Yesterday, I visited the new IHOP in Columbia Heights. It was opening day and despite the oppressively gray sky and fat rain drops, the place was almost full. I reviewed the food and wrote about my first impressions, here.
At the end of my late lunch, Briana– the most pleasant server I have encountered this year– brought over her towering boss, Clarence Jackson. He was so tall that my neck cracked from looking up at him and I was relieved when he cordially asked if he could sit down. I immediately realized that this was the “cop” whom people had commented about online, who owned both this IHOP and the one in Southeast. Suddenly, I was much less worried about hordes of marauding teens Metro-ing up from Gallery Place to invade Columbia Heights. As Briana had merrily said earlier when I asked her about potential rowdiness, “See that 6’7″ man over there? He’s my boss. And he’s a police officer. We’re not worried.”
I asked Mr. Jackson how his newest endeavor’s first day was going.
“I am very pleased.”
He inquired about my meal (and was the sixth person to do so, at that point) and I told him the truth; that it was better than I had expected and that the service was wonderful, too.
If I had to nitpick, the only thing I could possibly complain about is that when I had cleaned my plates of scrambled eggs and buttermilk pancakes, they hadn’t been cleared as swiftly as everything else had been executed, up until that point. But to be fair, while I was done, my dining companion was not, so it’s possible they didn’t want to be intrusive. See? There was really nothing to be unhappy about. Jackson was pleased at this response but I wanted to make sure I asked him about what was on everyone’s mind, before he politely excused himself to tend to other duties on opening day.
“I read online that the store is not going to be 24 hours until–”
“Thanksgiving. We need a few days to ramp up, but we are open until 11pm.”
“Sure, totally understandable. But when you are open 24 hours a day, especially in a neighborhood with no late-night dining options, you’ll probably attract a very different clientele than this”, I said, gesturing at the tables filled with polite people of all hues and backgrounds, who were eating quietly.
Jackson smiled broadly. “First of all, I’ve been a police officer for 23 years. I’m not going to allow it to happen. Do you know where my other restaurant is? Alabama avenue. Southeast. I don’t have any problems there– I’m not worried about this neighborhood.” He made it sound like there would be security in place, and that he wasn’t concerned about crazy drunks or people addled on other substances, either.
“Fair enough. What about the reception from the neighborhood? I’m not sure if you read certain blogs, but it’s…interesting to see how some people reacted to an IHOP coming here.”
Jackson smiled again and looked down for a moment, then shook his head slightly. “You know, when we were training the staff, we had two of our team members outside asking people if they’d like to come in for some free pancakes, to help us prepare for our opening. This man from across the street–”
“Highland Park?”, I clarified.
“Yes, Highland Park…this man walked up to us and started complaining loudly about the noise we were making. He yelled that he paid too much in rent to live across from an establishment like this and that if this was how noisy it was going to be, and if these were the type of people who would always be around, then it would be a problem.”
“To what noise was he referring?”
Jackson looked genuinely confused. “I’m not sure. The two employees were just talking to each other, we were training everyone. What I don’t understand is, right before he complained, there were sirens and a huge truck came down Irving and started honking and making all sorts of noise– but he was fine with that. We were the only problem. I couldn’t believe it. This street is so loud, it’s not like it was quiet before we got here.”
“Why do you think he complained? What ‘type of people’ do you think he meant?”
“Well, since we weren’t making noise, I have to wonder if it was really about him not liking the kind of people who were outside. They were one color, he was another. The sad thing is, if he had been polite, I would’ve let him come in and give us a try, on the house. He wasn’t interested in that.”
“That’s unfortunate. I can tell you that there are plenty of people in Highland Park who are more than willing to have another option for food…who are probably happy to have this empty street fill up, finally.”
“Or maybe they’d rather have Ellwood Thompson’s?”, he joked.
“I think most of us have given up on THAT.”
“Did you think we’d be the same way? Put a sign up and then…?”
It was my turn to laugh. “No. I actually believed that this IHOP would open. I had more faith in that than an upscale grocery store. It’s rough right now, for businesses that want to expand. I think people forget that and assume that there’s all this credit floating around and so any business which declares interest in expansion will absolutely come through…but people are struggling. I wish people would realize that a new business on this street, even if it’s not one they’d prefer, still helps people–”
“It’s sad that some of our neighbors are unhappy because we are here for this community. We are a part of it. We hired 130 people to work here, and 100 of them were jobless before that. 90% of our employees live here, in Columbia Heights. They can walk to work. I used that Community Center over on Girard to have a job fair.”
“That’s huge. One of the biggest reasons people who work in retail or service industry jobs get in trouble is because they don’t have reliable transportation to get them to work on time.”
Jackson nodded. “You know, some people are upset that this is an IHOP, that it isn’t something fancy…but the owner of that building, came here to eat!” He had pointed across the street, at Highland Park.
“Yeah, Donatelli. He called up the Mayor and said, ‘Meet me at IHOP.’”
“Mayor Fenty ate here with Chris Donatelli?”
“Yes. They didn’t seem to mind it, at all. They were happy to eat here.”
“What did the Mayor order?”
Jackson laughed. “Before I forget, please write this down– On November 23rd, we are going to give a free short stack to the first 1500 people who show up to give us a try. IHOP Corporate will be here, Jim Graham will be here…make sure you let people know that. I know we put up a flier at Highland Park about it.”
“There is indeed a flier up.”
Jackson asked me if I thought the take-out option would be popular; I told him that I didn’t even realize they’d offer it. “It’s not the sort of thing I associate with IHOP…getting food to go…but I could see it coming in very handy, I said. “Tons of people in that building get take-out, every night. It might just be a question of getting the word out that it’s even possible, because I don’t know that people associate ‘to-go’ orders with pancakes.”
“You know, my store on Alabama Avenue is the ninth in the nation in terms of carry-out orders.”
“Wow. But isn’t that also because it’s an under-served area? It makes sense, in that context.”
“People used to have to take a bus or drive to Maryland to sit down to eat. Now they have an option right in their neighborhood. Maybe once we’re up and running, and 24 hours a day, people here will see what we’re all about. We’re going to liven up this street and make it safer.”
I immediately thought of an ugly incident that had occurred on Monday, and began recounting it. “I have a puppy and she was whining to go out at 1 am…it was raining, so I thought no one would be outside. I took her out and I noticed that the concierge had stepped away from our front desk. That made me nervous but she really had to go. So I take her out, and this drunk guy comes up to me and starts talking to me and distracting my dog. I politely tell him that I’m not interested and he gets angry. He starts to threaten me. I look around and realize that there isn’t a single person around to help me. I try to rush back in the building, and he follows me…he’s doing vulgar things with his hands and other body parts. I barely made it in the lobby and slammed the door behind me–”
“And you know what you would have done, if we were here? You would have walked across the street and been safe. That’s what the Alabama Avenue location has become– a safe place. When people are in trouble, they come in and get help because they know someone is always there. When we’re open here 24 hours a day, if someone bothers you or is threatening you, come right in. What night did this happen on?”
“Things are that quiet on a Monday?”
“Yes. On Fridays and Saturdays, people are walking around until 3 or 4 am…but on the other nights it can get very quiet. Everything here closes early. Tynan? 8pm. Pete’s 10pm. Five Guys? 11pm. Once they’re closed, unless people are walking home from somewhere else, this block of Irving is empty.”
“What about on a Thursday?”, he asked.
“Maybe it’s a little bit better. But Sunday through Thursday, as soon as the businesses close…the last time something scary happened to me, it was on a Sunday night.”
Jackson shook his head. “That’s going to change. We’re here now.”