties to GW. Undergraduate students Mark Bautista and Steve Gruber opened the first Cone E. Island store in Georgetown more than three decades ago. Four years later, they moved the shop to 2000 Pennsylvania Ave.

Cone E. Island has served up favorites like oreo fantasy bar brownies, chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream and Skinny Minnie frozen yogurt to generations of students. It also draws a night crowd, staying open until midnight each night and blasting a mix of top 40 pop over the speakers.

Esmilla, who emigrated from the Philippines, said he started working at the shop “not speaking a word of English.” Now, he said that Cone E. Island is his “life,” and he even met his wife, who works at GW, while working there. He said the shop has only hired GW students since he became general manager.

He remembered once when the first family came in for ice cream, with students trying to get past Secret Service to speak to Sasha and Malia.

Ideally, Esmilla said he would find a new location to set up shop again nearby. “This is my first choice. I want to be around in this area,” he said.

Sophomore Miranda Houchins, who has spent many Sunday evenings on dates with her boyfriend at Cone E. Island, said she was “devastated” to hear about the closing. And when her friends visit from home, Houchins said she often brings them to the shop.

“Cone E., as silly as it sounds, has been home to a lot of great memories for me at GW like some of my first dates with my boyfriend and countless laughs with friends on the sofas,” Houchins said.

Vanessa Bajko, Catherine Carney and Bridget Hughes contributed reporting.

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