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Trading the Corporate Grind for a Hoppy Future

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Dmitri Chekaldin and Ilya Alter, owners of Dacha Beer Garden in Shaw.
John Hines
Dmitri Chekaldin and Ilya Alter, owners of Dacha Beer Garden in Shaw.

Dacha is the Russian word for a country house with a garden, but the Dacha Beer Garden is in the heart of the city at the corner of 7th and Q streets NW in Shaw. There are picnic tables with umbrellas, and a three-story mural of Elizabeth Taylor looking down on the beer-swilling crowd below.

A path made of concrete pavers leads to the bar. There are 12 drafts, and you're invited to bring your own picnic — cheese, hummus, pretzels… whatever. Your dog’s invited to the party, too, if you have one. And it’s all outside.

“Welcome to Dacha,” bar-owners Ilya Alter and Dmitri Chekaldin intone together.

Alter and Chekaldin have opened their beer garden early one day to talk with me about their pasts and their new careers. Both men came to D.C., and their German beer garden, by way of Russia. Chekaldin says he was born in the Ural Mountains — "In the city of Perm. P-E-R-M,” specifies Chekaldin.

Alter was born and raised in Russia and later moved to Baltimore with his parents. “I grew up in a city called Habaresk, which is a city in the far east of Russia, and I came to U.S. when I was 17 with my parents. [They] immigrated and they brought me and my sister. They still live in Baltimore,” Alter explains.

Like so many immigrants before them, Chekaldin and Alter arrived in America and set to work on their studies, and then their careers.

“I have a degree in finance from the University of Maryland, and later I got an MBA from Johns Hopkins, and I worked for various companies, law firms… in financial planning departments dealing with budgets and forecasts for 14 years,” Alter says.

Chekaldin says he trained as a diplomat and also got an MBA, which helped him land a job as a commodities trader. “I am a graduate from George Washington University and my MBA is from a French School,” Chekaldin notes.

So they had good educations and good jobs, but by serendipity — or bad luck — they found themselves unemployed.

“About two years ago... we both found ourselves out of jobs and kind of decided you know that’s probably the right time to start doing something on our own. Then the idea of a beer garden came up, and here we are,” explains Alter.

Chekaldin says the choice he faced was clear: Get another job working for someone else or strike out on his own.

“Well, for me there was a moment. It was actually two moments. One came from Ilya, my friend, but the first realization came when I was part of the study group at my corporate job that was tasked with writing an algorithm for a giant computer called artificial intelligence,” Chekaldin relates.

The algorithm, he says, was designed to replace work done by humans. He knew his own job would soon be gone.

“It was inevitable. I knew that it would happen. And in my mind I started changing the direction of where I am going to be looking. But once I was out of the job, it was Ilya who told me that yes, it’s very nice to find another corporate gig and be comfortable with a pay check coming in, but you will be in a cycle and you will not be free,” he says.

To be free — that was their goal.

Soon, Chekaldin and Alter saw glimmers of that freedom in a vacant lot at 7th and Q streets. Without knowing whether a beer garden would work, they signed a ten-year lease. Today, Dacha is a hit. On a recent Thursday evening, Dacha is crowded with twenty-, thirty- and — yes forty-somethings enjoying open air beer drinking under Liz Taylor’s enchanting azure eyes. Mary beth Levin is here for the first time.

“It’s a lovely place. As you can hear, it’s completely packed. Ah… the atmosphere is very warm, very friendly, very welcoming. People are here in tank tops. They’re here in business suits. They’re here with their dogs. They’re here with their own picnic. All different kinds of people,” she effuses.

All different kinds of people who, together, are making Dacha’s owners pretty pleased that they chose the path they did.

“Every morning I wake up a happier person. The fact that we are building something better and we get good response from people. Beer by beer we are changing the world for better,” Alter intones.

Music: "Beer Garden" by Duke Ellington from Anatomy of a Murder

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