Turning the Boat Around

The new owner of the Shrimp Boat Plaza has something for everyone

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Woundim Demissie in front of the Shrimp Boat Plaza. Demissie opened in the iconic building on July 25. Photo: Elizabeth O’Gorek

Woundim Demissie has big plans for the Shrimp Boat Plaza Restaurant, which opened its doors on July 25. He intends to make the iconic restaurant, which he spent a year renovating, a destination that serves the neighborhood.

Demissie has been listening to the community and shares their dreams for more. He has plans to add a sit-down restaurant and a small grocery store selling organic produce. Both would serve a real need in a ward that has one restaurant, a Denny’s, and only two grocery stores.

Demissie behind the counter at the Shrimp Boat. Photo: Elizabeth O’Gorek

What the Community Asked For
Demissie is Ethiopian by descent, a trained pharmacist with an entrepreneurial spirit who owns four 7-Elevens in the District. He bought the Shrimp Boat property, at 4510 East Capitol St. NE, intending to install a Checkers franchise. Opening a Checkers would have been easy, especially when it came to financing.

But after listening to the community, he found they were looking for something more.

Janis Hazel, commissioner with Advisory Neighborhood Commission 7D, described how, at meetings of ANC 7D, residents voiced support for a place where they could get healthy food, be it a grocery or a restaurant. The ward also lacked a coffee shop. “We do not need any more fast food in Ward 7. What we need are healthy choices,” she told Demissie.

Going against his own business interests, Demissie opted for community interests instead. He paid $1.3 million out of his own pocket to get the business up and running.

At the Shrimp Boat Plaza, there is something for everyone. There is Ida’s Restaurant (named for Demissie’s wife), which serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner and features salads, green vegetables, and fish. There is an ice-cream shop that also offers smoothies, Ethiopian espresso, and made-to-order doughnuts, iced-tea, and lemonade. The building also houses a Metro PCS microstore.

“It’s a destination that he’s creating,” Hazel said.

Beth, a regular customer, agreed. A native Washingtonian, she lives in Northwest but works in Southeast. She remembers the original Shrimp Boat restaurant and said that the newly opened plaza is a great addition. “There’s so much variety – the doughnuts, coffee, lemonade, the food,” she said as she chose from the menu at the restaurant. “The community really needed a place like this.”

Big Plans
These amenities are only Phase I of Demissie’s grand plan. His ultimate plan, Phase III, is to expand the building to nearly 5,000 square feet to offer 25 to 30 percent organic food and fresh food from farmers’ markets, with affordable prices.

“The grocery store is a must. It has to be here, because these neighborhoods don’t have that kind of stuff,” he said. “I can see people coming out of the Metro all day, with Whole Foods and Harris Teeter bags.” The Benning Road Metro station is just north of the restaurant, across Central Road NE.

A regular customer examines the offerings at Ida’s Restaurant. “The community needed something like this,” she said. Photo: Elizabeth O’Gorek

Neighborhood Prosperity
Demissie explained that it’s harder to get banks to take a risk on a small local business than a big franchise name. To fund his market plans, he applied for a District Neighborhood Prosperity Grant from the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED). The request for application states its goal is to fund mixed-use real estate in census tracts where unemployment is 10 percent or greater, with “preference given to ground-floor retail space which will enhance the pedestrian and retail experience.”

Demissie had reason to be optimistic. The Shrimp Boat Plaza is ground-floor space in an area of high foot-traffic, right outside a Metro and a Capital Bikeshare. The project is in a census tract with up to 23 percent unemployment, and a coffee shop, fast-casual restaurant, and grocery store are included in the plans, all of which are listed as application examples.

But still, his application was not successful.

Hazel was disappointed that his project did not qualify, saying that the Shrimp Boat Plaza project has everything the application required. “His project appeared to hit all the marks,” she said. “It has everything they’re asking for.” She added, “From my perspective as the ANC commissioner, he has an incredible project that would fill so many voids here in the food desert.”

Demissie has every intention of building the market. In part, that depends on what he can do with Phase II, the second floor and rooftop. Interested in leveraging the second-floor space as an asset in his pursuit of financing, Demissie says he is in talks with a nonprofit economic agency to rent the second-floor space as offices. The agency would provide the secure income he needs to get financing for the grocery store project.

If the lease is signed, Demissie will move forward with the market as soon as possible. If not, Demissie will go ahead with a sit-down restaurant on the second floor instead, aiming to open it a year later.

Councilmember Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7) said that he was pleased the restaurant had reopened. “It is wonderful to see the Shrimp Boat Plaza fully operational again. It has an iconic place in the city and in the heart of Ward 7,” he said. “The new presence will be a significant addition, especially for commuters using the Benning Road Metro.”

Demissie invited the community to check out the new Shrimp Boat. “Come and try it,” he said. “See what we are doing and support the business so it will continue to the next phase.”