Dacha Beer Garden owners Dmitri Chekaldin and Ilya Alter are laying off half of their staff and negotiating to sell the business amid a battle with the Advisory Neighborhood Commission over their capacity level.
The beer garden is currently permitted for an occupancy of 126 people—a number that's long been a source of contention. Over the summer, after taking over the building next door, they submitted an application to the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration to increase their occupancy to 600—with 250 inside and 350 outside. The ANC protested the application, following an ongoing fight over noise. The beer garden has been cited by ABRA numerous times for being over capacity and noise violations.
"They have singled us out," says Chekaldin. "They come in here every weekend and they cite us even if we are five people over this 126 number." Other times, though, the beer garden has been cited for crowds exceeding 300.
ANC Commissioner Alex Padro sees the situation another way: "The neighbors are pulling their hair out because of the level of noise inside their houses... When somebody agrees to have 100 people 10 feet away from your backyard, and you're bringing in 300 to 500, that's not what people signed off on."
Dacha has made efforts to abate noise by bringing in a sound engineer and adding fencing and other soundproofing. "We've gone above and beyond," Chekaldin says. Some neighbors says it's not enough.
As of today, however, Dacha Beer Garden plans to abide by the 126-person capacity, Chekaldin says. "There will be a huge line outside, a lot of angry people. People are going to be losing their jobs... It's going to be a huge hardship on our business." All told, they're eliminating about 20 people from their 47-person team.
Meanwhile, the owners are in negotiations to sell the business to a big German beer brand (which Chekaldin declined to name) that has plans for several beer gardens in the U.S.
But if Dacha is letting staff go, Padro argues that it's the owner's fault. "If they hired staff to serve a capacity that they were not authorized to serve, then they did that at their own peril," he says.
Chekaldin claims it's more complicated than that. "The 126 is a questionable number. We are in litigation on this number," he says. "The 126 number was based on a temporary certificate of occupancy that was changed." He argues that the capacity should have at least increased when Dacha built a kitchen and bathroom, thereby opening up space that was previously occupied by porta-potties. But an increase was never approved.
ABRA has scheduled an evidentiary protest hearing for Nov. 4.
"Dacha has proven to be much more successful than the owners or the community could have ever anticipated. We want this business to continue to be a success, but a reasonable accommodation has to be reached so that the neighbors and the business are able to coexist," Padro says.
Meanwhile, Dacha is preparing itself for a fight. The owners plan to post signs around the beer garden explaining the situation and asking people to tweet the mayor, D.C. councilmembers, and ANC representatives with photos of the line and the message "Let us in! Increase Dacha's capacity to 350."
"It's a hard day for us today here," says Chekaldin. "There are tears."
Photo by Darrow Montgomery