Young and Hungry

Closing Time: On Its Last Day, Yola Opens Up About Shutting Down

It’s the last day at Yola, a yogurt and coffee shop inDupont, and there are no sandwiches, no fresh fruit (save for a few bananas), and no whole milk.

Customers might normally get upset about not having their strawberries, but today they’re forgiving. “We’ll take everything,” jokes one patron when she finds out that the store is closing. A few people make two or three trips throughout the day; others drop $20 bills in the tip jar.

“I’m sad to hear about you guys closing,” says one customer as he pays for his coffee.

“It’s OK. We’re sad too,” says co-owner Laura Smith.

“Any idea what you’re going to do next?” he asks.

“Not food.”

It’s a conversation that repeats itself over and over throughout Yola’s final day, which was last Friday. “The other four days of this week have been really nice and high-energy and fun,” Smith says. “But now it’s just kind of sad.” As the string of customers express their condolences, Smith attempts to explain Yola’s downfall: “We are a $5 average check size business in a close to $10,000-a-month rent location. It just doesn’t work. The math doesn’t work.”

Yola is the latest in a long string of restaurants to close this year. But unlike other owners, Smith has been brutally upfront about the realities of running a failing business.

Neither she nor her father had restaurant experience when they opened Yola in December 2010. Smith, 26, graduated from the University of Virginia in 2008 and spent a year working as a paralegal in D.C. Bored with the job, she took a teaching position at a boarding school in Switzerland, where she saw people line up for yogurt. She began thinking about opening a restaurant that would focus on local, natural ingredients. Her father, David Smith, is a senior vice president for commercial real estate firm J Street Companies.

Seeing the popularity of frozen yogurt and thinking D.C. was a strong market, the father-daughter team went into business together. They spent about a year fundraising and developing Yola, which cost more than half a million dollars. Laura ran most of the day-to-day on-site operations, and David mostly handled the business end.

The trouble started from the very beginning. “We underestimated the cost of opening the store, so we were in debt, which is a major no-no,” Laura Smith says.

In the first few months, Yola was constantly running out of supplies, and there weren’t a lot of rules for the staff, which fluctuated in number from nine to 15. A good day brought in as many as 450 people. A bad day meant as few as 100. Smith tried a number of things to pick business up, including Scoutmob, promotions with yoga studios, social media campaigns, raising prices, and adding sandwiches.

Smith says there was no single point at which she and her father realized the restaurant was doomed. It always felt like they wouldn’t make the rent, but then something—a promotion, a good week—would pick them back up. “It felt like it was constantly in danger, and it just kept eking along,” she says. “It died a very slow death.”

One of the hardest things was that her time no longer belonged to her. “I imagine it’s like having a baby,” she says. “Your cell phone has to be on when you sleep because someone’s going to call you at 5 a.m., and you need to pick it up because they’re calling to say the grinder is broken, and you’re not going to be able to make espresso, and that’s going to be thousands of dollars that’s lost every day.”

Both Smith and her dad frequently changed their ringtones because the mere sound of their phones became a source of anxiety. “He’s gone through all the ring options so now he’s at the barking one,” she says.

Monthly revenue fluctuated between the high $30,000s and low $50,000s, putting them constantly in the red. The Smiths found it complicated to calculate exactly how much they were losing, because they frequently put off payments to vendors. “You’re basically a money rotator, where you’re like, ‘OK, this is payroll week so I can’t pay the paper cup company this week, so I’ll have to try and see if they’ll wait till next Wednesday,’” Laura Smith says.

Smith’s anxiety got so bad that she wasn’t sleeping, so she went to a doctor who prescribed Celexa, which she took for two months. Meanwhile, to save money, she and her fiancé PJ Podesta moved out of their apartment in Glover Park to McLean to live with Podesta’s sister and her three kids. Over the summer, Smith took a second job working seven days a week picking up towels as a pool manager at Washington Golf & Country Club.

