Thursday, August 1, 2019
Mr. Pijush Barua is the owner of two businesses along Columbia Pike. He is originally from Bangladesh.
When I first came to the U.S. in 1990 from my hometown of Chittagong in Bangladesh, I lived in D.C. on Florida Avenue with my sister and her family. My first job here in this country was at a Dunkin Donuts on Wilson Boulevard in Arlington, Virginia. I was taking the Metro to and from work nearly every day. After some time, I decided to move to Arlington as it was closer to work. I first lived on North Monroe Street, and later moved to North Thomas Street. I continued working at the same Dunkin Donuts until 2004. Upon the advice of my boss, Alcova Heights became my new home from 1999 onward; my wife did not want to move anywhere else, as she had also fallen in love with the only city she’s known outside of her own hometown back in Bangladesh. I contribute my success to my boss, Theresa Sareen. I viewed her as not only as my boss, but my mentor and a mother-figure. I have become a man thanks to her guidance, assistance, and care.
I then moved to the Dunkin Donuts in the food court at the Pentagon and continued working there as a manager for the next six years. Due to the sensitive nature of working at the Pentagon, I had to have high security clearance and went through strict security protocols every morning when I arrived at work. I contribute my success at the Pentagon to my boss, Jerome Johnson. He was quite a beautiful character in my life, so much so that he was not only my boss, but a close friend and business partner.
I then decided that after years of working in the food industry and managing multiple stores – something I was doing while at the Pentagon – I wanted to open my own business. At first, I wanted to open my own Dunkin Donuts franchise in Arlington as I lived here and loved my city. But as I looked around, I found out that all the Dunkin Donuts were already franchised in the Arlington area. Due to an SDA (Store Development Agreement), I would need their permission to open one and pay $100,000.00 to $200,000.00
I decided to buy and invest in a gas station instead, and ended up purchasing Sleepy Hollow Exxon in Falls Church. I owned and ran that store for about four years and then sold it. I ended up selling it to my partner who was an auditor by profession. I taught him how to run the business and he became a partner a few years later when I bought Mclean Pizza with him. It was hard working 12-hour shifts and driving to and from Arlington. All the employees spoke Spanish and my one weakness is that I did not know Spanish, which limited me in connecting with my employees. Finally, an opportunity arose. The corporate Exxon station at South Glebe Road and Columbia Pike in Arlington opened for a franchisee opportunity, and I ended up selling my share of the pizza business to my partner in order to purchase the Exxon gas station. This was perfect because it was only a few blocks from house.
Here I am known as a CA, a Commission Agent. That means that I lease the shop but the items that I sell at the store are my own and not dictated by the Exxon corporation. I pay rent for the space and the gas itself is from Exxon. I thought that this neighborhood would also be a perfect opportunity to invest in a new business. I asked friends, my nephew, everyone, to keep an eye out for one. My nephew then told me about a franchise opportunity known as 1000 Degrees Neapolitan Pizzeria. Around that time, he was looking for a new job but was unable to find one, and I thought he could run the pizza shop for me. But not long after signing the lease and contract with the franchise, he ended up getting a new, demanding job. After two years of searching, finding, and building out the new store, we had our grand opening on October 15, 2016. On that morning, I had Theresa and Jerome’s son (since Jerome was unable to make it due to business travels) as my honorary guests. Theresa did the honors of cutting the ceremonial ribbon. That day, we fed over 2,000 people with complimentary pizzas. We had a great turn out and it was a huge success.
Since my nephew had started his new job, I ended up still working 12-hour days, seven days a week. Because the gas station is a 24-hour site, I had to be nearby or on call whenever anything came about that needed my attention. That 24-hour opening is a policy dictated by the corporation. As such, the insurance is more expensive and I must have more employees, but business does not increase because it is hard to have the same customer traffic during the late-night hours. There is also the risk of danger to my employees during the nightshift hours.
One major challenge is paying the employees. Due to the minimum wage in D.C., they want $15 an hour, but the things I sell at the shop are the cheapest around here. How am I able pay the salaries of six full-time and part-time employees? It’s hard. I have not even taken a vacation day in six years due to the consistent demands on a regular basis as a business owner.
