Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Mark Furstenberg on DC's food scene

Yesterday's Washington Post Magazine focused on "food," with three articles, one on DC's craft brewing scene, a feature on dinner parties, written by the paper's food critic, and the major piece by Mark Furstenberg ("What's missing from D.C.'s food scene? A lot"), former proprietor of Mavelous Market (a local bread and food store with multiple outlets) and Breadline, a sandwich shop near the White.  Furstenberg is known for re-introducing artisan bread into the city.

The craft beer story by Fritz Hahn was very good as well ("Brewed awakening: D.C.'s beer scene is close to great").

It was a baby step forward for the paper to have a locally-focused theme for the Magazine, which like the Style and other feature sections of the paper, seems to have lost its way and increasingly features uninteresting and less relevant stories, even if I still read many of them.  (For example, the main story in last week's Magazine was on Ted Nugent and his pro-gun, conservative movement--I read because I am still fond of his music, at least Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes, since we both hail from the Detroit area--but the article wasn't all that interesting.)

But the package could have been a lot better.  I would have had at least three more stories--what is the regional agriculture movement and developments within it (such as in Virginia, with food hubs, etc.) and is the development of the locavore movement shaping this system; on the state of the suburban food and restaurant; a story on public markets, private markets, and farmers markets; plus a bunch of sidebars on people and issues.

Furstenberg seems to really understand how small business works, in large part because he ran small businesses (his sister was also one of the founders of the Politics & Prose bookstore), and so he understands that high rents make it hard for independents to succeed.

He says Washington has a difficult time developing a food culture because it has an "essentially suburban character," and people mostly go to big mostly uninnovative supermarkets to shop, that there are few artisan and specialty options.

He is attuned to the fact that buildings owned by national and international actors rent to chains rather than independents, and how local restauranteurs and the national restauranteurs that are following them into the market (like Stephen Starr from Philadelphia/New York, Danny Meyer, etc.) are mostly focused on business and replicating concepts, rather than putting out unique and memorable meals.

And how food trucks seem to be adding diversity to cuisine, but they aren't for "sitting down" making it hard to enjoy eating from a food truck (or at least they appeal to a certain segment of the market), and he is unsure of their staying power.

(I think that food trucks are here to say because of comparably lower barriers to entry and the cost of having a bricks and mortar restaurant.  What we haven't seen of as much in this market is food trucks generating sitdown restaurants, and restauranteurs just thinking about food trucks as one more revenue stream.)

He is also clued into the fact unlike regionally strong supermarket chains elsewhere in the country, Giant isn't innovative and hasn't figured out they could create an upscale division.  He mentions HEB's Central Market--Giant-Eagle's Market District is another example.  (I've written about that issue here, "Urban retail #4: how to prevent the coming failure of the DC region's Giant Supermarket chain.")

He missed a couple points I think.

1.  He discusses the popularity with chains.  This results from a couple things about familiarity.  People visiting the city have been shaped by the restaurant and food culture that is offered to them where they live, that's mostly chain restaurants, and they seek familiar places to eat when they travel elsewhere.  (The "foodie" culture and the cultural tourism segment of the tourist market are still small segments of the consumer market.)

2.  He does discuss a bit that DC was never an industrial city and so it never attracted the massive groups of immigrants that settled down in particular neighborhoods for generations ("Chinatown," "Little Italy" etc.) anchoring immigrant cuisines and food culture.  DC did have immigrant neighborhoods, but the pull of suburbia was so strong, especially with the introduction of school integration and then the impact of the riots, that these neighborhoods changed very rapidly, and loss their ethnicity.

Flagship Restaurant - Washington, D.C.3.  He attributes Baltimore's seafood cuisine heritage from the Chesapeake but doesn't really recognize that the old working class DC had a similar heritage, with seafood and oyster houses throughout the city. The seafood restaurants on Maine Avenue SW were a big tourist draw.

4.  The restaurants appealing to "Washington as a Federal City," from Duke Zieberts to Harvey's how their cuisines were ordinary, and didn't last, but didn't foster creativity while they were at their peak.

