With Liquor License, Trailblazing Big Bear Runs Into a Thicket
The Big Bear Café was a new thing for Bloomingdale when it opened at 1st and R Streets in 2007. The neighborhood didn’t have a proper coffeeshop, and it’s become a magnet for the young professionals who’ve been coming to the area in droves. Mostly, the older neighbors haven’t seemed to mind.
Now, the Café would like to expand its activities into the evening. To do so, it needs a liquor license—and that’s a completely different ballgame.
At an ANC 5C meeting last night, with supporters filling the basement of St. George’s Church, Big Bear asked that commissioners vote to support a stipulated license that would turn into a regular restaurant license in 45 days unless someone lodged a protest. The café’s representative, Lenora Yerkes, presented a petition with 600 signatures, endorsements from immediate neighbors, and many promises to keep noise and disruption down.
But a few audience members rose in opposition. Wanting to hear more, the commission ultimately voted almost unanimously—with John Salatti strongly objecting and Stuart Davenport, the Café’s owner, recusing himself—to table a vote until their next meeting.
In the two hours of debate that intervened, the fundamental dynamics at play in Bloomingdale were plainly evident. Big Bear is asking for the first restaurant license in an area that’s had only liquor stores, and longstanding residents fear the café could just be the first droplet in a wave of similar establishments.
“They’re probably in line to come talk to the commission, ready to make this a whole new world,” said ANC chairwoman Anita Bonds. “Because that’s what this is about.”
“One small entity begets another small entity begets another small entity,” said Edward Jones, a neighbor who has lived at 1st and R Street since 1994. “And then we end up with the same issues that make you a U Street or an Adams Morgan.”
Commissioner Barrie Daneker, who said that he had never been inside Big Bear, objected categorically to the restaurant’s ambitions on the basis of neighborhood character. “I do not want to see Big Bear open until 1 a.m.,” he said. “If you’re a restaurant, nobody’s eating at 1 a.m. in Washington. This is not New York.”
Commissioner Marshall Phillips, Sr. gave an impressive speech about the neighborhood’s history with drunks and crime caused by liquor stores, raising the specter of Catholic University undergraduate-type misbehavior and warning that criminal elements would take advantage of tipsy rubes.
“When you have individuals come and socializing like that, they’re sitting ducks for that type of operation,” he said. “How are you going to address all these problems? Because surely, these problems are going to come!”
In Big Bear’s defense, the ever-patient Yerkes cited the three-year downward trend of crime on the corner, saying that more people makes a neighborhood safer, not more dangerous.
“We hope to extend that human presence into the evening,” she said.
Phillips, though, wasn’t buying it. “There was humans there before Big Bear came,” he shot back.
The commissioners also heard from many impassioned Big Bear fans–some recruited online, others at the Cafe–including parents with small children, young professionals in suits, and long-term residents. At one point, a speaker took a straw poll of those present—four people stood in opposition to the license, and at least 40 in support, with one person holding up handmade signs reading “BIG BEAR YES WE CAN!” (Supporters were mostly white, and the two who spoke in opposition were black.) The room rumbled with discontent when the commissioners decided to put off the vote, now scheduled for next Tuesday at Catholic University.
Bonds seemed sympathetic to Big Bear’s plans, but also dedicated to process—especially considering that the ANC has literally no experience dealing with requests for new restaurant licenses.
“I have friends in the community who say, ‘I want to go have a glass of wine.’ And you know what? I do too,” she said. “But that’s not the bottom line here.”
Bonds invited letters of opposition and support in advance of next week’s vote. Her address is firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com.