A hole in Capitol Hill’s Chophouse Row after Chop Shop’s sudden closure

Ericka Burke’s centerpiece in one of the most celebrated development projects in Pike/Pine went out of business Friday with only a hand-written paper sign to make the announcement. Chop Shop, which opened as a day and night restaurant in Capitol Hill developer Liz Dunn’s preservation incentive-boosted Chophouse Row office and retail project in July 2015, is permanently closed.

The restaurant’s social media accounts broadcasted confirmation of the paper sign’s sad, abrupt message over the weekend:

Burke (Image: CHS)

Burke (Image: CHS)

The restaurant’s public relations representative said a statement on the sudden closure will be made soon. Chop Shop’s closure comes at the one-year mark for the ambitious Pike/Pine restaurant. The anniversary is sometimes used as a kick-out clause release date in leases if sales haven’t met certain benchmarks.

The 2,000-square-foot, 67-seat vision of “Northwest casual” opened in July 2015 and represented a major milestone in Burke’s attempts to expand her food and drink investments beyond her successful but neighborhood-limited Volunteer Park Cafe.

Chop Shop also represented a return to Pike/Pine for Burke after a first run was cut short in 2009 when her partnership with Linda Derschang in starting Oddfellows did not work out.

Along with Chop Shop, Burke also opened a new cafe and market in the Portage Bay neighborhood in 2015. But by February, one of those hand-written signs went up and the Canal Market was abruptly closed. Six months later, Chop Shop is also shuttered. The Volunteer Park Cafe, meanwhile, operated as normal this weekend.

(Image: CHS)

(Image: CHS)

The Chop Shop closure is probably the highest profile failure in the latest waves of food and drink openings across Capitol Hill. Mingling the talents of a Capitol Hill food and drink veteran with Dunn, a developer respected for her focus on the neighborhood and small businesses, would seem a recipe for success on a Capitol Hill where the food and drink scene has continued to boom. But there were definitely signs along the way including the early exit of Chop Shop’s founding chef Joseph Bollag after only 9 1/2 weeks. “That is all my food,” Bollag told CHS after the split. Bollag said a difference in opinion over how strong a presence he should be in the marketing and branding of Chop Shop lead to his exit. “He wasn’t the right fit,” Chop Shop’s PR rep told CHS at the time. The restaurant’s premium prices and ambitious day and night schedule including a “juice and provisions” counter never really took off.

Dunn now is left with a large hole in her plans for the award-winning development designed by Sundberg, Kennedy and Ly-Au Young, and Graham Baba that built around and above 11th Ave auto row buildings including the old home of Chophouse Studios. Chophouse Row’s roster of food, drink, and retail tenants includes farm-to-ice cream cone champion Kurt Timmermeister who has taken a 300-square-foot patch of space for his dairy-powered cream and cheese ventureKurt Farm Shop, Amandine Bakeshop from macaron genius Sara Naftaly, and a new Upper Bar Ferd’nand. Instead of betting on the Capitol Hill apartment market, Dunn designed office space for Chophouse Row and is currently landlord to a gaggle of tech startups as well as proprietor of the penthouse level Cloud Room coworking and community space. She has been a proponent of creating more “daytime activity” around Pike/Pine to diversify the types of businesses, residents, and visitors the neighborhood attracts.

“That’s what I’m hoping to bring to that part of Capitol Hill — that third place,” Burke told CHS when we broke the news on Chop Shop in 2014. “There’s going to be a real vibrant daytime presence.”

UPDATE 8/8/2016 9:55 AM: Burke did not respond to an offer to speak with CHS about the closure over the weekend but she did talk with the Puget Sound Business Journal (“In a nutshell we have been underfunded since the beginning“) and Seattle Met (“From the very beginning we were underfunded, and we hoped and prayed that if we can just get enough people in, we’ll cover it“). In other words, there weren’t enough customers. As we noted above, Chop Shop’s daytime ambitions were part of the problem. Both articles cite slow breakfast and lunch hours as contributing to the closure.

Meanwhile, Chop Shop isn’t the only closure in the past year around Capitol Hill’s food+drink scene. Here is the list we’re aware of in no particular order:

UPDATE x2: Here’s the statement from Burke on the closure. “Sadly, I think it was mostly bad timing,” Burke says.