5.  He mentions neighborhoods like Bloomingdale and Petworth developing new and interesting food options.

But I think this is happening because the neighborhoods are experiencing not just resident turnover--part of the static nature of the food and restaurant culture in the city comes from population stability and decline not providing enough customer support to open and maintain restaurants--but also adding new and younger residents because of the addition of multiunit housing in commercial corridors such as at the Petworth Metro on Georgia Avenue, in Greater Capitol Hill such as on the Riverfront, on H Street NE, on U and 14th Streets in Dupont Circle and Columbia Heights, etc.

As more neighborhoods achieve a critical mass of new residents and residents eating out but also cooking at home (this is still a wild card), it becomes easier to support specialty restaurants at the neighborhood level--Domku in Petworth is still one of the most "original" restaurants in the city at this juncture--and maybe even markets, although markets are more likely to be successfully offered as an element of a restaurant.

Fu Kang Carryout, 2123 Rhode Island Ave. NE6. Mumbo sauce notwithstanding ("Mumbo sauce: The flavor of Washington 'that isn't'" from 2011 and "Mumbo sauce gets gentrified" from 2013 in the Post), another indicator of the previously static population dynamics and the lower incomes of residents was the strong presence of carryouts throughout the city.  This is also an indicator perhaps of an inability or unwillingness to cook.  If you can't cook, you're not going to be patronizing specialty markets and butchers.

The carryout genre could have been another story in a food issue package as well.

Streets of Washington writer John De Ferrari is writing a book on Washington's restaurants and UMBC cultural studies professor and Takoma Park resident Warren Belasco aims to write a book on Washington's food culture also.  He's already written two books on foodways, culture, and change, Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took on the Food Industry and Food: The Key Concepts.

It will be interesting to see what they contribute to our understanding of these issues.

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At 8:18 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

1. Instead of fighting the food trucks, local BIDS should be working with them. No question they are helping to make Farragut and 24th st more dynamic. In a small place like DC, even the addition of a few non govermental workers can really add to the dynamic.

2. I'd say there is a clear trend of food trucks going brick and mortar.

3. The real story is immigration, and how DC is being left in the dirt here. Persians, Indians, Koreans, Vietnamese, Lao, north afrcains, afghani. All missing in the district.

4. Have you been to Glen's Organic Market in Dupont? They are serving alcohol and have a large area and that might help them get through.

5. I realize you're directing the "can't cook" comment to our lower income residents, but that applies equally to our higher income residents as well.

At 11:27 AM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

1. I wholeheartedly agree and have written a bunch of entries stating this and got in an argument with the director of the Adams Morgan BID about this as well.

b. made the point repeatedly with Eastern market.

3. Good point. I should have mentioned that. So with the loss of old immigrant groups through outmigration no replenishment with new migrant groups and further debilitation of the food culture (cf. Annandale and Asian cuisines; Wheaton and Central American food; etc.)

4. haven't been to Glen's yet. But the point about markets serving/providing meals/prepared foods is relevant. Also to your point 5.

5. Yes, absolutely. I used to be one of those people not cooking (but reading about it). Not that it's great shakes but yesterday I made banana bread and watermelon-tomato gazpacho. Not "Tom Sietsema" level stuff, but welcome around our house.

At 11:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Breadline, a sandwich shop near the White." ... Dropped the "House" part of its name now, have we? ;)

I thought it was a great article too, and I thought of how it mirrored some of your writing at times.

I think it's worth noting that while there haven't been a lot of brick and mortar restaurants that have come from food trucks, there have been some, and there seem to be more coming down the pike. It might be reaching a tipping point where they truly are incubating new restaurant locations well. Examples include DC Empanadas and TaKorean in Union Market, the Mothership on Georgia Avenue, District Taco (downtown and Capitol Hill), Kangaroo Boxing Club on 11th Street in Columbia Heights (forget the name of the truck that it came from), and Chupacabra on H Street NE.

It's been interesting to see the responses to the story on twitter. By-and-large, the "foodie" folk have taken it as a great insult (I'm sure you've seen the CityPaper response. People are taking it as a personal attack, for whatever reason.)