“It was so great to have a boss, which is crazy because you think it’s great to be you’re own boss. But I was like, ‘Someone’s going to tell me what to do! And someone’s going to say good job or bad job,’” Smith says. “In the end, I could quit. If I hated it, I could leave and not be tied down.”

It quickly became clear that Yola would not be able to honor its 10-year lease, so the Smiths began looking for someone to take it over. They already had a relationship with Neighborhood Restaurant Group, whose Buzz Bakery supplied Yola with baked goods. After several months of talks, NRG took over the lease and bought all Yola’s equipment for an undisclosed amount, and now plans to open a fried chicken and doughnut restaurant in the space. The Smiths and their investors have lost all the money they put into the restaurant, and they still have some remaining debt. (David Smith declined to reveal the exact amount.)

Laura Smith wonders how things might have been different if she was at the end of a career, rather than the beginning. She and Podesta are getting married in November, then plan to travel to Southeast Asia for seven months and volunteer at an orphanage in Cambodia. Instead of a wedding registry, she’s asking friends and family to help fund the trip. In the meantime, she’s applying for MFA programs so she can pursue a new career as a writer. She’s done with restaurants for now.

“I don’t have any regrets,” Laura says. “Well, I have regrets. I would have made decisions differently, but I learned so much. I feel really grateful for the experience…It’s rare that you get an opportunity to make such a big failure, such a public failure, and knowing how to do that, it’s a great thing.”

* * *

An hour before closing time, Yola becomes crowded with family, friends, and regulars. Everyone wants to document the moment, including Smith’s mother and soon-to-be mother-in-law, who snap photos of the Smiths and their employees behind the yogurt bar and in front of the store. Everyone is all smiles and goofy faces.

The only one who doesn’t seem to be taking it so well is Podesta’s 6-year-old niece, who breaks into tears. “She’s way more sad than I am,” Smith says with a laugh.

In fact, the closing starts to feel like a celebration when someone breaks out a six-pack of Fat Tire beer and a bottle of Champagne. “You’d think we were opening a restaurant,” says Podesta.

As the clock ticks down to 7 p.m., closing time, friends and family start counting the last seconds: “Five, four, three, two, one! Woooo!”

But Smith is still behind the yogurt bar, and there are two customers left. Instead of turning them away, she makes their orders and tells them not to worry about paying.

Slowly everyone trickles out. There are lots of hugs and well wishes. Smith looks on the verge of choking up a few times but always breaks into a big smile instead of tears. Soon, it’s just her and her parents. David Smith counts cash at a table while Laura sits on a stool behind the register going over a thick stack of credit card tip receipts—far more than normal. By all appearances, the last day seemed like a busy one.

Then, they add it all up: $1,786.

“Which is a light day,” David Smith says.

“I know, right?” Laura says. “It can be very deceiving.”

And with that, they turn off the lights, set the alarm, and lock the door for the last time.

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • The Java Master

    These folks clearly did not belong in the food service/cafe business. Any major dude could tell.

  • Jane

    An MFA? Girl. This will not help your debt.

    I was always impressed by how friendly everyone was, and the sea of Apple laptops made me laugh, but even I knew they wouldn't make it. Once I was looking for something little to buy that would put me over the $5-credit-card-minimum (I was at $4.95) and...everything was wildly expensive. $8 jar of trail mix. $4 brownies. Cup of nuts? Also $4. All of it was just so pricey and their offerings were so limited. Being taken over by Wi-Fi poachers probably didn't help either.

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  • Mony

    $10k in rent for a small spot is why DC can't have mid-priced non-bar restaurants.

  • ee

    why in the world would they choose this location with its high rents?

  • erik

    poor little rich girl's ice cream fantasy failed. Not to be too harsh but despite how nice everyone says they were I can't feel sad or even sympathetic. It's really surprising that a Senior VP of a very successful commercial real estate company would have even considered opening a yogurt shop in a space with $10k month lease and then hand it over to a 23 year old with no experience.

    Great that they were able to try though.

  • Guest

    10-year lease. Wow.

