Housing Complex

Deanwood Plays Hardball With Liquor Stores

Best slogan ever. (Lydia DePillis)

A third store selling booze at the intersection of Sheriff Road and Eastern Avenue NE was one too many for Deanwood residents, who've been pulling out all the stops to prevent Uncle Lee's Seafood from getting a retail liquor license.

The problem is, the other two stores are on the Maryland side—so the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Board doesn't have to consider them in its consideration of liquor license saturation.

In part because of the jurisdictional challenge, neighbors have tried persuasion and protest to convince the owners they should stick to food—they'd like to see a sit-down restaurant there, or a grocery store—in a stalemate that's good for nobody living in the vicinity.

"They make money off the community, so they should serve the interests of the community," says Councilmember Yvette Alexander, who waved signs with about 30 people Saturday morning, including many residents of a 39-unit condo nearby. Lots of cars honked in support as they zoomed through the intersection. "We don't need another liquor store. When you open a business, you need to be sensitive to the needs of the community. That's what owning a business is about."

Peter Jung, a certified public accountant, helped his mother Eun Sun Kim buy the business from its longtime owner in November 2010. They wanted to serve breakfast and lunch—the place closes at 6:00 p.m.—but figured they couldn't survive in that location without selling alcohol and lottery tickets as well. ANC 7C Commissioner Sylvia Brown tried to talk them out of it, taking Kim to Cornercopia on 3rd Street SE to illustrate the kind of thing she'd like to see at Uncle Lee's, and telling them about grants and loans for corner stores that agree to sell healthy food. Still, Jung and his mother weren't convinced that it could work in Deanwood, where they don't even want to take down the bulletproof glass—not a great atmosphere for a restaurant.

"What if my mom gets shot? It's a dangerous neighborhood," Jung says (while acknowledging that he has encountered no crime since opening the business). "It sounds so nice, but in reality, it doesn't make any sense at all."

Bulletproof glass inside (Ms. Kim declined to be photographed).

To make matters worse, D.C. has capped the number of off-premises beer and wine licenses. Buying one can cost tens of thousands of dollars, so the Class A license for hard liquor was their only option for retail sales. The ANC pushed back, and Jung says that while they were fighting for their licenses and certificate of occupancy, business was so slow that they fell behind on their $2,000 monthly rent payments.

"I told her we are not trying to run a liquor store," Jung says, referring to Brown. "We are only trying to increase our sales so we can afford rent and utilities."

Uncle Lee's isn't the only business on the corner that has faced the neighbors' ire. Andre Johnson has been selling clothes there for the last several years, and the liquor license protesters also called the cops on him, suspecting he wasn't properly licensed or paying sales taxes (he had a vending license, but needed a basic business license, which he recently obtained). Johnson stopped by the protest on Saturday and got into a profanity-laced shouting match with Alexander and other sign-wavers, saying they weren't letting him set up shop, and had made his business look illegitimate when the police stopped by.

"When I talked to Ms. Alexander back in January, she told me vending is ghetto," Johnson says, furious. "Vending is ghetto? Half the community does vending. There's no jobs out here. So what you rather, somebody be on welfare? Somebody sell drugs? Or try to set up a legit business?"

Ronnie Streff, of the Capitol View Civic Association, says they didn't think Johnson had been doing anything illicit—they just would rather it not be there. "It's not the quality of business that we would appreciate seeing in the neighborhood."

The owners of Uncle Lee's are being stubborn, and maybe they could make a go of it with groceries instead of booze on that high-visibility corner. But with things as they are, the crusade against their right to sell liquor might just end up driving them out of business entirely (which would be a shame for local food options; the crabcake sandwich isn't bad). That could allow another entrepreneur with more startup capital to buy the place and set up something the locals would like. Or it could result in the corner sitting empty for years to come.

Rather than punish one local business that's uninterested in change, it might make sense for neighborhood activists to focus on attracting a business—or starting their own—that will prove to others that the clientele exists for something better than what's been there for decades. If Peter Jung isn't willing to be the first mover, then show him why he's wrong.