At 11:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Furstenburg is a snobby new come to DC and as such he makes blatant statements that dismiss our local culture and history. "DC never had any industry" is bullshit- your clarification is better" DC was never an industrial city" but we DID HAVE INDUSTRY and it is a real insult to those old line DC families that are proud of this long heritage even if it petered out after 1960 when Furstenburg came here. Of course- I could do the same thing and go to Philly or Chicago - and make a blanket statement that these places "never had any industry" because none of it is there anymore. People come to DC with this silly mentality and forget that we also have real history here- and it was not by any means all white collar either. And yes- we had "ethnic neighborhoods" here. I will also say something else- neither NYC , Philly or Chciago have as many old German restaurants as DC- an ethnic niche that he has clearly ignored. Philly just got a new German restaurant after having NONE for many years- while DC has numerous German restaurants. I consider this kind of food the best as I was raised with it.

At 11:56 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

an easy benchmark for me was last year looking at condos, I'd say less than 5% had an externally exhausted range, which is pretty much essential if you plan to do any cooking.

In terms of immigration and dynamics,it is a fascinating case of when cities are failing to capture change. A lot fo the problems of SF vs Silicon valley are part of this. If you think white people are racist, wait until you hear what brown people are saying behind closed doors.*

The split between koreans in DC and the chinese in DC is, however, fascianting.

At 12:32 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

Furstenberg has been in DC since 1961.

At 12:37 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

I can't claim to really know, but can't you get away without an external exhaust (hood), if you have an electric range? But yes, gas is best for being able to cook more widely.

We installed a fan when we moved in, but it didn't work that well.

We just got a Ventahood installed with a classic look. I'll have to take a photo. We are still figuring out what to do with the top. I just want to paint the exhaust pipe black, but S is interested in shelving/cabinetry on either side.

The hood is awesome.

The image on the website doesn't do it justice.

At 12:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

in my family they regarded my mother as a newcomer to DC and she came here in 1953..Furstenburg is evidently not aware of the local history and culture in DC as much as he mouths off. I see this problem over and over again here. He clearly points out room for improvement but should not make blanket statements that insult people who live here or have deep roots.

At 12:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

..he also leaves out the Greek Americans who were a major ethnic prescense here in DC for 100 years or so until the white flight happened. Many of these types do not do their research on DC and focus only on the isolated part of NW they seem to live in.

At 12:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Listen to John DeFerrari- he is better than this guy and he is from here to boot

At 12:46 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

from what I could tell talking to agents, code requires external exhaust with gas but I certainly saw a few units that didn't do that.

In any case, new, tighly sealed condo + cooking odors + no external exhaust = a lot of smells and smoke -- regardless of the heat source.

A lot of DC condos are just built for microwaving and heating up some soup. Tired of dinner parties sweating away from oversized viking and blowing the smoke away from smoke alarms.....

Beautiful hood.

I used to work next to breadline and it wasn't that great, even when Fusternberg owned it. IN any case, his argument certainly would suggest wegmans would clean up in DC or Arlington.

Absolutely true about Giant, but if you remember they did have a Gourmet giant before the Ahold acquisition. Safeway with its california roots actually has more gourmet stuff than we deserve -- you can find some excellent 20-40 bottles of cali wine on sale there.

At 1:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw this tweet
" never thought I'd see the guy who founded Marvelous Market complaining about high prices and rapid expansion" which says it all- also-
why would anyone see ben's chili bowl as a "Washingtonian restaurant" ?

At 1:08 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

Not having a hood is why I didn't want to cook meat much (a good thing) and fish definitely, because of the smells. You are so right.

Safeway does a lot of things right. They don't do an urban store the way I would and their prices are high, but their store brand upper-scale items can be very good (we swear by Lucerne 32 oz. vanilla yogurt, it's way better and half the price of Stonyfield).

I don't remember the Gourmet Giant very much, just have vague recollections and that was before I cooked much...

I can't imagine having a Viking or another restaurant style stove-oven and not having a hood. That would scare the s*** out of me.

2. Anon -- wrt "Greek" restaurants, George Pelecanos' father's counter restaurant on Jefferson Place NW in Dupont Circle is now closed...