  • BP

    I completely agree with Erik, and I feel guilty for my similarly harsh perspective. She sounds like a sweet person, but I thought the venture was a fool's errand from the beginning, given her age, lack of relevant experience, difficulty of the food industry in DC, cost of location, etc., etc. This was doomed from day one.

  • James

    It's easy to sit back and criticize, especially when a business has already closed, admitting financial defeat. Yola was one of my favorite spots in DC. They tried a "green," socially conscious concept (fresh, locally made products; wind-powered electricity; reclaimed materials for the build-out; direct-trade coffee), but the numbers didn't add up. Still, at least they gave it a reasonable shot, and their food/drinks were really tasty. (And not priced like Jane seems to have misremembered. They didn't even have brownies.) It's more than most of us can say for what we've done with our work. Props to them for taking a chance, incurring debt to make it happen (if you read closely, they weren't drawing on some huge store of cash--they had to raise funds, and they lost). To Yola, from the students and workers who made you their daily coffee home, you will be missed.

  • http://facebook.com/diningbisnow Alia

    Beautiful story, Jess. So happy they opened up to you and gave you the opportunity to share this with us.

  • Guest2

    Here is some advice from an outsider's perspective that the subject of this article can take into consideration or not:

    1. Learning from your failures does not mean celebrating them. If you truly are in the shit financially, why throw a party on your closing date--and why give your final product away for free? Every penny matters in this industry.

    2. Cover your debts from your first failure before embarking on another venture. Also, it is in poor taste to ask others to fund a vacation (thinly disguised as charitable work) while you have yet to settle your books.

    3. Choosing your career path based on untested passions will result in failure. You likely will fail as a writer, too.

    4. Learn about your industry by working from the bottom. You will probably find more success at your Country Club than as a new writer. We all can't live our dream jobs--get paid and pursue your passion on your time off.

    Bon chance.

  • guesty

    Why would it cost a half million to develop this cafe? Also if at your peak you are serving 450 a day, why would you need as many as 15 employees? I'm actually curious so if anyone can attempt to explain, please do.

  • maktoo

    I always thought there were too many yogurt shops in D.C. Just like all the cupcake shops...

    Sad to hear that they're so in debt, but yes, like Guest2 asserts, why jet off to Asia to do soul-boosting volunteer work - and ask other people to pay? I cannot comprehend this. Why not double-down and get your current debts paid off first, whilst volunteering with the many worthy causes around here? Wow.

    And yes, the MFA is only going to add more debt. Not much work for a professional novelist/poet out there.

  • Sid

    wtf is MFA ?

  • marybindc

    "Instead of a wedding registry, she’s asking friends and family to help fund the trip."

    Fabulous. Her method of dealing with major debt from a failed business is to go back to school to get a degree that will likely not help her in the job market, and to take a big trip that she can't afford and will ask others to pay for.

  • The Java Master

    Any major dude will tell you, Guest2 (above) being one of them.
    I am not gloating over the failure of this cafe. But clearly, the Senior Real Estate Veep must have known that this would be a doomed enterprise, if only from the bogus and expensive lease he got for this location.
    Just because you have a "passion" for something, is no substitute for hard experience in the field.
    May you have better luck in your next venture, I mean that.

  • James

    Returning to comment here from the perspective of a Yola coffee and fresh yogurt regular from, essentially, their first through last days of business.

    To guesty: It costs about 500K because everything costs more than you think it does as a consumer. A good espresso machine, for example, can cost 20K. Add a refrigeration system, a dishwasher, and much more, and the tally gets up there. As to the staff numbers, I never saw more than six people behind the counter, and that, I'm nearly certain, was during a shift change. That 9-to-15 staff number figure probably refers to the total employee count.

    To Guest2 (and maktoo in part): 1. You might give away your last couple of parfaits, perhaps, because you have far more yogurt behind the counter than you could ever eat, and you appreciate the regulars who came through to get them. An extra $10, while part of the whole, won't get you out of "the shit" financially. A favor to regulars who have become friends might (only possibly, admittedly) go a long way. I admit this makes some assumptions, but no more so than you do. Perhaps that's the point: question what you take for granted before doling out advice (apparently) from the hip.