On Friday, August 5, chef/owner Ericka Burke made a hard decision and quietly closed the doors of her one-year-old Chop Shop Cafe & Bar and Chop Shop Juice in Chophouse Row on Capitol Hill.

The decision comes after a year of struggling financially to get ahead on a project that was critically underfunded from the start. Burke’s Chop Shop is the anchor tenant of local developer Liz Dunn’s most recent mixed-use project. The gorgeous 2,800 square-foot space has lofted ceilings and exposed wood elements, brightened by Burke’s additions of botanical wallpaper and vintage art and collectibles.

“Liz has been such a great support through all of this,” says Burke. “From the get-go, she has been there with sage advice and friendship. I am so grateful to her and my group of investors for giving me this opportunity.”

The growth of the neighborhood and the construction on 11th Avenue left the street right in front of Chop Shop closed for the most of the last year, making foot traffic almost non-existent.

“Sadly, I think it was mostly bad timing,” says Burke. “ Evenings were nice and busy, but I took on more space in the building than I had originally planned to, and the lack of street visibility during the day was hard and we just couldn’t catch up. In hindsight, I also should have put the juice bar in a more accessible location.”

Burke says she’s deeply disappointed, of course, but she’s thankful to all that devoted their time and energy to making Chop Shop as great as it was.

“I had such big dreams for Chop Shop, and my sincere thanks go out to all of my wonderful staff that helped make it happen,” says Burke.

Burke plans to focus her energy of her first spot, Volunteer Park Cafe, which will celebrate 10 years on North Capitol Hill in January. She also plans to spend a lot of quality time with her young son. It’s been a very busy and intense couple of years.

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23 thoughts on “A hole in Capitol Hill’s Chophouse Row after Chop Shop’s sudden closure

  1. Wow. I hope that the Volunteer Park Cafe, owned by same owner, is safe. Wonder what happened and if this is a unique situation to Chop Shop or an indication of things to come. The restaurant looked healthy and I had a nice meal there not too long ago.

    • The place has been seriously struggling since the beginning, any Chop Shop employee can tell you that.

      From bounced checks, a never present Ericka Burke, going through 4 different chefs to run the place to a mess of a management team.

      Chop Shop drove itself to its own doom.

  2. I dined there only once and was underwhelmed….food was OK, but prices were high and just not worth it. I’m not surprised they closed. Hopefully, something more affordable will replace it….there are many restaurants on Capitol Hill, but most are quite pricey….what is needed are more moderately-priced places.

    • Agreed! I think less high-end but good restaurants are a better long-term bet in Capitol Hill, a densely-occupied, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood full of people who don’t cook every night and have enough disposable income to eat out frequently, as long as it’s not an event-dinner place.

      A mid-level place with regular food and decent drinks isn’t as sexy an establishment to start as a restaurant with a name like Knuckle & Fennel that’ll get you a big spread in Seattle Met, but more likely to get repeat business. (at least that’s my experience)

      The people who won’t got to Melrose Market because parking is too hard aren’t going to eat at your restaurant every couple of weeks. And even Amazon employees may not want to drop $80 per person every time they go out.

  3. It’s unfortunate that Chop Shop closed, but I suspect they won’t be the last, new Capitol Hill restaurant to fold. As one commenter mentioned, the food was okay, but expensive. So many of these new places seem purpose built as “destination” spots – lot’s of space, lots of ambience, with relatively high menu prices. A restaurant with great food can start in humble settings and grow with their clientele and reputation. A restaurant that starts big has much less room for error. Expensive food has to be great, not just okay.

  4. These restaurants are so formulaic.

    Step One: Get huge space with 20 foot ceilings, hang string lights with Edison bulbs.
    Step 2: Make a douchey menu that calls food “provisions”. Bonus points if the menu is all small plates.
    Step 3: Go out of business a year or two later.

    • Hey, I like small plates. It’s more social and makes interesting conversation. And you get to try a lot of things.

    • Ha ha. OK. But give one other example where 1, 2, and 3 happened. Old Sage? That closure seems to say more about the risks of expansion than the formula.

