Almost One Year Since Opening Big Chair Coffee Shop Benefitting Community, Battling Recession | Business
“Two or three years ago, (Anacostia) was not as we see it right now. There’s a lot of progress around here,” Bantamlak Yimenu said as he peered out onto Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue from a corner table in Southeast D.C.'s Big Chair Coffee Shop. “There’s a lot of big change coming up.”
Almost a year ago now, Yimenu and his sister kicked off that change when they opened Big Chair, the first true sit-down coffee shop East of the Anacostia River.
“There are a number of people who live in this neighborhood who want gourmet coffee, (and a) gourmet coffee shop,” Yimenu said. “Instead of going across the River to get that kind of place, we’ve brought it here.”
While Northwest neighborhoods like Dupont Circle and Foggy Bottom seem to have a Starbucks with wireless internet access on every corner, Big Chair stands alone in Anacostia, a pioneering operation that many throughout the city hope will springboard other business development in a community that’s been hit particularly hard by the Recession.
With Big Chair’s first anniversary approaching, Yimenu admitted the business isn’t where he and his family would like it to be, but that things could be worse.
“It’s almost a year now since we’ve opened this place, and we understand that the economy isn’t as good as we expect it to be,” Yimenu said. “But, in general, I wouldn’t say it’s bad. We’re working and people like it. I would say it’s okay, I can’t complain.”
One thing is for certain: Before Big Chair opened there was no place like it in Anacostia.
“I don’t live in Anacostia, but I spend a lot of time East of the River,” Adams Morgan resident Danny Harris said. “One of the things I was always looking for was a place for me to just sit and hang out. When I originally came over here, I would spend a lot of time at the library or some of the other recreation centers around, but it was amazing when this place opened and you finally had the opportunity to sit and have a coffee. It sort of goes with a lot of the changes that are happening in the neighborhood in terms of bringing art and culture here. “
It’s clear that customers like Harris truly appreciate Big Chair’s presence. But Harris doesn’t live in Anacostia, he just works there frequently, and this is something Yimenu’s nephew and Big Chair manager, Mac Mckonnen, hinted might be one of the business’ problems.
“The people who work around here drink (coffee), but there aren’t too many people who live here who are coffee drinkers,” Mckonnen said.
But Big Chair doesn’t just serve coffee. They serve breakfast (try the banana-nut muffin, it’s great), lunch, and dinner, and are constantly searching for how they can change their menu for the better. They are also scheduled to receive their liquor license in the coming month or two.
“It’s an addition,” Yimenu said of the license. “This is a sit down (place). So it’s good to have dinner with some beer or wine or some liquor.”
Yimenu’s and Mckonnen’s excitement about the liquor license was palpable, and they believe it will help jumpstart Big Chair’s second year in business.
A jumpstart is certainly needed: One year in the coffee shop’s financial issues loom large.
“We are financing this coffee shop from our pockets so far,” Yimenu said. “It couldn’t afford to pay its own bill. We understand that we are new, so we have an introductory period, and no business would give you profit right away. We have to work hard and bring it up to the level where it can pay its own bill…but right now it’s so low, it’s killing us. We are still resisting, waiting for the good time to come, and we hope it will come.”
Yimenu knows a lot of potential customers have not followed through because of the economic downturn.
“I hope that (the economy) will come up, and then people will enjoy this place,” Yimenu said. “The economy is right now in a bad situation. There are people who come here and say ‘Oh I like this place!’ and then they see our menu here, the price of the coffee and the price of the food and then they say, ‘Oh, I can’t afford it.’ We try to reduce it a little bit but still, there are people that can’t afford it.”
Yimenu, though, believes the future of Big Chair is bright.
“For this next coming year, I am visioning that people will come here and have a good breakfast and lunch and dinner, and have a good time sitting down here…In five years, Big Chair is going to be as big as its name.”
Big Chair is located at 2122 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Southeast and is open Monday-Saturday 7 a.m.-9 p.m..