  • Ward 7

    The "vendor" did not have a vending license. You should be able to verify that Lydia. He has needed the basic business license, which he has been operating without, and thus not paying DC sales tax as he is required to do. You also left out that every other word out of his mouth is FAGGOT--definitely not a business we want to see in Ward 7.
    Ronnie Streff

  • Bob Summersgill

    Upset as the "vendor" may be, his language reveals that he is not ready to be a good business neighbor.

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    When did DC put a cap on the number of Class B licenses?

    Interesting wrinkle -- stores on the MD side of an intersection. I haven't seen similar kinds of issues in W5, W4, or W3. Well, there is an issue with W5 and Rhode Island Ave. in Mt. Rainier, which I think the City Paper or the Post wrote about more than 10 years ago. But people drive there probably...

  • Ward 7

    "If Peter Jung isn't willing to be the first mover, then show him why he's wrong."

    I think the effort has been made:
    "ANC 7C Commissioner Sylvia Brown tried to talk them out of it, taking Kim to Cornercopia on 3rd Street SE to illustrate the kind of thing she'd like to see at Uncle Lee's, and telling them about grants and loans for corner stores that agree to sell healthy food."

  • Sally

    A Cornercopia would not survive on that corner: because of lack of clientele and it would be robbed and shoplifted repeatedly.

    The racial dynamics is more interesting, particularly the Korean-owned business being clearly targeted by the protestors. The owners should file a complaint with the DC Office of Human Rights.

    And I don't blame the dude in the red shirt from being pissed off: He's had the cops called on him multiple times and the protestors don't care whether he's a licensed business or not -- they simply don't want him there and will do whatever they can to shut him down.

  • http://greatergreaterwashington.org/vdavis/ MsV

    Sally... Stop trying to race-bait. 1) Many of the business owners in Ward 7 are Asian (Korean, Thai, Vietnamese). 2)Regardless of race of the business owner, the community doesn't want another liquor store.

  • Tyro

    the community doesn't want another liquor store.

    If that's true, then any such place will close down due to lack of business.

  • SEis4ME

    The community doesn't "need" another liquor store.

  • michaeliceman

    I have been pretty consistent on these boards about this type of issue. I think standing out front, protesting a legally operating business and running away customers is a crock. And for the record, I am against another liquor store at that location. In my view, you have three options.

    1. Show up at the hearing and get on the record as to why they should not get the liquor license. Let the process work.
    2. If they do get the license, do not patronize the place.
    3. Raise the money and buy them out. See..it is a personal pet peeve for people to tell someone what to do with their own money and business without taking on some of the risk. Everybody has all these nice ideas on how other people can spend their money. You want a healthy grocer there…draft a business plan, head down to the bank or the SBA, and buy these folks out.

    And the Councilmember is out there protesting too…..against a legally operating business??? Regarding Hustleman Johnson, perhaps the Councilmember could help him find a vacant storefront for him to operate from. I hear that she is an expert at getting below-market deal from landlords.

  • Tyro

    You want a healthy grocer there…draft a business plan, head down to the bank or the SBA, and buy these folks out.

    In DC, especially among the sort of people who engage in these protests, there is a widespread perception that operating a private business is somehow dirty and perniciously "making money off the community." I don't think you're going to make a lot of headway with that argument of yours.

    The better strategy here is to advise the owners of the business to use the threat of their business as leverage to get a high paying job with the DC government: everyone's happy. The would be business owners make money, and "the community" doesn't feel threatened by someone "making money off of them," while gaining a new neighbor with a respectable civil service job instead of a slightly suspicious person engaged in business ownership.

  • michaeliceman

    @ Tyro

    LOL!!! Right! I hear you. Even if they did cave in a put a healthy grocer there, some of these same protesters would not shop there because “the prices are too high!”

    You know I did not even think of that. Maybe these folks have a “fresh out of college” child who could use a 6 figure job. LOL!!!

  • SEis4ME

    @Michael, if liquor in areas as such didn't (as a matter of practice) breed a certain amount of vice which negatively contributes to the functioning of the n'hood, I would be more in line with your, "against legal business" argument. However, that's not the case and while I agree with your suggestion that they attend the hearings, I fully support them protesting this store.

    By the same, high income neighborhoods often protest the opening of pawn shops, which is why I imagine you don't find many in those areas.

