Q&A: Jamie Leeds, Hank’s Oyster Bar Owner, Sounds Off on ABRA Troubles
June in the District means three things to me: cold beer, fresh seafood and indulging in both al fresco. The shaded patio of Dupont’s Hank’s Oyster Bar has long been one of my favorite summertime haunts—but it may get a lot smaller if five local protestors get their way.
Owned by renowned chef and resident lesbian Jamie Leeds, Hank’s is currently the target of a small but persistent campaign to limit the restaurant’s footprint, outdoor dining capacity and hours of operation. Since she expanded Hank’s in 2010, Leeds has spent considerable money and time fighting to protect this gem of 17th Street, the closest thing D.C. has to a gayborhood.
We spoke with Leeds about her battle with the protestors, the oyster bar’s burgeoning late-night business and how we can help support local, queer-owned businesses.
WTGG: How did your troubles with the Alcoholic Beverages Regulation Administration (ABRA) begin?
Jamie Leeds: When I decided to open Hank’s, I negotiated my lease to have free rent while I was building out, for a certain amount of months. And during that time, you have to placard to get your liquor license. I had five protestors during that time. You have to live within 500 feet to protest. I was happy to negotiate to try to work things out, and I wasn’t opening a nightclub or a late-night place, so it didn’t really restrict me that much. So I decided to sign the voluntary agreement, which we call an “involuntary agreement.” [laughs]
So a voluntary agreement means that there are specific restrictions on you?
There are restrictions that you agree with the neighbors on. I’m only allowed to stay open until 12 o’clock during the week and one o’clock on the weekends. I have to shut my doors—the front French doors that are usually open—at 9 p.m. every night, which is crazy. I also wasn’t able to expand. So then, we come to 2010, and there was a moratorium on all liquor licenses and expansions in Dupont Circle. The Alcoholic Beverage Control [ABC] Board decided to allow three lateral expansions, and I was able to get one of them.
We were just busting at the seams here, and it just made sense to expand. I wanted to have a better cocktail program, so we got our mixologist, Megan Coyle. She has been really great with enhancing the bar. She makes her own limoncello and her own grenadine, and we do our own barrel-aging of cocktails.
But because my voluntary agreement had a restriction on expanding, the only way I could expand was to get rid of my voluntary agreement. So I went to court, and the board decided to get rid of my voluntary agreement, so I had no restrictions on hours, no restrictions on anything. It was a lot of litigation, a lot of lawyers’ fees and everything, but we won. So I spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on this expansion. And then this group of five people, the same five protestors as before, took it into the Court of Appeals.
What is their problem with you expanding?
More of a crowded area, less parking, more noise. But my feeling is, if you’re living in a vibrant, colorful neighborhood, you’ve got to be able to be okay with this kind of growth. This kind of thing where five people can stop a thriving business even when you have hundreds, even thousands of supporters—it should be more at the governmental level. The Advisory Neighborhood Commissions should be able to have more of a role.
What did the five people do?
They went to the Court of Appeals, and the Court of Appeals said that the ABRA made the wrong decision when they vacated my voluntary agreement. So I have to close an hour earlier than normal on the weekends and they made me take away 20 seats on the patio. We’re losing a lot of money every day. We had the second ABC Board hearing last week. We had some really good testimony and we deliberated for five hours and now the board has to go and talk amongst themselves and see what the deal is.
How long does the board usually take to come to a decision?
Usually 90 days. But because of the pressure that they’re getting, they’re going to decide sooner. Probably a couple of weeks
Why should the greater D.C. population care about this?
I think it’s important for people to know that just five people can hold up a business. It’s an archaic law. It’s not good for growth. You have people who have lived here for 20 and 30 years, and they don’t want their neighborhood to change. And that’s why 17th Street has been kind of stagnant—because of these laws.
What has the local community’s response been?
It’s been overwhelmingly supportive. I mean, just unbelievable amounts of letters being written to the councilmembers—Jack Evans and Jim Graham—and the mayor. People have been coming in and wanting to support us, so business has been really good because of it, but those 20 seats on the patio are a huge impact on my bottom line.
I found out about you through a Change.org petition. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
A friend of mine started it. It’s just been unbelievable. We got over 1,400 signatures in the first 24 hours. The petition is to actually try to change the law. So I’m kind of becoming the poster child for this whole thing. [laughs]
Has the LGBTQ community stood behind you?
I’m out, and I have a 9-year-old son. I love the community. The community’s been very supportive of me. I just love being in this neighborhood. I feel very proud and very honored to be able to be in this neighborhood and serve the people.
What can WTGG readers do to support you?
Sign the petition and come to Hank’s!