3. Anon -- in my post I forgot to mention the old coffee shops and cafeteria restaurants like the Sholl's Cafeteria that you know so well, or Thompsons. That's where JdF's book should be really important. I think the riots were the denouement on a bunch of those. The Sholl's postcards are too much for me on ebay. But recently I got a Baca Bros. Cafe postcard. I think I have a Thompsons, I can't remember, and I have a bunch of others. I am jealous of Peter Sefton, he has a Kavakos Confectionary postcard--the store on H St. that preceded the Kavakos Club/Coco Club.

4. Had I gotten to do an HSW expansion into Techworld (the person that I was working with there wasn't retained), my idea was to try to license Hot Shoppes from Marriott and make that the "dining" restaurant there.

At 1:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I dont want to rain on your article because youmention some excellent points- like the bad taxation problem & lack of support for small businesses here- and that all happened after the riots with "home rule" one would think that Furstenburg would have seen this but he doesnt mention it which it truly I agree- how can you not- with the obvious that most of our present day ethnic places are mostly in the sprawl- and this is also a terrible problem caused by the "home rule" crowd who do not care for true "diversity" and make no effort to support ethnic enclaves- one would think DC's gov't would try to retain Chinatown's restaurants but they couldnt give a rats whatever. So much has been allowed to disperse and this is bad - but it is not the nail in the coffin- it could still reverse. I also blame the ethnics/immigrants themselves for being woosies about the city- they are petrified of DC even they all go out to Annandale when they should be here..

At 3:48 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

At 10:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Immigrants logically move to places because they are ambitious and want better lives for their children, so therefore follow good school systems. Its not their interest to participate in fighting the historic battles and rantings of past generations of native-borns.

At 10:49 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

From an earlier email thread:

The other thing that I forgot to mention is that I have a dif. take on Union Market. I don't like it much. Seems very processed/over curated, not too connected to food. What do you think?

At 10:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From the discussant:

I'd agree on Union Market. Part of the problem is that I think they see themselves being something like a North Market in Columbus or a Grand Central Market in LA, but they lack the "authenticity" gene. Everything there is brand-new, scraped clean after the fire and we all know it. Had the market organically grown into something "cool," it would have more credibility, but we all know it is what it is - something made exclusively for and catering towards the well-to-do. Of course, that's a hell of a demographic in town these days, so who can blame them.

Union Kitchen is great. Elissa Silverman's election night party was there, and a lot of the folks who use the space were on hand to cater it. There had been a call for something similar as part of the NSP workshops for Trinidad a couple years ago:

At 10:51 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

never been to that market in columbus. GCM, when I was last there, is more like what DC Farmers Market was, although better, but still oriented to Latinos and lower income segments. I think you might be thinking of the LA Farmers Market, next to the Grove... but that market has tons of authenticity even so. It's 70+ years old.

you mention "new stuff," but if you think of the food hall at Grand Central Station it is really really cool, very vibrant. It has no "history" other than being part of the railroad station. But it is real, vibrant, active. I don't get that from Union Market. Ferry Building is "new" too. But more coherent.

Similarly, Furstenberg mentioned DiBruno's in Philly. I've only been in one of their stores. It was way cooler, to me, than Union Market.

yes, commercial kitchen proposal was part of the Cluster 23 ec. revitalization study about 10 years ago. I remember. At the time it was very enlightening, the first call to leverage the already extant food nature of the market. Randy Gross was the ec. consulting lead on that study and it was his idea.

At 10:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was Grand Central Market that I went to. The one just east of the skyscrapers downtown, between that district and city hall. I guess it just felt upscale to me, and the clientele (it was lunchtime on a weekday) was mostly anglo, mostly office workers. Guess it's different at different times of day.

How much of the issues of vibrancy at Union Market stem from the fact that it's *still* not fully tenanted? They've added some since the opening, but there are still a lot of holes in the mix.

At 10:53 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I don't know, depends on their strategy. But the rents must be high, because the spaces are small. Neopol in its original location in Belvedere Square in Baltimore is 100x cooler than the little slot they have in Union Market. Again, the market hall at Grand Central Station is smaller, one aisle, but so much more vibrant. It sings!

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