The good part of it is that everyone here knows me. But of course, there are good people and bad people. When I moved to Columbia Pike in 1999, it was a very quiet area. There used to be a car dealership where my pizza restaurant is now located. After it was torn down, high-rises with restaurants on the bottom floor were built. We used to hang out at that dealership, meet friends there, and enjoy ourselves as any adults might. The humanistic aspect our lives is just as, if not, more important than just the work we do daily.
This is why the biggest difference now is that people have become robotic; nobody cares about anybody now. Back then, neighbors were so nice. They would see me working late and my wife and baby were alone at home and they would bring flowers or mow the lawn for us. With the old neighbors we would hold barbeques and cookouts together, but not anymore. No one greets one another. One neighbor moved, one is still there, and the sweetest neighbor in the world passed away a bit ago. The new people who moved in are not like the old. Racism was not there then, but I do feel it now. I do not feel as comfortable. My house is my home. We all just want to feel comfortable. But new neighbors complain over everything, and it simply adds to the difficulties my family and I face.
With the new store, business has also become harder now. Because of the lack of parking on The Pike, the intense competition, and being a new business, there are less people who come in. It is hard but I have invested all my money in the business, so I cannot afford to lose it. With the increased population, as rent goes up, employees’ salaries do too; it becomes a problem for business owners, naturally. Today a 20-ounce Coke costs $2.o00 I remember when it was 89 cents. Last year it was $1.49. In short, these changes are an enigma to the capitalist democracy we hold near and dear as Americans.
That said, Columbia Pike is a lot like Clarendon. The sound of traffic, people, movie-goers, young crowd, diverse dynamic – you name it. Before, only northern Arlington was viewed as the “city”, but with Arlington’s expansiveness, our once quiet portion of Arlington is now a major hub for business and a DMV experience. With real estate in demand, housing and living costs increase as well. But this improvement came at a hidden cost.
Sometimes I wonder if my business would have been different if I was a white owner. I do not go to the front of the business, I just stay in the back. I worry what will happen if they learn that a Bangladeshi man owns it. Once, a white man was upset and came in and demanded of the employee, “Call your manager.” I came out and said, “Yes?” He asked, “You are the manager? Call the owner.” I said, “I am the owner.” He said, “I won’t buy your gas!” What should I have told him? That the owners of most of the Exxon stations in Northern Virginia, Washington D.C., and Maryland are owned by other immigrants – from Africa? He left in a huff. I remember when 9/11 happened, I was still working at the Dunkin Donuts and an old regular customer came in. We were all talking about what had happened. He was a journalist for twenty-one years and he published what I had said. The next day the owner came and told me, “Why did you say all that?” I said, “I didn’t know he would publish it.” We were all shocked. Our hands were shaking. All of us. We were all in this together, scared about the future and what situation America was in at the time. This piece of my story is just one of many I have seen throughout my life.
Even so, the life and status I’ve made for myself and my family has been a diamond in the rough. Despite the hardship, Arlington is as beautiful as ever, and with any small business, there are good days and bad ones. My kids are grown up. They both went to schools locally. My oldest just recently graduated from James Madison University, and the other is currently attending American University for her undergraduate degree. So no matter the situation, I will stay here. My kids will go their own ways one day, and I would want them to work hard and smart, not just one or the other. They are still very young, and with the passion and ambition they have, I know they will find success soon no matter what route they take. The help of the people in my life have brought me up. I must attribute to for my success to them, most notably my family and bosses, the latter of whom helped me rise from the ground up.
I can understand people willing to work hard to try and make it in this place we call our own. With the creation of new businesses such as my own, proximity to the most powerful city in the world, and an everlasting expanding lifestyle and the changes it brings, the streets that have brought me up made me who I am today. That is something I can never repay myself for, and something I’m truly grateful to have experienced!
Sol Schott is the owner of Acme Pie Company. He is a long-time Columbia Pike area resident.
I started ACME Pie Company pretty much by accident. I've been a pastry chef for many years. I worked at The Willard Hotel in DC as the assistant pastry chef. I was at The Dahlia before that, always doing American-style pastry. Most recently before ACME Pie I worked at Open City, Tristan, and The Diner, both in the Phillips Collection and at the National Cathedral. So, I knew the logistics for delivering desserts, pies, cookies, muffins, scones, croissants. It was interesting because the things that fit in nice little square boxes got delivered the best. When I went out on my own I was thinking, "What would work best for my own business?" I realize this sounds silly, but it was logistics. It was boxes, same size, stackable. I can make racks for delivery. I love pie, and pie fit in boxes. The problem with muffins and cupcakes and cakes and things like that is they can't get jostled around much. Another consideration was that pastry chefs hate making pies. Most of us are European trained and pie crusts are almost the antithesis of French pastry. With most French pastry you're trying to do something elaborate, but with pie dough you're trying to do it as little as possible. So, I knew it was something that I could sell to restaurants and hotels and shops that nobody else was doing. There was a big market, wide open. I did that wholesale for six years and did well. It was only two months ago that I opened up the retail store her eon Columbia Pike.