      Other recent closures of new(er) spots (off top of my head):
      Vostok
      Vivre
      Zhu Dang
      Bleu Bistro Grotto

  5. I feel like the sweet spot for restaurants on the Hill is ~$15 mains with prices topping out in the mid twenties. When your mains average ~$25 you no longer get the young people who want to splurge, you’re just relying on truly rich people, which cuts your customer base quite a lot. Tom Douglas (not a huge fan), Linda D., and Ethan Stowell have this down to a science.

  6. There are a lot of great restaurants that never get acknowledgement from the media because all the media writes about is ‘Tom Douglas, Ethan Stowell, Renee’ blah blah blah. It’s like reading a trashy magazine in the grocery store line, all the same and more of the same. This industry has gotten so far away from what is truly authentic. I personally do not want to dine at a restaurant where the owner has 10 places. I choose to go to smaller, lesser “known” restaurants and coffee shops because they feel more real to me, not like I’m paying for the owners 4th vacation this year kind of place. For this story it’s a huge red flag to me that the owner failed at two other previous businesses. The owner is at fault. End of story.

    • I agree with most of your comment, but I don’t think the high prices at these nouveau franchises are paying for the owners’ vacations – I think they’re (trying to) pay for the buildout and rapid expansion of someone trying to expand too much too fast.

      Although based on her history, I just think Burke does not have the business skills to pull off a full-scale restaurant – even with a partner.

  7. I think that owners have to realize that dining out is an option for most, and that we have this cool thing at our homes called kitchens, and places called groceries and markets that sell food to cook in said kitchens. The precious and pretentious nature of so many new restaurants, the escalating prices, entitled waitstaff with an entrenched tipping culture, and spaces that are too loud to hear the person across from me (not to mention loud music on top of it), all make me rather wary of the dining experience at anything other than pubs and my local Mexican place. Most dining experiences just don’t pencil out. Tough business to be in obviously.

    • Eating out all the time is just plain laziness…..you can create a very tasty dinner from a few ingredients, one that takes little time to cook, and save alot of money in the process. Plus, cooking is fun!

  8. According to the Internet, anywhere from 25-50% of restaurants fail in their first year, and 60% fail after three years. So no one should be particularly surprised if a number of restaurants fail, even in a growing area.

    • Well, many restaurants just plain deserve to go out of business. Those with a good product and good service at a decent price should stick around longer but apparently not many establishments can offer this recipe to success.

  9. Does anyone remember The Surrogate Hostess at 19th and Aloha? (It’s a Tully’s now). They had a great concept….a cafeteria-line type format that offered several different fine-dining entree options every day, at a price that was cheap enough to eat at several days a week. It was awesome. Their food was great, and it was barely more $ than eating Subway every day. I miss it, and I can’t believe nobody has tried that concept again since. WhyTF not? It would clean up.

    • I will ALWAYS miss T
      he Surrogate Hostess – just the perfect balance – great quality food but not pretentious in any way, easy picnic-bench seating, wouldn’t break most anyone’s bank.

    • I agree that The Surrogate Hostess was awesome! I remember that it started out on 15th and then moved to 19th. Wish it was still around.

    • Surrogate Hostess was awesome. It was around during my starving artist days. Thanks to SH, I always felt I could go for a cup of tea and a pleasant dessert without breaking the bank.

    • Just found this and wanted to add that I worked there for years and Robin treated us great which may be why the food and atmosphere was so congenial. Always a cup of coffee or tea ready for all.

  10. Surprised it lasted this long. The space in there is just strange and confusing, it was in a weird location, and the bar was miniscule. Most money is made from selling alcohol so they would have been smart to focus on that. Erica Burke I’m afraid has no business sense and got lucky once.

  11. Everyone seems to be skipping over two key parts of this conversation: “…a project that was critically underfunded from the start…I took on more space in the building than I had originally planned to…”

    i.e. she had no investors that were dumb enough to give her any money and she had NO business whatsoever opening Chop Shop in the first place. Underfunded and you’re going to build out more than you initially planned? There’s no way anyone with an ounce of common sense would give her any money.

    After her legal troubles with VPC, a failed partnership with Linda Derschang, another failed concept with Canal Market, it would be like throwing money into a paper shredder to invest in a business of hers. On top of that, she’s just not a well liked person that people, myself included, want to spend money on supporting her business.