Roommates Anu Joshi and Angela Butcher are perched in the corner of the carryout deli with ketchup and syrup-smeared plates. They’ve both nearly polished off the Hungry Man’s Platter with bacon, sausage, eggs, hash browns, and pancakes or French toast. Joshi is moving to Chicago soon, and for a farewell meal, Butcher looked to Yelp for help picking a place. She settled on Tony’s on H Street NE.
“It looked good in the pictures,” Butcher says. “And I heard good things in the reviews.”
When they arrived at the corner of 14th and H, they didn’t see Tony’s at the address they were looking for, 1387 H St. NE. Then they noticed a sign for Tony’s Place across the street.
The women went in, ordered from the counter overlooking the kitchen, and sat down on metal stools in the narrow azure blue-walled room covered with papers advertising specials in Comic Sans type. Then they looked out the window and saw the bright orange awning with the name of another Tony’s—Tony’s Breakfast. The squat white building was slightly tucked out of view from the main corridor.
They were at the wrong Tony’s.
Still, Joshi and Butcher enjoyed their breakfast just fine, and they found the service very friendly. “I would come back here,” Butcher says. “Some things are meant to be, and this is the place that we came to, so this is our farewell spot.” She turns to her friend and points to the Tony’s across the street: “I guess I’ll have to go to that one without you.”
“Yes,” Joshi says, “because when I come back, we’re definitely coming to this one.”
“I know, this is, like, our spot now.”
Across the street at Tony’s Breakfast, co-owner Justine Choe is disappointed to hear this. Her family’s restaurant,after all, earned the 4.5 stars on Yelp that drew Joshi and Butcher to the neighborhood in the first place. But mix-ups like this happen every day. On the back of its takeout menus, Choe has resorted to writing, “Visit the One & OnlyAuthentic Tony’s Not Affiliated with Tony’s Place.”
“We are the original owners,” Choe says. “And we have the rights to say that.”
Except that Tony’s Place makes the same claims. A sign over the doorway reads “The Original TONY’S PLACE.”
* * *
Suk Reddick opened the first Tony’s in Richmond, Va., in 1981. She’d come to America five years earlier with her husband, but they’d divorced, and she worked multiple jobs so she could save money to finally be her own boss. From a very young age, she was forced to work to survive; both of her parents died when she was 8 years old. “My mom always knew she had to take care of herself, so she always wanted to have business for herself,” says her son Tony Reddick, the restaurant’s namesake.
In Korean culture, a mother is often referred to as the mother of her eldest son, or in Suk Reddick’s case, “Tony’s mother.” “So in English, people would pick up on that and just call her ‘Tony’ instead. They would think her name was Tony,” Reddick says.
Over the years, Suk Reddick has owned several different businesses called Tony’s across D.C., Virginia, and Maryland, including grocery stores, diners, and carryouts. The Tony’s on H Street NE originally opened in the late 1980s or early 1990s—she can’t remember exactly when anymore—at a different address a block away on 13th Street NE. Then in 2001, Reddick bought the building at 1401 H St. NE and moved the business there.
Tony Reddick, who now works for a medical research company, says he spent most of his youth working in the family business. But after a while, he got sick of it. The restaurant was struggling, and he and his mom had different ideas about how to fix it. Ultimately, since he didn’t want to run it, she brought in someone else.
So Robert and Kay Choe, Justine Choe’s parents, bought Tony’s on H Street from Suk Reddick around 2003 and went on to run it under the same name at the same location for a decade. (Reddick kept the building and leased it to them.) They are also Korean immigrants and operated carryouts in Baltimore before coming to D.C., where they had a liquor store and other food businesses. And for most of their 10-year lease, they had a good relationship with Reddick. They were friends even.
Choe says that was when they built up a reputation for Tony’s. “Our family, we put love into the business. That’s why when people come in, they know our names,” she says. “We know the community, and it’s gotten to the point where people have become like our family around here.”
As the lease came to an end in 2013, the Choes started to talk to Reddick about renewing or buying her building. But when they failed to reach an agreement, the relationship soured.
The Choe family ultimately had to relocate. “I’m so stressed,” Kay Choe recalls. “One month, I can’t eat. I can’t sleep.” They didn’t want to stray far, because their customer base was on H Street. And so they thought themselves lucky to find a previously abandoned space at 1387 H St. NE, facing their old locale. Within two months, they were back in business as Tony’s. Choe added “Breakfast” to the end of the name to emphasize the morning offerings they were known for.
