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Wild Onion Tamed By Recession

Hyattsville restaurant closes after three years in business at University Town Center.

The closing of the restaurant this past week in University Town Center has left about a dozen people without a job and scores of customers searching for a new place to catch a mid-day bite to eat.

At 5 p.m. on Friday, the restaurant closed for good after three and a half years in business. Owner Rasheed Abdurrahman said the Great Recession doomed the Wild Onion almost from the get-go.

"In short, we opened in 2008, two months before the recession hit," said Abdurrahman in an email to Patch. "Our bills were based on pre-recession high rent, big bank loan, and the mall has not seen its full potential…we tried to work through the tough times, but low sales, no money is a bad combination."

Abdurrahman, a 1994 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America with a resume that included stints at posh Washington hotels, says the staff was like family to him. Now, those family members will have to find new jobs. Employees were notified of the closing on Wednesday, Jan. 25.

Cook Malik Carter said he saw the writing on the wall, noting that the restaurant had a strong lunch hour but saw little business during other times of the day. He had been sending out applications to other jobs for a few weeks. His efforts paid off, and he has a new job lined up as a theater technician.

Another former Wild Onion cashier was not so prepared.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," lamented a cashier to a customer over the clatter of kitchen staff cleaning up at the tail end of the final shift.

Abdurrahman also fondly remembered his regular customers, most of them workers in the surrounding office buildings, but said local residents never supported his business in sustainable numbers.

"I do wish more people in the Hyattsville community would support small local business," wrote Abdurrahman. "I would get a lot of requests from local people to donate to their event or group, which we did, but many did not spend their dollars with us."

Many former patrons of the restaurant were quick to point out the fleeting presence of other retail tenants in the development. There's Three Brothers, which has already seen one closing only to be reopened under new management. Among the list of failed businesses at UTC are a dry cleaners, Gifford's Ice Cream and the Soup Man restaurant.

"Nobody stays here more than a minute" said one National Center for Health Statistics employee as she puffed on a cigarette last Friday afternoon.

"We're all saddened to hear that they are closing," said restaurant customer Karen Christopher as she walked out of the store with one last Wild Onion meal. "The food was good, the service was good. We asked for fliers if they ever relocate."

Customer Jennifer Peregoy, a vegetarian, was disappointed when she heard the news.

"For vegetarian options, it's one of the few around," said Peregoy as she picked up one last service of sweet potato soup. "We loved this restaurant. There aren't too many healthy restaurants here."

Paul Urciolo, UTC's senior vice president, declined to comment in too much depth about the closing of Wild Onion, but he said it would be missed.

"They had very nice food," said Urciolo. "It just didn't work out."