    2. How can you possibly know what her (Smith's) own debt is at the end of the day? Maybe she's settled up or will be before she's gone? Maybe she's done her part and is clear to move on? From talking to her, it doesn't seem she had loads of assets against which to take loans. From what I could tell, her major contribution was her meagerly paid years of labor. Also, who cares if her wedding registry is a vacation to Asia with a bit of volunteering along the way (instead of asking for 30 different salad bowls)? I say go for it!! Don't let the "you'd better settle and stop dreaming" wet blankets get you down. And yes, if you're at wit's end from running a coffee shop, I hope you have at least a glass of something alcoholic as you close your doors. What are you supposed to do instead? Sit and weep in front of friends and family who came by to support you? There's been plenty of other time for tears and contemplation.

    3. Why you assume her passion for writing is untested? And you don't fail as a writer unless you stop writing--and stop, perhaps, because you listened to everyone trying to keep you from striving for creative success because they weren't willing to try for themselves.

    4. I won't argue head on with #4, as it's a simple matter of taste. Some cut their losses, get paid for work they find mind-numbing, and relish the time off. Others want to find a way to get paid for something they actually like, and I don't blame them for it. Life is short. If you have a chance to contribute something meaningful and enjoy your work at the same time, I say go for it.

  • The Jimmy

    Two words...Business Plan.

  • Jane

    There were indeed brownie-like things at Yola. Lots of nuts and some cake-y base; maybe not chocolate, but "perplexing vegan treat bar" doesn't really roll off the to gue. I ended up buying a $4 bottle of kombucha.

    It seems pretty audacious to ask friends and family to pay for anything after such a venture, and it's a lot harder to have empathy for someone whose family will always prevent them from being in truly dire straits, but I'm sorry it didn't work out. Maybe if this place had been in Shaw or Logan they might have done better.

    It looks like whoever gave them the lease knew it wasn't going to last. Really, at that rate it's a miracle it lasted as long as it did.

  • Jane

    There were indeed brownie-like things at Yola. Lots of nuts and some cake-y base; maybe not chocolate, but "perplexing vegan treat bar" doesn't really roll off the tongue. I ended up buying a $4 bottle of kombucha.

    It seems pretty audacious to ask friends and family to pay for anything after such a venture, and it's a lot harder to have empathy for someone whose family will always prevent them from being in truly dire straits, but I'm sorry it didn't work out. Maybe if this place had been in Shaw or Logan they might have done better.

    It looks like whoever gave them the lease knew it wasn't going to last. Really, at that rate it's a miracle it lasted as long as it did.

  • Mr.Remember

    Although she said she had 15 employees it didn't state that they were ALL full-time.

  • BW

    Maybe the lesson here is "buck the trend, don't follow it."

  • amanda

    It continues to surprise me how rude people can be in comments, esp when given the chance to show off their 20/20 hindsight--AND not have to give a name to their snarky comments. So the enterprise didn't work out and perhaps included some unwise decisions. That happens to all kinds of businesspeople every day. There is not a thing in this article--besides her father's job--that implies Smith is a spoiled rich girl. Sounds like she worked her butt off raising money and trying to keep the place afloat. People just like to take jabs when they're able. Frankly, I loved yola, even though I didn't go often. It's one of the only places in Dupont w/ a cozy, welcoming vibe, and the whole-milk yogurt w/ unlimited fruit toppings for somewhere around $5 always seemed like a bargain to me. Did it seem too good to be true? Yes, in my opinion back when they opened. But kudos to them for trying.

  • Alberto

    I'm also shocked at all the rude and shallow comments. Leaving aside the courage and tenacity this girl had to start her own business and stick with it; one of the things that make our economy so resilient is that there are relatively few punishments for failing in business. So what if it failed, at least she tried and it employed 9 people in a crippling recession. I'm willing to bet none of you have experience in starting or running a small business.