I have had the same address since I started the business. There was a wine bar upstairs and they were only open in the evenings, so I would come in in the mornings early, fire up the ovens, make the pies, work till 2:00 or so in the afternoon, and then go out and deliver them. When the wine bar closed, I had to either move or take over the lease for the whole building, and it just made sense to take it over. I did the math and sat down and figured it out thought "...I might as well just throw my hat in the ring in retail." So far we’ve been doing well.
We’ve had three big Democratic fundraisers in here already. We have a Scrabble night on Wednesdays. We've got a group of independent writers coming in on Tuesdays doing readings from their books they've written. It started out as a poetry reading night. We did that two or three times and then this woman, Hanna, who runs the book club called me and said, "How about once a month we do this book reading thing?" The first time they did it I didn't really know what to expect. I was thinking it was going to be a bunch of moms sitting around reading passages from books they've read or something. But, they're reading from their own works and they are really good. It's very, I don't want to say avant garde, but it is kind of. It’s really cool. I love it, and that's really the kind of thing I want to support with the retail shop.
My goal with the retail was to make it a place that I would want to go to myself and to see what was going on. Since IOTA closed in Clarendon there seems to be fewer places that do independent creative stuff. There's still a lot of places in DC where that kind of thing happens, but not much in northern Virginia anymore, it seems to me.
I started the business on the Pike because I was already here. I live in the community, just a quarter of a mile away, in Douglas Park. There’s pretty good foot traffic here, The retail shop of course needs support, but the core business is wholesale.
All the people coming into the store are locals. Lots of different local groups and people, and a lot of people from when I used to race bicycles. There’s been support from a network of friends and then a lot of random strangers. They're not strangers when they leave, though, which is the idea.
I am partially from this area. After World War II, my grandparents settled here. My grandmother was born in Daytona Beach, Florida. There were two synagogues in Daytona when she was growing up; now there's probably more. One synagogue was dedicated to Sol Schott. That was my great-grandfather. He started it. The same name as me, obviously. He was dead by the time I was born, so by naming me after him it wouldn’t bring bad luck. The other synagogue there is dedicated to Harry Pepper, and Harry Pepper is my grandmother's father. She's still alive, by the way, a hundred years old, living in Daytona. She was born in 1918. They were Southern Jews. There was very little Jewish there. A typical breakfast she would cook for us would be matzah brei with a side of bacon. She cooked a kind of kosher style, and added a lot of things like pickled okra. That's a little bit of a southern accent. I began cooking as a kid. My grandmother's mother, Bella Pepper, taught me how to stretch strudel when I was ten years old. She also lived really long, to about a hundred. We made different old kuchen and different cakes, very old, weird, and dry stuff. We made rugelach a few times. It's what people had back then.
I grew up in both Florida and the DC area. My mom and dad met here. They were here for a few years then moved to Gainesville, Florida. I guess when I was probably five they got divorced. My parents were hippies, so I stayed with my grandparents a lot, whether it was here or in Daytona. I got raised by my grandparents and also some by parents. I was very, very close with my grandparents. When I was about twenty-two I moved back up here from Gainesville and have never left, and I'm fifty-one now, so I’ve been here a while.
Cooking is the only thing I've ever done. I went to culinary arts school in St. Augustine. I graduated in 1989 or '90 and moved to Daytona for a year and a half. I got a degree in hotel and restaurant management from a community college there and that's it. I've just been working since then. I worked at the Washington Hilton. I've worked at Marriott Wardman Park. With this skill, you could work at a lot of places, pretty much anywhere in the world.
