Over the last few years D.C.'s Shaw neighborhood, in the city's northwest region, has attracted the attention of government and business developers alike. This space, squeezed between two well-used metro stations to the north and south, and two heavily trafficked roads to the east and west, has also caught the attention of two Russian-born area residents who seeks to strengthen community relations over a few liters of beer.
Ilya Alter (IA) and Dmitri Chekaldin (DC) are the owners of Dacha Beer Garden, a cozy place that seems to find a way to keep the locals coming back for good conversation and beer.
Alter and Chekaldin took a few minutes to sit down and answer a few questions.
Why did you guys choose this location?
IA: When we came up with the idea of the beer garden we were looking at different locations,. It became a combination of identifying a good location, finding the right corner, and finding a property owner who was willing to rent or lease space in the right neighborhood. So a convergence of all those elements kind of led us to here.
DC: There was an element of luck in there too, in that the location we are at is perfect for a dacha, because if you bring in enough greenery it becomes a very cozy space.
A "dacha", eh? What was the concept for the name?
DC: The concept for the name comes from the Russian word called dacha, which means a small summer house with a garden. This world has become sort of an international word that is used in many countries around the world like Germany, Austria, and France.
The general concept that a lot of the outdoor establishments have is pretty basic: picnic benches, outdoor seating, beer, and shrubbery. With that being said, what is it that you guys have that separates Dacha apart from other outdoor drinking spots?
IA: I don't think anything specific to the location sets us apart, but what does is the selection of beers we offer, the quality neighborhood service that we provide to our patrons, and the people we employ. I believe its those things that make us unique.
DC: I agree with that completely. Everything depends on hiring the right people. If you hire the right people you can establish the right atmosphere which draws people in, and keeps them returning. But what some people may think is basic, actually is very complicated - especially if you want to have an authentic atmosphere. In particular, the tables and benches are not just tables and benches from anywhere. They were imported directly from Germany…we wanted to be that specific. And even the plants were specifically selected for this location. We took a lot of time to come up with the right setup in bringing an authentic and successful establishment to the Shaw neighborhood.
Are the plants here at the location native to Washington DC?
DC: Some of the plants are common to the area, D.C. specifically; but many of the plants are from the mid-Atlantic region...from as far south as North Carolina, and as far north and north west as West Virginia. We have twenty-three species of blooming plants.
IA: Getting the right greenery was part of the process. We have hired, and still have on contract, a landscaper to advise us on what plants to bring into this area as to not establish an inbalance to the neighborhood plant life.
DC: Come next spring Washingtonians will see the blooming plants in full bloom.
When you guys decided to come here, how did the neighborhood receive you?
IA: I believe when we first spoke to the neighborhood there was anticipation and anxiety. On the one hand they were excited by the fact that they would have another option as far as activities and things to do in the neighborhood; but on the other hand very cautious about allowing in open-air establishment because noise was thought to be a problem.
Were there people that were flat out against you guys opening up?
IA: Yes. Yes there were, and for the reasons I mentioned. There were a few people that didn't want us to here because they were concerned about how it would alter and change the neighborhood itself. But since we've opened, many of those people have come by and told us how excited they are with us opening up. They say that they see people hanging out and enjoying themselves. People are saying that some neighbors are speaking to one another for the first time in months or years.
How has the business community in Shaw supported you guys, or felt about you guys coming to the area?
DC: I'm not sure if I could fully say that they offered us support in the beginning. Sometimes I think they look at us in adoration, other times I think they looking us in disbelief - because they may have thought this wouldn't be successful. Since we've opened many of the business owners have dropped by to show their support.
And how had Shaw Main Street helped in getting you guys established?
IA: Shaw Main Street has been very supportive since the beginning, and continue to do so, and we are very appreciative of it. Shaw Main Street has helped us navigate through a lot of the nuances of working with the community and city government.
We're sitting under a three-story mural of Elizabeth Taylor. What can you tell us about the mural?
DC: The mural was part of the original plan. It was part of a very short list of images that we wanted to use.
IA: There were three things we wanted: a beer garden, an image, and a solid name. The three were all concerned tracks that would lead to us opening the business. We thought the mural was needed.
Are there any additional things that will be added to this location?
DC: We are currently in the works of building a small simple dacha style dwelling that will encompass the bar area, and it will not impede on the existing open space. We are hoping to start construction of the structure in mid December.
What will it have, what will it look like?
IA: Right now we are looking at a two-story structure that will house an updated bar, restrooms, a small kitchen, cooler and utility storage area on the first floor, and possibly some seating on the second level, that can be more a multipurpose room.
So you'll be closed?
IA: Yes. We will be closed, but only temporarily.
While you guys are closed what will you do to promote the fact that you are simply doing some work and not closed permanently?
IA: We haven't yet determined our plan on how exactly we are going to promote our temporary closure, but we do have plans on reaching out to the community and being effective online promoting our brand.
And what are you guys doing as far as security is concerned?
IA: We have security on the premises, and also have law-enforcement that comes by to check in on us. We are fortunate to have developed a positive relationship with the metropolitan police. Plus, our staff is trained to pay close attention to what's going on. The community also does a good job of watching out for one another too.
My final question is, is there anything you'd like to add?
IA: We are going to be here for a long time and we hope to be good neighbors to our neighbors.
The Shaw neighborhood was named after Civil War Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, and originally started as a freed slave encampment just outside the original Washington City.