Tucked away in Capitol Hill’s historic Barracks Row, black-owned restaurant District Soul Food is renowned for its southern cuisine. The restaurant offers jumbo gulf shrimp with grits, an eponymous soul burger, a sweet potato pound cake, and much more.
Like many restaurants across the country, District Soul Food saw its business wane as the effects of the pandemic set in. When the restaurant emerged from the citywide lockdown, it had to adhere to an entirely new set of health and safety guidelines to survive.
However, an investigation by Washington’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration revealed that the restaurant has struggled to comply.
In July, months after D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser lifted the first set of lockdown restrictions, District Soul Food was fined for one of its first pandemic-related offenses.
Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration investigator Rhoda Glasgow found that the restaurant violated the city’s emergency executive order by allowing “employees to walk around and interact with patrons without face masks” and failing to “enforce social distancing practices by not placing chairs and tables six feet apart.”
Since then, District Soul Food has received five more citations, two of which are pandemic-related offenses.
According to the Nov. 17 Alcohol Beverage Control Phase Two Violations sheet obtained by the Wash, the restaurant received a $1,000 citation on Aug. 15 for violating social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines. Employees were not wearing masks.
On Oct. 3, after an inspector caught a bartender wearing her mask on her chin and witnessed live entertainment at a private party, the citation was forwarded to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. The agency suspended District Soul Food’s liquor license for 30 days.
The suspension was lifted on Mon., Nov. 9.
Of these citations, Owner David Roundtree told the Wash, “I’m innocent more than I am guilty.”
Roundtree said he’s been unfairly targeted for being a Black business owner.
“This is the first time I’ve ever felt like a [n-word],” Roundtree said.
For Roundtree, 49, managing one of the only black-owned businesses in Capitol Hill during a pandemic has gotten tougher. He said the experience has been “terrible.”
Although he’s not angry with the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, he said he’s angry about the complaints from people who’ve never eaten at his restaurant.
Roundtree believes his restaurant adapted as well as it could to the pandemic.
Cava Mezze General Manager Herson Reyes acknowledges the difficulty Roundtree faces as he manages a restaurant during a global pandemic.
“You really learn as you go,” Reyes said. “With people being fined and all this, it’s just that—they’re learning as they go.”
An enforcement blitz
The coronavirus pandemic has created a need for a new set of health and safety guidelines for restaurants to follow to reduce the spread of the virus.
Belga Café Manager Christa Machado told the Wash that in order to survive, her restaurant had no choice but to adopt these policies.
“We’re not taking a ‘no’ for an answer,” Machado, 24, said. “It’s not a debate whether it is okay for you to wear a mask or okay for us to take your temperature in the morning or okay for us to ask you to wash your hands all the time.”
“If you don’t wanna do that, you can’t work here—period.”
The same is true at Cava Mezze, a large Greek-Mediterranean restaurant in Capitol Hill. When it comes to enforcing the rules, Reyes said, “we don’t apologize.”
These managers said they have to enforce the rules because there is a lot at stake.
But in the face of a looming shutdown, Capitol Hill’s restaurant owners and managers are hopeful that because they survived the first shutdown, they can survive the next.
“A lot of restaurants have closed, and a lot of restaurants will close,” Reyes said. “But if you do what you’re supposed to do, and you just fight on, then you’ll be fine. I think we’ll be fine.”
Roundtree is also optimistic.
“We’ve adapted as well as we can,” Roundtree said. “We’re still here; so many restaurants aren’t.”