There were a bunch of reasons I decided to go out on my own. I could wax all poetic on this, but the reality was that after I left the Open City restaurant in DC, I went out and I did six or seven interviews at hotels, things I used to be able to just walk into, and forty-one years old is old in this business. There are executive chefs now who are twenty-eight years old and they look at you and if you’ve got a little bit of gray around your ears, they're like, "This guy's not going to be able to hang." Reality is I could work and have worked circles around them for twenty-five years and still do, but in an interview you don't get to show that. The new style of hotel or restaurant interview is not like it was. It used to be you would go in, you'd show that you've got a safe food handler's license and you went to culinary arts school and you came with recommendations from other chefs they knew, and you were in. Now you go in and because of all these cooking shows, everybody wants you to spend a day working for them for free. They give you a list like it's some sort of Iron Chef TV show and they're go, "make this," and they pick out some stupid, obscure, weird thing, little fooey-fooey French jelly things and stuff. I've made those, but I don't have recipes off the top of my head. You end up googling recipes and trying to make them with their equipment in their kitchen. I did about seven or eight of those interviews, and I thought, "Crap. I've got to do this myself. I probably should have done this twenty years ago." That's where the pie idea came in. I was an experienced pastry chef and I went into pie because of deliverability, and it worked. So, here I am.
I love Columbia Pike. My wife and I have lived here now twelve or fourteen years. What I think I like the most is how real it is. We don't have a lot of chains yet. I think there's now a Starbucks and some McDonald's if you look around, but if you don't want to you don't have to eat at those places. If you go to Clarendon now they've got the Cheesecake Factory, pizza chains, places like that.T here was briefly a real good falafel place there, Amsterdam Falafel, but they couldn't survive, the rents have gotten so high. Along the Pike, people are still not putting on airs. This area's so ethnically diverse. We get lots of different kinds of folks in here You can get a proper taco down the street from my place. You can get amazing ramen at Boru; I love their food! You can find eight kinds of pupusas up and down the Pike, and even the guy next door, the Mongolian guy that opened up a computer repair store. That's awesome, that’s what this country's about.
I used to sell our pies at the farmers’ markets here. But I've already got an employee working in my store, which is directly across the street from our farmers’ market. The problem with the farmer's markets is if it's me working, then it makes sense, but if I have to pay somebody to stand there and sell pies, you've got to sell a whole lot of pies, because I refuse to pay anybody less than twelve dollars an hour. I try to be fair, but actually, it's not enough to live around here. But if you're young or if you're still living at your parents or something like that you can make it work. Twelve dollars is hardly a living wage anymore. You have to pay workers at least minimum wage, which is only $8.70 or something. But you'd starve to death on $8.70.
Change in inevitable. This might sound oddly pessimistic, but there's just not big money over here along the Pike, at least not yet. There's nobody coming down here going to open up a multimillion dollar hotel right now. Why would they? As long as it stays kind of poor it won't change much, which is sort of a sad state of affairs, but it's hard to preserve character when all of a sudden an area becomes really cool. That happened to Adams Morgan in DC and then there's a bunch of money and it just blew up. It happened in here in Arlington in Clarendon, but just wait five years, ten years. It'll fade back out. We'll see what happens when Amazon shows up. I hope Amazon doesn't come in and make this all like Ballston. Ballston used to actually be funky. Now it's just these giant soulless buildings with million dollar condos in them.
I have hopes for the restaurant. I want it to be sort of a community hub. People aren't going to come in and eat pie every day, that's not a realistic thing, but I want to have events here. I'd like to get live music, have local art exhibitions. A place that isn't about alcohol, a place that isn't booze. I got so many people asking me if I was going to have wine or beer. I'm like, "No. Only if I'm in jeopardy of going out of business and I have to," but I don't want to. I'm not saying I don't drink. I'm saying that I don't have to drink. There's things you can do other than just go into a bar. It's awfully small, but I'd love to have my band, Grumbler, play here. I play drums. We play music that’s somewhere between blues and punk rock, which is kind of an odd combination. We do a Woody Guthrie cover, “Pastures of Plenty.” It’s like a love song to the United States. It's beautiful.
I still do some of my deliveries on a special Harley motorcycle. It’s an old police serving car. It was like a meter maid vehicle. They used them throughout World War II. They used them also for small mechanic shops. If somebody's car was broken down back in the '50s, they would ride it over to the person's house to fix their car with all the tools in the trunk and then ride it back to the shop. That was when people would do that sort of thing; when doctors made house calls. That vehicle is very near and dear to me because it represents a time that I really like. I wasn't around then, but I’m drawn to times and ways when people did things honestly and straightforwardly."
Interview and photographs by Lloyd Wolf .