    For most americans, raising capital to buy out a business is not an option. So while that is a reasonable suggestion, the actual practice of it leaves a lot to be desired.

    @Tyro, whatever side you're on, these businesses ARE making money of the community. Isn't that the whole purpose? See a need and fill it?

  • Skipper

    SEis4ME - There's a pawnshop in Georgetown right next to the Social Safeway. No protests; no complaints. The ONLY pawnshop that's gotten protests is that one on Georgia Avenue in Ward 4 -- and even that one is the pet cause of a nutty ANC that's peeved that their blessing wasn't sought before the business opened in a legal location.

    You also don't find many of the "vice" you refer to at booze-selling establishments in many other parts of the city. Why is that?

    If you want to tell these legal business owners how to run their business, then you should OWN their business. Would you and other protestors prefer to have a vacant storefront?

  • SEis4ME

    Skipper, as far as I can tell, there is ONE pawn shop in G'town and I can't account for how many are Wards 1, 2, 3 and 4 combined? Do you know?

    But that also doesn't make my point less valid. There is a reason why pawn shops are heavily concentrated in poorer neighborhoods. This isn't a reawakening of facts. It's common knowledge.

    Do you really want me to answer why liquor stores in high-income neighborhoods don't experience the same level of vice and destruction commonly found in poorer neighborhoods? Do you also want me to answer why drugs, violence and crime is more common and poorer neighborhoods than in high income ones as well?

    And sorry but running a business any way you like w/o any regard for the community? Where dey do dat at?

    Why not rescind all laws related to business and allow them operate as they see fit. That way, no one will tell them how to "run their business."

  • michaeliceman

    All jokes aside, I fully understand why the community would not want another liquor store at that location and I agree with the position. I disagree with the method of expressing that position. The place does not sell liquor yet. They may get the license or they may not. To me, that does not justify protesting in front of the place and potentially scaring off current customers. That is strong-arming and intimidation to me. It could also have a chilling impact on other business looking to open in the ward. Would you open a store there? After all, this business is currently operating as permitted by law. There is an application and hearing process that is supposed to be the forum for these protests. The process was designed to give the community a voice in these issues.

    As for buying them out, I know it leaves a lot to be desired. That is sort of my point. These folks are trying to make a change that will generate more revenue and make the business more profitable. Members of the community do not like it and they are trying to “persuade” the business owners to make the changes that they want….a sit down place….a healthy grocer, etc. If the owner makes the changes the community members want, will they guarantee her revenue? Heck, will they pay her rent? Of course not. So they want her to take all the financial risk of changing the business into what they want? Does not sound right to me.

  • QuoteMe

    I think the video proves the point my fellow community members were trying to make. Whether he has a license or not, his business is not wanted. Period. And contrary to what some of you on this site would like to believe, the community has the final say. If we are to improve our neighborhood, we don't need another liquor store or half thought out low budget vendor selling socks on the corner off some half broken down table. We live here and we will most certainly say what we want. If Mr. Johnson were so serious about his 'business' he can buy out the lease and sell from the store. I have no problem with that. But best believe that we will continue to dictate what goes on in our neighborhood. If the Yung's can't survive selling the food they have, then that's the fault of their business plan, but you won't sell alcohol there and not hear from us. Sell the store and go sell your mess over in PG. DC isn't taking it anymore. Better yet, don't sell it anywhere. You open a business to uplift the area not bring it down. Enough is enough. See you Sat!

  • Lovelace

    michaeliceman makes good points.

  • Another perspective

    The natural reaction to anyone who feels attacked, marginalized, or threatened (whether real or not) is to attack or threaten. I think what that video shows the most is the frustrations that some members of the community have towards standards that they don't think they had a role in developing and standards that don't leave space for their own livelihoods. Instead of telling that vendor that his business is "ghetto" and unwanted you need to brainstorm options for improvement, how the community will play a role in improvement even. You can't tell someone that their totally choice in livelihood is unwanted and undesirable without expecting a very negative reaction. You are now discussing how people put bread and butter on their own very real tables at home- that's a sensitive matter folks. So before we jump down this guys throat for his admittedly very very deplorable language, we must remember to what he is reacting and the major consequences that, say, him going out of business would have on those surrounding and dependent upon him.