The beginning of 2017 has not been what Gordon MacDowell would have wanted for his downtown Leesburg restaurant.
A sign in front of MacDowell Brew Kitchen, located on Harrison Street across from Market Station, announced that the restaurant will be closed until Jan. 12. MacDowell also confirmed reports that his entire restaurant staff had been let go.
The dire course of action is a direct result, MacDowell said, of the town forcing the closure of his “beach” outdoor dining area last summer. It all began three years earlier, when town staff discovered that more than 6 feet of MacDowell’s patio area was actually on land owned by the town. Legally, alcohol cannot be served on town property without exception.
MacDowell agreed to lease the land from the town and change the insurance policy so the restaurant could continue to operate as is, and the Town Council voted to allow the restaurant to serve alcohol on that sliver of town property.
Plus, the beach portion of the property had to be rezoned from residential to commercial. As part of the rezoning agreement, MacDowell agreed to make improvements that would better buffer the residential neighborhoods from commercial activities, as well as protect the town’s stormwater system from sand runoff.
For MacDowell Brew Kitchen to hold up its end of the deal, however, it had to finish on-site improvements—including a system to contain the sand—by June 1. When the June 1 deadline came and went, the town agreed to give MacDowell an extension to July 11. The town brought the situation to the Loudoun County Circuit Court, requesting an injunction to enforce the proffers. On June 5, Judge Douglas L. Fleming Jr. ordered MacDowell to pay $500 a day beyond the July 11 deadline and close the beach until the work had been completed “to the Town’s satisfaction.” That deadline was also not met, and resulted in the closure of the beach area for several weeks. Town Council members ultimately prevailed upon town staff to allow the beach to be open on weekends while improvements were ongoing.
But last summer’s closures ultimately had a lingering effect, resulting in this week’s layoffs and closure.
“We depend on summertime sales to save up for the winter,” MacDowell said. He notes that, while the restaurant does offer indoor dining, the beach outdoor area is a major draw, with many equating the brew kitchen to a “fair weather” dining establishment.
But with the beach being closed four days a week during the summer to comply with the town’s order, “a staggering amount of revenue” was lost, he said. Patrons found other places to drink and dine, and the decline in business continued through the fall and early winter months.
“The business is broke,” MacDowell said bluntly. “I sold my personal home so I could finance the business and the construction to this point. All the resources are gone.”
To put the business back in the black, MacDowell said he will be reducing hours and going with a smaller staff, as well as taking another look at the menu to draw more of a “lunch-time crowd.” This week he is also working on a minor remodel of the restaurant’s kitchen.
MacDowell’s agreement with the town to finish on- and off-site improvements has been extended twice since the summer, and he now faces a deadline of this Sunday, Jan. 8. In addition to completing the work, the consent order signed by Town Attorney Barbara Notar and MacDowell’s attorney Bob Sevila notes that MacDowell must pay the total invoices of fines generated by the restaurant, also by this Sunday. That stands at $15,500.
MacDowell said Tuesday that 98 percent of the improvements have been completed, and a town staffer was expected to come by the restaurant for an inspection Wednesday. Once the town staff concurs that improvements have been satisfactorily completed, the Town Council must then release the $320,000 bond MacDowell posted for the improvements. That action, MacDowell says, “will free up money that are very much needed to sustain our business.” He said he is confident that the restaurant will be ready to reopen Jan. 12.
MacDowell said he appreciated the support of the restaurant’s loyal patrons, many of whom encouraged him to keep the beach area going when it may have been less costly to do away with it.
“This year for me personally is going to be about making it positive,” he said. “I hope we’re done with the negative with the town, the fight. It’s been a four-year battle and, to say the least, it’s been very taxing. I can’t imagine there being much more negative issues to deal with. I know the business will come back once the weather improves, and we’ll be really ready for it.”
Danielle Nadler contributed to this report.