Fish in the Neighborhood is close to opening, just needs a “push over the finish line”

Fish in the Neighborhood, 3601 Georgia Avenue NW.

Left on the hook for reconstruction and under water on the costs, Fish in the Neighborhood is looking forward to opening if and when it can.

It was a busy Friday on April 14, 2017, when restaurant owner Bill White turned on the third fryer at Fish in the Neighborhood. The day started out great, cool with sunny weather and customers lining up outside on a Good Friday afternoon to order Bill’s seafood. A line out the door wasn’t uncommon for the restaurant, as the reputation for fresh seafood at good prices was well known. But with so many people waiting, Bill and his staff decided to turn on the rarely used third fryer to make sure they had the capacity to serve the day’s rush. That fryer, and a moment’s forgetfulness, changed Bill’s life and the fabric of the neighborhood.

“Flames shot out the back of that fryer, like a blow torch,” Bill said, recounting the events of the day. “Burning hot, flames shooting up. We were shocked, it’s never happened before. With all that hot oil and grease, it’s never happened before.”

There was a fire suppression system built into the hood above the fryer, but in the panic and shock of seeing the flames, Bill and his staff forgot about it. After trying to put out the flames themselves, they realized they couldn’t stop it. The fire leapt up into the ductwork and started to rapidly spread. “They told me to get out, just get out, so we did,” Bill said. “The fire department arrived quickly, and put out the fire, but the damage was done.”

(photo: DC Fire & EMS)

(photo: DC Fire & EMS)

That initial damage was mostly contained in the ductwork above the fryers, and what should have been a straightforward repair and renovation has turned into more than a year and a half of frustration due to shady dealings with bad contractors hired by the building owners, Deoudes Magafan Realty, a fire restoration company, ServPro, that no one could remember hiring who removed all the building equipment, and then more subsequent damage from the construction company that still negatively impacts the building today. (Three different ServPro franchises claim to not to know anything about the project and had no comment. Nick Deoudes from Deuodes Magafan was not available for comment.)

Immediately after the fire, various restoration companies showed up at the restaurant, leaving their cards and pamphlets. “I told them they need to speak with the building owners,” Bill said. But then one day, Bill said that green ServPro trucks showed up, and an admin from Deoudes Magafan Realty called asking him to let in the ServPro representatives. Assuming the building management company had hired ServPro, Bill let them in. They ended up removing all of the equipment from the restaurant, including the AC units, the refrigerators, and more, and took them to a warehouse in Chantilly. Then, according to Bill, they approached him to sign a contract.

Meanwhile, the company hired to restore the restaurant began working, ripping down walls, repainting and redoing the floors. Bill found out that no permits had been pulled from the city for the work. Then the contractors unplugged the freezers, spoiling the seafood inside and causing an incredible stink (one that the rats enjoyed, having chewed and clawed their way into the building once the freezers began to smell).

As Bill walked through the “renovated building,” he realized the contracting crew didn’t seem to know what they were doing. He discovered the contractor had their license suspended in Virginia for “inadequate work,” and inside his building, he could see why. Walls were painted over sloppily, the floor looks worse than the original pre-fire, the roof looks done half-heartedly and walls that were to be patched are now covered in half-measures, bumps and smeared spackle. It was disheartening.

Above the restaurant are rooms that used to be for rent, that were damaged by smoke, water and the fire department gaining access to treat the flames. Now emergency lights and regular fluorescent lights are painted over, as are door knobs, a fire alarm, and even a pyrex dish on a shelf was indiscremently spray-painted over. A hole in the ceiling up on the 2nd floor caused by the fire department wasn’t fixed, and where the roof was fixed, it leaks, leading to mold in the one of the closets. Obviously, these rooms are not rentable, and still need a lot of work by Bill to renovate — renovations that should have been done by the original construction crew.

Bill hopes others don’t have to go through what he did recovering from the fire. “It’s like a tree falling in the woods,” he said. “Am I the only one experiencing this?”

After months of back and forth, Bill finally convinced the building owners to allow him to work in the space, and in four months he has the restaurant almost ready. “We’re close to the finish line, but we’ve run out of gas,” he said. “It’s been a lot of work, things they should have done a long time ago. If we can open, I know we’ll do well, but we need to get done so we can open.”

Bill White is one of the most positive people I’ve had the fortune to meet. Self-described as “undercover homeless” when he was in his 20s, Bill lived out of a van off of Duke Street and studied for his pest control license using the street lights to read his books, even as people were surprised to find out he was homeless. He used that personal drive to end up running a successful pest control business, then later a hauling company for Goodwill. Every time there was a set back or something negative happened, Bill would think to himself, “Think positive, think positive.”

Then in 1998, he opened Bill’s Seafood Kitchen at 3601 Georgia Avenue NW, and the restaurant’s reputation made it an instant popular spot. Howard University students started calling the place “Fish in the Hood,” and years later, when his outside sign fell down, Bill decided to make the name permanent.

“It’s always been ‘Fish in the Neighborhood,’” he said, emphasizing the word neighbor. “The students called it Fish in the Hood, but I liked the fact that it’s a neighborhood place. The Washington Post didn’t quite get the story right when they wrote about the name change, saying gentrification is why I changed the name. But that’s alright,” he said. “It’s still Bill’s Seafood Kitchen legally, but the Fish in the Hood name, it just stuck.”

Bill said he’s been amazed at the community reaction to the fire, between friends like Santana Shabazz helping out with the construction, to the neighbors putting up a GoFundMe to help with costs. “People like Sarah (Sorscher) who go out of their way to help, she’s got three kids and a full-time job… it’s amazing,” he said. “Community Forklift has been great. They have given me great prices on materials, and donated the new front windows. And Jennifer Kuiper from District Bridges has been so good to talk to and receive guidance. Just having a shoulder to lean on, someone to talk to, is helpful.”

Bill makes a point of saying how much help his wife, Mila, has been during the process. “I can’t say enough about Mila, and how she’s helped us find funds, find patience.”

Neighbors from around the area and across the city pitched in to help with a GoFundMe campaign that raised almost $9,000 toward a $15,000 goal. Now Bill needs help getting over that finish line. He’s been selling personal items to generate funds, and true to his nature, remains positive that it will all work out.

Outdoor seating along Otis creates new space for people to sit and enjoy the food. (photo: Bill White)

The plan is to have a soft opening and invite the neighborhood back to enjoy the food that he’s known for. “I want to carve the names of the GoFundMe supporters into this wall,” Bill said, pointing to the exterior side wall off of Otis. “I want to find a permanent way of saying thank you.”

If you can, consider donating to the GoFundMe and help Fish in the Neighborhood open its doors that much sooner.

Santana Shabazz poses with Bill White, owner of Fish in the Neighborhood.