    And congratulations on her wedding and I think a trip to Cambodia is a great way to celebrate a new chapter in ones life, certainly better than 5 vases and a 600$ vacuum. And quit knocking on an MFA degree. Finding and doing something you love is one of life's great accomplishments, maybe some of the commenters should take a risk or two and try and find something that makes them happy, aside from making snide and mean ad hominem remarks on a website.

  • NN

    Haters gon hate. Especially in DC! Any job that isn't sitting behind a desk, spent reading boring briefing papers about a jerk off (some bloated politician) will get NO love. I applaud this story because she has guts. All of us have a lemonade stand dream but most of us stuff it in the file drawer to be another paper pusher for $90k/year. We allow the fluorescent lights to suck away our hairline and expand our waistline. Then what? More debt from an overpriced house, stress from an intense yet boring job and nothing but bland conversation to show for it. Fuck em Laura! You followed your heart. You took a chance. Life will reward you for your passion. Now you know the hard part and you have helped thousands by sharing your story. Keep living off the grid, keep writing and follow your creativity. These comments reflect the android and high functioning autistic minds that have no idea how to live outside of linear, mathematical paradigm.

  • Vi

    Rich, smart daddy --> study abroad in switzerland --> dumb, idealistic daughter --> dumb, indulgent daddy --> business fail --> escape to wedding, MFA, and family-paid "volunteering" holiday in Cambodia --> no real lessons learned.

    A million dollars. Think of the good volunteering work these two morons could have done right here in DC, instead of providing yuppies with their latest food novelty.

    I notice that a lot of rah-rah-ers on here liked Yola. Perhaps if it hadn't catered to you, you could see it for the self-indulgent waste of resources that it was. I went, and was unimpressed.

  • Logan Circler

    "They tried a "green," socially conscious concept"...yogurt shop...how edgy for 2012..

    Sadly this was most likely conceived while she was still in the alcoholic haze that is the atmosphere at the University of Virginia.

    Her sense of entitlement coupled with a glaring naivete reminds me of the witch who was the opening chef at Viridian.

  • 20011

    "A million dollars. Think of the good volunteering work these two morons could have done right here in DC, instead of providing yuppies with their latest food novelty."

    Post of the year.

  • Rabs

    Hey Vi, dumb idealistic daughter is getting her PhD, how about you? Get to know someone before you criticize them, and don't forget that not everything that is published in print is actually 'true'. Do you believe everything on the internet? Doubt it.

  • Nuies

    Never been there, but amazed at the jealous snark from dweebs. Oh well, that's DC.

  • http://divasnrides.com/ Ron The Don

    Last time I check, the restaurant industry has 60% failure rate for new businesses. So, it's clear the owner of Yola had the passion and drive. However, they didn't have the business sense to get it done. It's not just her lack of experience that doomed it. You also have to consider the location they were in. High rent and low foot traffic can kill even the boldest ideas. Add to the fact they were already other yogurt shops in the area, it's easy to see how this labor of love turn into a bad romance.

    So, the owner of Yola fail! Heck, even the most successful people in business failed once in their career. How many of her critics in the comments have ever started their own business before? I thought this country was founded on people striking out on their own to find success in any endeavor. Just another of the crab barrel mentality

  • Victoria

    I'm shocked by the surplus in rude and critical remarks to a complete stranger. Maybe all the haters should start taking risks and experiencing life instead of posting negative and critical statements about some little yogurt and coffee shop that failed. Are you truly that concerned or interested? Try being on the opposite side of the business and then you earned the right to criticize. Yola made an huge impact on me and the community it served. So in that regard it was a success!

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  • get real

    For those complaining about the snarky comments, you know it's well and good to say "at least they tried." Yes many, many business fail. But few are started with so many bad decisions. You defend her by saying "The rent was high!" "There was no foot traffic." No kidding, that's why you don't open a restaurant there. The plain fact is, if she'd had to go to the bank to get a loan to start this business, it would have never opened, and for good reason. Dad the real estate shark, at least, should have known better, but maybe he was looking for a tax write off.

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