“We’ve All Been Through It This Year”

Survival stories and silver linings from one of the restaurant industry's toughest years ever.
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Nick Freshman inside his new cafe/bar at National Landing. Photo by Joseph Tran

Nick Freshman

Nick Freshman landed his first bartending gig in 1998 at the now-closed Clarendon Grill. By 2020, the native Arlingtonian was celebrating the 10th anniversary of Spider Kelly’s—the Clarendon bar he owns with Nick Langman—and gearing up to open The Freshman, an all-day café and bar at National Landing, not far from his home in Arlington Ridge. When the pandemic disrupted his timetable for opening, he offered The Freshman as a temporary distribution site for Hook Hall Helps, a relief effort providing free meals to hospitality workers. Freshman is the founder of Mothersauce Partners, a restaurant venture capital and strategic planning firm whose portfolio includes Thompson Italian in Falls Church and several other D.C.-area dining concepts. He previously served as chairman of the board of La Cocina VA, an Arlington nonprofit that provides bilingual culinary training to immigrants. The Freshman opened for business on April 14.

The interior of The Freshman features a mural by Cita Sadeli, the D.C. artist who goes by “Miss Chelove.” We wanted a mural that celebrated not only the Central American region and its sustainable farmers who supply our coffee, but also the stakeholders who make our restaurants successful. They are just as important as the big white guy whose name is on the door. People from El Salvador and Guatemala make up a huge part of the workforce in this area. This was one way to elevate them.

The Freshman opened a year late. It sat vacant until we started using the space as a distribution spot for Hook Hall Helps. I was fortunate not to feel the pain so many of my colleagues were feeling. I had a restaurant I couldn’t open, which paradoxically made me one of the luckiest operators in the business. I didn’t have to lay anyone off there, stay open just to pay rent, put my employees at risk, take on crippling amounts of debt or deal with the crushing anxiety of trying to operate during a pandemic. The best way to win the war is to not have to fight the war.

We did have layoffs at Spider Kelly’s. Our pandemic policies were not all practical. Some were reactionary, and mistakes were made. We laid off dozens of people, then hired them back, then laid them off again, then hired some back, but not all. It was awful for me as an employer, but worse to be the employee who didn’t know if they were going to get their full 40 hours a week, and on top of that there was no net. I had employees who started trying to get unemployment in March 2020 and never got a check.

I tried to use this time and my voice to advocate for people in my business who could not advocate for themselves. I testified before the Arlington County Board, participated on panels, made phone calls. On New Year’s Eve I organized an event on Capitol Hill. We had bartenders mixing drinks on the sidewalk and sold cocktails to benefit Hook Hall Helps. People were starting to appreciate how devastating this pandemic might be. There was a fight to save our industry economically—to save jobs, livelihoods and hundreds of thousands of small businesses. But it was also a fight to save the soul of our main streets, our neighborhoods and our cities. If you travel to a new place, the first thing you do is find out where to eat. Restaurants define the character of a place.

The pandemic has not created new dining trends so much as accelerated ones that were already in motion, like online ordering and embracing technology. We used to have no tech for our business because no one would develop it. Restaurants were seen as analog. Now that’s changing. Some evolutionary shifts are hard for legacy businesses. The move away from full-service, sit-down dining has been underway for years. There’s a movement away from tipping and more toward paying workers minimum wage. These are conversations we need to have. We need to take care of the people in our industry who work the hardest.

Racial inequity is a huge problem in our business. I have always felt surrounded by diversity in all the restaurants where I’ve worked. But when I am in the company of owners and investors, I am largely with people who look like me. So there is an opportunity problem. And while I have never experienced racial or sexual abuse from a customer, I’m sure every woman or person of color who has worked for me has plenty of stories. So we have an equal treatment problem.

This summer, I marched downtown with my wife and daughter, and was profoundly moved. My takeaway was that whatever I have been doing, it is not enough. When we talk about racism, or sexism, or any “ism” in this country, we are talking about power. There is an inherent fear among those in power that sharing your power weakens your position. I disagree. It’s not a zero-sum game. I want to create an ecosystem of incredible achievers who can all work to create something far greater than I could ever achieve on my own. That sounds like good business.

I feel a lot more positive than I did at the end of 2020. We have work to do, but people in the hospitality industry don’t give up. That resilience, that scrappiness—it’s why I have dedicated my life to this business.

The future for small, independent restaurants in Arlington will look the same as it did before the pandemic. It will be precarious for the same reason it’s hard to be a homeowner in Arlington, hard to be a teacher and live in the neighborhood where you teach. A restaurant is a very expensive thing to start up. It’s high-risk and the margins are not great. Those things will continue to get harder.

But I am optimistic. I think the public, writ large, recognizes the value of restaurants to their community. Local government and large landlords see it, too. Large landlords increasingly want local tenants because that’s what their customers want. They want local purveyors, cool little coffee shops, microbreweries. We need to move away from the old dealmaking, and we are.

Entrepreneurs like to fall in love all the time. There’s always a cool new idea, a cool new location just around the corner. I think we’ll see a mini boom once dining is unrestricted and people are comfortable going out again. There is a palpable urge to reconnect—a human desire to be around other humans, for the shared experience of being in a place together, holding a drink, breaking bread.

Categories: Food & Drink