Michael Theis January 29, 2012 at 10:24 AM
Good morning everyone, it's time for a Sunday policy chat show - internet style. The question posed below the article is a quick one: What is causing the high retail vacancy rate at UTC, and what can be done about it? Here's my theory: It's hard to walk to (for Americans). Now, I've only been covering the area for two weeks, but I spent my early childhood living near Queensbury Road and 39th Place, a stones throw from what is now known as UTC when it was just those three gargantuan white office buildings. My dad worked in those buildings for a number of years with the Department of Labor. Despite living that close, the act of crossing Queens Chapel Road and then East West Highway was, and I believe still is, a major access impediment for the pedestrian for which it is laid out. High vacancy rates in the residential areas of UTC only further magnify the importance of attracting outsiders to the retail areas. Perhaps stronger event programming in the quite attractive courtyard (think concerts and the like) could help attract more pedestrians. Give them a reason, other than shopping, to congregate in its public spaces, and you might see some success.
imani kazana January 29, 2012 at 01:52 PM
This is a sad loss, but it is true that our household has also cut back in eating out during these past three years. I hope he will open again where there is cheaper rent, and better parking. The nearly total focus on pedestrian access made it very difficult for our household because of an inability to accomodate a disabled person on the street, near the front door. Also suggest that the owner work on the music to improve the ambiance; perhaps soft, light jazz. The food was great, and affordable. The staff was always pleasant, and helpful. We do wish all of them the very best.
Jenni Pompi (Editor) January 29, 2012 at 03:20 PM
UTC is also not visually appealing. You can't see any storefronts, so they don't pull people in.
Phil LaCombe January 29, 2012 at 03:22 PM
I agree. I walked to Wild Onion from my home on Oglethorpe Street, but that's only because I don't own a car on principle. No one who's used to driving everywhere (which is the vast majority of the population) would want to cross Queens Chapel and E-W Highway. Since UTC is inwardly-focused, drivers don't even see it. If UTC had been built directly above PGP Metro, it would be thriving. Maybe if it got the Safeway as originally planned, it would not have such significant problems. Even then, the major roads would still be barriers.
Celia January 29, 2012 at 03:36 PM
My family and friends have tried all of the restaurants in UTC in a loyalist effort to dine locally. Having said that, we'll continue going to Busboys and Poets and Franklin's in downtown Hyattsville. The restaurants in UTC have prices and cuisine that are roughly (or a little less) comparable. However, ambience at the restaurants we tried was only marginally above cafeteria standard. As mentioned in other posts, disposable dining dollars are limited and we would like to enjoy a dining "experience" when we eat out. We're always sorry to see people who have put their hearts into their businesses fail.
Michael Theis January 29, 2012 at 04:04 PM
Excellent points, all. So what, then is the solution? Short and long term? UTC isn't going to blow away, and conceivably, the ill effects of the recession will at some point subside. If anything the Wild Onion's story of a strong lunch rush proves that, as long as people are there, there will be foot traffic. It's just how does one get people there when no one yet lives there in great numbers?
susie January 29, 2012 at 04:14 PM
I agree with all of what has been said. To Michael's question about the solutions: 1. Dramatically improve signage on the roads surrounding UTC. 2. Better sign parking -- yes, I drive virtually everywhere since I am running hither and yon. 3. UTC as a development needs to do a significantly better job of making itself relevant to its close-in neighbors, commuters, and other locals. I virtually live online (when I'm not driving around to and from meetings) and have seen nothing about the development, what it offers, etc. Now it's true I'm biased towards DC for my attention (I work on DC issues) but still. This speaks to Michael's question about folks not living near UTC. Ok, so come up with a plan to draw people in. I had high hopes for the development and still do once the economy rebounds. But a good economy will not fix all that ails UTC.
Linda V. January 29, 2012 at 04:16 PM
Suggestions for how to turn UTC around (it'll take some money, energy, vision and commitment): (First get rid of the tax incentives for keeping storefronts empty! That's helping to keep the whole region boarded up.) 1. I think UTC need to become more visible and enticing to passersby. The E/W hgwy "gateway" needs enticing stores right up to E/W hgwy with visible parking on the sides. (A cheaper way at first would be to build a few mock store fronts at the corners on both the east and west sides of the street.) Get rid of that Neon sign - or change it. 2. Don't scrimp on the public spaces. Turn the fountain back on. Keep the public areas spotlessly clean. Pipe in pleasant music. Don't allow scary looking loiterers. 3. Host events. "A Taste of UTC," "Movie Trailers and Popcorn," "Kids carnival," "Dog day" . It is really unfortunate that the first thing that gets cut when times get hard is the very thing that is needed to entice people to come. There are other ideas but, again, it’ll take money, energy, vision, and commitment.
Michael Theis January 29, 2012 at 04:58 PM
Again, good points guys. Now, we've been focusing on the UTC side of things, but let's flip it around. What types of business is and is not appropriate for such a development? Or, what types of businesses might you think could thrive there if they opened tomorrow?
Jenni Pompi (Editor) January 29, 2012 at 05:00 PM
I agree with above posters - something absolutely needs to be done about the entrance way - it's so easy to miss - and it needs much better signage, especially for the movie theater. It was there for months before I even knew it existed. That football-field parking lot out front is so visually unappealing. Maybe add some green space in there?
Jim Groves January 29, 2012 at 08:29 PM
A big problem is that there was supposed to a huge Fed relocation to the site hat did not happen thus there is lower adult traffic for lunchtime. There was also supposed to be the lifestyle Safeway there which could have brought in more traffic, but that fell through as well. Why Whole Foods is looking at the Krafitz property rather than there I have am not sure.. yes, plenty of tax breaks which is attractive but they did not even, to my knowledge, explore that area. If Krafitz falls through, which I give about a 20% chance, I hope they will look there. In the meantime, they should have done more to contact the community that things were not going well. That would have brought out support. Also, offering fund raisers for schools and programs, like Franklins does, would have helped as well.
Michael B. Cron January 29, 2012 at 09:10 PM