Because they’d bought the H Street business years earlier, they say they have every right to the name. They are “Tony” now, as Choe sees it. “They call me Tony. I’ve been helping my parents out since I was 13,” says the now 27-year-old. “Everybody at this point is Tony. I would consider my father more the real Tony than the actual Tony, because my mom and my dad built up this business for years, and they made it what it is.”
But the name came as a surprise to the Reddicks, who had stopped talking to the Choes. They figured with the move, the Choes would change the name. Tony Reddick says they were in the process of renovating the building when a contractor called to ask if they’d set up a temporary location across the street during construction. Reddick had no idea what he was talking about—until he came and saw the sign for Tony’s Breakfast. “I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ That’s my name, OK?’” he says. “There’s no one in the family named Tony. That’s my name. That’s my mother’s business name. And you open right across the street. Seriously?… The only reason they kept that name is they’re using the reputation of my mother, which I think is sad.”
At this point, Suk Reddick had leased out 1401 H St. NE to a new tenant, Etelvina Quintanilla, who had worked for her for 21 years. Quintanilla had also worked for the Choe family but was fired. She asked Reddick if she could use the name Tony’s. “I said, ‘Go ahead... Why not?’” Suk Reddick says. “How are they going to own the name? I don’t own the name. Nobody owns the name.” (Neither party has trademarked the name.)
Plus, Quintanilla was already operating another Tony’s: She had bought a different location of Tony’s Place at 622 Kennedy St. NW, which has been around for more than a decade, from the Reddicks long before any drama over the name. There’s yet another Tony’s Place that Reddick opened in 2008 and continues to operate at 1400 Good Hope Road SE. (That’s the last of the Tony’s she has left.)
Those locations didn’t trouble Choe too much: “That was far away, so that’s fine,” she says. But her family was shocked to see Quintanilla adopt the name for the H Street shop. Several months after Tony’s Breakfast reopened at its new location, Choe saw a sign on her old building reading “Tony’s Place coming soon.”
“I was like, ‘Wow, OK’… We were just thinking it’s kind of low of her,” Choe says of the landlord telling the new tenant to use the name. Just because the new owner knows Tony’s original owner, it doesn’t make the business the original Tony’s, she says.
Quintanilla, however, isn’t too bothered by the fact that there are two Tony’s across the street from each other. “That’s America,” she says. She calls Tony’s Place the “original” because she was involved in the original H Street business for so long. It was her first job.
Choe contacted a lawyer about the situation, but ultimately, she felt it wasn’t worth the time and money to file a lawsuit. Instead, Choe took to social media to tell people that Tony’s Breakfast was the “real Tony’s.”
And for the most part, people listened. “I started coming here because I read the Yelp reviews that this place used to be over there, and that place is now imitating them and not as good,” says neighbor Joey Lee while picking up her order inside Tony’s Breakfast last Friday.
“I’ve been there one time,” says Tony’s Breakfast regular Michael Mercer about Tony’s Place. The electrician ventures from Southern Avenue SE three times a week for the breakfast or fish at Tony’s Breakfast. “I always come here. The food’s better… If you look at the business that these people get compared to over there, I don’t see anybody going over there.”
Still, Justine estimates her family has lost 10 to 15 percent of its business because of confusion with Tony’s Place, “which is a lot, if you think about it, in six months.”
One such unknowing convert: Sherri Jordan, who was grabbing lunch at Tony’s Place with her kids last Friday. She lives in Virginia, but she’s been coming here for years whenever she’s in the area. “Actually, I haven’t been in a while because they were remodeling,” she says. “Once I saw they were reopened I was like, ‘Yes!’ So I started coming back here.” Jordan was unaware of the location and ownership shuffles, but when she found out, she didn’t care. She still prefers Tony’s Place. Once, she accidentally called Tony’s Breakfast to place an order thinking it was Tony’s Place. She realized her mistake when she arrived and the food wasn’t there. “I ordered my food here. I just didn’t even go over there,” she says.
Choe and her parents have not been in Tony’s Place since it opened. “I would never go in there,” she says. Likewise, the Reddicks and Quintanilla have not set foot in Tony’s Breakfast.
“The customer has to try the food. That’s all,” Quintanilla says. “The customer goes wherever he feels.”
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Photos by Darrow Montgomery