New management hopes expanded menu, new look will serve community
Several burly workers hoist panes of glass into the front of Big Chair coffee on the main drag of historic Anacostia. The windows are one of the final touches to the revamped space, which was the first coffee shop east of the Anacostia River when it opened a few years ago.
Three years ago, Big Chair became the neighborhood's first modern sit-down restaurant. But after years of slumping sales and poor customer reviews, the establishment is relaunching in hopes of luring customers back inside.
The new and improved Big Chair Café bar and grill, as it is now known, is open to a public after a major renovation and change in management. The restaurant has expanded its menu and hopes to reassert itself as a neighborhood gathering place.
"I gave away coffee for like, 3 weeks, just to let them know that we are making a change here," says Michael Sterling, Big Chair's new manager.
Sterling moved to D.C. a few months ago, and though he's new to the area, he says the neighbors have been very supportive.
"So many people have came to me and said, 'this is what we've been waiting on a long time,'" he says. "People want to come here."
They've moved walls, built a second-floor bar and trained a new staff of waiters and baristas. They serve breakfast now, and sandwiches all day long. And nothing costs more than $10.
While Big Chair isn't surrounded by competition, the way a café might be in Chinatown or Clarendon, this is still an uphill battle. According to Charles Wilson, one of the neighborhood's Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners, it was poor service that drove customers away, and it's going to be difficult to shake that reputation.
"Any time you lose a customer base, it's hard to get them back," Wilson says. "Though we lack certain amenities in Ward 8, we still demand top quality."
Even though it will be hard, Wilson says, Big Chair's success is important to Anacostia's future.
"We want to hear success stories," he says. "If they don't succeed, then any other restaurateur is gonna come over and say, 'they didn't succeed, what are my chances of doing it?'"
Even though the space isn't quite finished, the staff says it's finding some loyal customers who are undeterred by a little construction noise.