Rasheed, I am sorry that you had to close your business. I know that it was a labor of love. I do understand what you are going through and with time, things will improve. I wish you the best in any new venture that you may do in the future.
Jim Groves January 30, 2012 at 12:32 AM
The restaraunt was very good, just not enough foot traffic. If it were where that old gas station is on rt. 1 across from DeMatha it would do great.
Linda V. January 30, 2012 at 02:11 PM
@ Micheal T - What business would thrive at UTC if opened tomorrow? Tomorrow without any of the above suggested improvements? Oh, man! That is a hard one. The only thing I can think of is a service business that already has a large clientele and can get new customers on their own without relying on walk-ins. A dentist or medical clinic? Frankly, if it were run nicely, I would utilize a nail salon at UTC.
Jenni Pompi (Editor) January 30, 2012 at 02:20 PM
I've been thinking the same thing, Linda V. I bet if Apple opened a Genius store there it would do well, being so close to the university. I've never been in one that wasn't bustling. The nearest one is in Bethesda or Columbia.
Nearby January 30, 2012 at 03:21 PM
Folks I've brought here to the movies, for dining, and for ice cream from nearby Takoma Park, N.E. DC, and Mount Rainer had no idea that these businesses existed inside this area. People get used to cruising in their cars and only pull in if they see it. Also, everyone was surprised that the parking was free for enough time to enjoy these facilities. Communities and developers should think more about planning these to integrate into the existing communities in ways that are visible and consumer inviting, and to make pedestrian-friendly access from nearby neighborhoods not just within the town center.
Michael B. Cron January 31, 2012 at 03:37 AM
UTC tried many of these ideas before. If it was free, you would have line out the door. There was music, art festivals and open houses. The restaurants would have family nights and half price meals. Nothing worked. The surrounding neighborhoods did not support the center much of the time. The crime rate escalated and scared what little customers that were left. Hyattsville got greedy and made the parking lot where the Safeway was supposed to go a paid lot 24-7. After that, there were even less customers to patronize the center. The buildings that were rented by the federal government agencies are continuing to empty. UTC's construction was delayed almost two and a half years due to county bureaucracy and utility company "red tape". Had the center's construction been on time the Safeway and big box store would have been built well before the economic crash of 2008. The rest is just sad.
Nick January 31, 2012 at 05:14 AM
The summer UTC opened there were a lot of people at the fountain, eating a meal from one of the new restaurants or enjoying an ice cream. But its proximity to the apartments on Toledo Terrace ended up defining the development's clientele. And, for better or worse, that clientele and that development is now associated with stabbings, etc. I know people who go to Silver Spring to see a movie because of this perception. They are missing out because the Royale is a pretty great theater (even accounting for the slowest snack bar in Maryland).
Mark G January 31, 2012 at 04:12 PM
It seems there needs to be a critical mass of shoppers (or just people) in the area to start attracting others. Typically if a couple of good stores, restaurants, theatres etc. can bring in enough people, others will hear about it and a "scene" will develop. I think UTC thought that the apartments (the Sutudent Towers and "lofts" etc) would provide the critical mass but that doesn't seem to have worked. I agree that if a popular store or restaurant such as Whole Foods, the "lifestyle Safeway" or a Franklins/Busboys and Poets type of place were to locate at UTC , it might provide the necessary boost. I'm happy Busboys located where it did, though UTC would seem to have better parking. The point Michael Theis made here is a good one; the location of UTC, even though it is close to the PG Plaza Metro, is not pedestrian friendly and the setup of the development is not even particularly car-friendly.
Linda V. January 31, 2012 at 04:36 PM
Business owners have been burned by UTC. Will any business at all move in without immense incentives and promises of better property management? What's happenning with the management there right now? What are their plans?
Linda V. January 31, 2012 at 04:50 PM
Perhaps our esteemed reporter can interview someone "in the know."
Michael Theis January 31, 2012 at 05:05 PM
I'm two steps ahead of you, Linda. Working on a more in depth follow up for next week.
Adelphi Sky January 31, 2012 at 06:38 PM
You need an attraction. A destination retailer. Think Busboy's, Whole Foods, Trader Joes, dare I say an Apple Store (bare with me). Right now, the mall across the street is stealing the show. safeway was supposed to be the magnet. And as someone said earlier, there would have been retail facing E/W Highway. Bu that never got off the ground which is why UTC looks bare from that side. I guess a good question would be is what destination retail ideas do you have to draw people to UTC? If not Apple, then what? What do people drive miles for? What would make me hope on the metro to get to UTC?
Linda V. January 31, 2012 at 07:41 PM
Nice!
JT February 01, 2012 at 02:33 AM
"If UTC had been built directly above PGP Metro, it would be thriving." I'm not sure I agree with that. MetroShops is as close as you can get to Metro and there are lots of vacant storefronts. J. Marie's didn't last very long.
JT February 01, 2012 at 03:17 AM
Michael -- I agree with most if not all of your points. However your intimation that UTC is a scary high-crime area is not true and does a disservice to the city. Some quick unscientific research shows that the number of UTC crime reports are not out of line with more successful retail areas like Bethesda Row, with "theft from auto" being the most common in such retail areas. Blame bureaucracy, economic conditions, or mismanagement, but don't blame the crime rate.
Danny February 01, 2012 at 12:20 PM
i agree with almost everything michael cron wrote, except for one point: i was told by a city employee that it was UTC that instructed the city to install 24/7 meters for the on-street parking and the "safeway" parking lot. i presume this was to force people into UTC's paid garages (giving UTC a couple bucks of revenue if the person stayed for more than 2 hours, for example to see a movie or to visit a UTC resident), instead of monopolizing the on-street and "safeway" parking. so although the city collects the meters' revenue, the meters were installed (and are enforced 24/7) at UTC's explicit request. if i am incorrect about this, i hope someone in the know can correct it for me. i totally agree that many in the local community decided early on that UTC was not for them. some were upset about the obnoxious parking regime, some were upset about the young people loitering, some just didn't like the restaurant choices, some were upset that the concert series ended and the fountain was turned off, some were just waiting for the long-promised safeway to open. it really is sad.

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