Perhaps now is the time to start your Save Pound the Hill campaigns, as the Capitol Hill coffee house and bistro is facing some tough times. Earlier today, a tipster forwarded Eater an email owner Karl Johnson sent his close friends, admitting that the restaurant "may be forced to close" and asking for their help in saving it, writing:
Summer in DC is an awful time for restaurants and has been especially hard for our little startup concept. While I am doing everything I can to make sure we survive and eventually thrive, success can only be earned by getting customers in the door.
When reached by telephone, Johnson acknowledged that he did indeed send the email and explained why sending the plea was absolutely necessary — a combination of typical summertime restaurant woes, plus a perception problem resulting from Pound the Hill's decision earlier this year to operate as a coffee house by day and restaurant/wine bar by night.
What is going on? What's the problem? I know you rebranded a little bit ago into the bistro.
Well, it was a complete change in our business. That was about five months ago or so. We basically took a go-big-or-go-home kind of approach. And there's definitely been a lot of exciting energy around that. We've gotten amazing feedback and everything. It's just the difficult summer season combined with kind of a perception problem with convincing people that a place that's a coffee shop during the day can put out a fantastic dinner and wine service in the evening. That's been a problem for us.
We had some growth spurts and we did some promotions that brought a lot of good traction and, as I said, we've gotten almost universally fantastic feedback from our diners. But convincing people of the perception change and things like that combined with the summer has been really, really hard and gotten to a bad point financially for us.
Do you find the location of that particular block to be a problem?
Overall, I would say it's a great location. It's not one that has abundance of foot traffic during certain times. It is also, I guess kind of seen for whatever reason a more shady block versus Barracks Row or where Eastern Market is. So it doesn't have the best perception, but I think that's actively changing and has been for the last two years. But the city won't have proper lighting on our block, there's an abundance of panhandlers, there's a lot of late-night bars, you get a lot of kind of shady late-night people and stuff like that has certainly hurt foot traffic on that block.
How close are you to being forced to close?
That's a really hard question to answer in this industry just because of the nature of how random cash flow is at some times. We're in a pretty bad situation. We're doing absolutely everything we can to not let that happen. That's kind of why I sent out that email was not to say "we're closed tomorrow" but to basically say, "this is very, very, very realistic that this might happen" and put my pride aside and say, basically, come help me. It's not an easy thing for me to do at all, personally. I only did it because it was absolutely necessary and I'll put anything aside to see this succeed.
I guess that's kind of a roundabout way to answer it. I'm not going to say any specific date or any specific amount of weeks or months. It's a very real possibility that we're doing everything to avoid.
Is there anything you want the public to know?
We built exactly what we wanted to build and we've built a great customer following. We just haven't been able to do the best job at changing that perception of most of our customers to realizing we are two concepts in one and that we do excel in both. We have a lot of loyal customers and a lot of people that love our brand and our concept and our food and drink. But unfortunately that doesn't go far enough unless you're filling up the seats.
That's kind of a strange problem that we're faced with. It's not a problem of a reputation for terrible food or terrible service or drinks or anything like that. We're really proud of the fantastic reviews and feedback that we constantly get, but that's not paying the bills enough because we're not filling the restaurant and that's our biggest problem.