Petworth's Upshur Street between 9th and 8th Streets NW is becoming its own mini- restaurant row. Paul Ruppert has his Japanese-French fusion restaurant Crane & Turtle on the block, which is across from his Upshur Street Books and Petworth Citizen, and only a few feet from his newest venture, Slim's Diner. Bookending the block there will soon be a new cocktail bar – Twisted Horn – from Hank's Oyster Bar's Jamie Leeds.
But it's easy to forget that before all of this, there was an Eastern European restaurant called Domku Bar & Cafe that anchored the block for more than ten years. And for eight of those ten years, it was just about the only place to sit down and have a meal in that part of Petworth.
Domku's founder and chef, Kera Carpenter didn't have a culinary background or an extensive resume in top kitchens before opening the restaurant's doors in 2005. Her former career was in international development, but Carpenter decided to leave that to focus on something closer to home. And ten years later, she's enjoying the fruits of her labor, but still remembers those early years when she had a salad-loving drug dealer, bullets scaring a Bethesda diner and some days when the restaurant was frighteningly empty.
Why did you decide to open up Domku Bar & Cafe on Upshur Street?
Well, I did it because I bought a house over here. And I wanted to do something in my neighborhood especially after I realized there was nothing here. And I had just moved from Woodley Park where there was an abundant supply of restaurants and shops within walking distance. At the time there was a few carry-out places. Safeway was the one grocery store. And there weren't any coffee shops, which shocked me because I just thought that every neighborhood had a coffee shop. I think even in Takoma Park there really wasn't anything back in 2005.
You don't come from a restaurant background. What was the motivation to open your own restaurant?
I always knew that I some day wanted to open up a restaurant. I worked in my first restaurant in college and loved it and got a real high out of working at the restaurant. And I walked away from the summer job thinking that one day, I'm going to do this.
So you always had that desire to open up a restaurant?
Yeah, I never intended to be a chef, but I thought that I would always want to own a restaurant. So when I finally had decided I wanted to leave corporate life, it was just good timing. I was working in telecom at a time it was going bust – about a year before I opened – so I took the severance package and used that to start up the restaurant. And I wanted to do that while I still had energy.
How did you develop the concept to open an Eastern European restaurant and not something more mainstream?
Well, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Poland, and I was there for three years. Then I worked in international development focusing on Eastern Europe. When I decided I wanted to open a restaurant, I started researching what sorts of restaurants there were and what sorts of restaurants there weren't. So either I can do something French because I lived in France. Or I could do something English because I lived in England. Or I could do something Eastern European, and at the time there was nothing Eastern European or Scandinavian. So that's where I started to focus my efforts.
As a first-time restaurateur, did you have any mentors to help you along the process?
I had people from my hometown of Kansas City that I contacted who were in the business but were no longer in the business. But really, it was just learning as I went, researching as much I could, talking to as many people as I could. Going to the SBA, and going to the Small Business Development Office, which while they are well intentioned, they didn't know much about restaurants, which is a whole different beast. I just really was learning as I go.
What were some of the hurdles you encountered?
For most people who decide to do their own endeavors, the biggest hurdle is acquiring the money. And just being terrified of the amount of money you have to invest. And then taking out loans, and what does this mean for the rest of your life. What if everything fails? I mean, I still wake up every single day that it's going to end. And then what I am going to do? But once I got into it, there was no going back.
How has the restaurant evolved over the last ten years?
When I opened on a barebones budget. I left the floors as they were. I didn't do anything to the walls. I got used furniture, and while it looked cool and was "in" at the time, it was a matter of economics. So the place definitely had a coffee shop vibe. But that really wasn't my business focus. I didn't want to be a coffee shop; I definitely wanted to be a restaurant.
In the beginning, we were open every day, all day. We gave it a good go, and there were days when – most days – I would sit here in the day by myself for the whole day until dinner time. But I kept the doors open. And finally I made the decision to cut back the daytime hours to two days during the week and then the weekend. Then over time we cut back to the weekend because there is just not enough daytime traffic during the week. Maybe that will change? I hope so with Slim's Diner coming.
And the level of cooking has definitely evolved and improved. We were doing a lot of sandwiches and salads in the early days – cafe style – but with lunch not being such a big deal and cutting back most of our daytime hours, it made sense to focus on dinner food.
I've seen from Domku's Facebook page that there are some absurd stories, including one involving a drug dealer and another about a scary shooting on the street. What were those stories all about?
When I first opened, there was a drug dealer, who would, literally, every single day park his van with illegal tags outside of my door. And he would conduct his business. And every day, I'd call the police until eventually he moved a little further down the street.
He's not around anymore, is he?
He's somewhere in the neighborhood. I don't know if he's still doing business, but we see him periodically. I think he was arrested and gone for a couple of years, and then he's come back. He usually shows up around summer time. And he would come in – this was when we were open for lunch – and he would have the gravlax salad. Eventually I called the cops enough that he finally disappeared for good.
It just always amazed me that he would park right in front of my door as if it were the most normal thing. And I guess it was the most normal thing for him to do. He was there before me. I was invading his territory.
And I think the first time we had a gunfight in the street was kind of scary. It was during daytime, around 11 o'clock in the morning. There were people sitting in the windows having breakfast or lunch, and everyone just hit the deck. I saw this kid running by and then cop cars and as soon as they passed, the gentleman who was from Bethesda just got up and ran out the door. He didn't pay for his check. And then I asked one of the couples what was going on, and they were like there was a shooting as if it's something they saw everyday at 11 o'clock. And then they continued eating.
You've seen the block change so much in the last decade. But what's still missing?
What's missing is retail. Which is something that's missing in all areas of D.C. I think there are plenty of eating and drinking establishments now. What I'd love to see is retail that brings people here during the day, not just to eat, but to have people in the street and adding a different dimension to the neighborhood.
Now you have also developed Nurish Food + Drink in the Anacostia Arts Center that has just celebrated its one year anniversary. How did Nurish get started?
So I have this nonprofit called Nurish – the center for the creative culinary economy. It's an organization that aims to support culinary entrepreneurship through mentoring activities. Part of the mission of the organization was to encourage people take a look at underserved neighborhoods. By "underserved" I don't mean poor in the financial sense, just poor in restaurants. In Anacostia, there's one sit-down restaurant on the main strip.
Do you see a lot of parallels with Anacostia today and Petworth ten years ago?
It's very similar, but it's a bit tougher since I don't have a storefront on the street. [Nurish is located inside the Anacostia Arts Center.] So it's harder to get the visibility. But yeah, the struggles are the same, like getting people accustomed to a place where they can go in their own neighborhood, introducing them new food, having food that may be a higher price point and convincing customers that there is value to the food. I went into Nurish knowing the risk, knowing that it would a lot of hard work and knowing that it would be a long-term project.
Where do you see Domku in 2025?
I have no idea. I really don't. I just can't answer that.