On a stretch of Rhode Island Avenue NE sandwiched between rows of single-family houses and accompanied by the steady soundtrack of Prince George’s County commuters, a string of storefronts once served as a main street but has since fallen on hard times. Many of them are vacant. Scattered among the occupied ones are liquor stores, pawn shops, and carryouts. There’s a tire-and-rim dealer, a taxi parking lot, and several car-repair garages.
And then, in the middle of it all, there’s Zeke’s Coffee.
The cafe, with its minimalist decor and pour-over station, wouldn’t look out of place in Logan Circle or Georgetown. Those neighborhoods, after all, have a few things Zeke’s milieu of Woodridge doesn’t: residential density, visitors from around and outside the city, and abundant disposable income.
Their cafes also have something Zeke’s often lacks: customers.
On a recent Wednesday morning, Zeke’s is empty save for a lone man hunched over a laptop at the window counter overlooking Rhode Island Avenue. Unlikely as it may seem, though, the coffee shop’s sparse patronage is almost by design.
That’s because walk-in business accounts for a third or less of the cafe’s revenue, according to John Kepner, who owns the D.C. branch of the small, family-run Zeke’s chain, which also has locations in Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Wholesale business from Zeke’s coffee-bean roasting and stands at 10 D.C.-area farmers markets provide the bulk of Zeke’s income. “Two of the three are coming in outside of the dollars walking through the door,” Kepner says.
It’s what’s happening in the back of Zeke’s, the roasting, that allows the cafe to stay afloat.
“These guys would go out of business if they just sold coffee,” says Bo Menkiti, the leading developer in Woodridge, who owns five properties along that stretch of Rhode Island Avenue plus more in adjacent Brookland. “The community wants a coffee shop. A coffee shop is not viable here now. But this is.” Read more The Unusual Retail Tactic That Could Transform Rhode Island Avenue NE