Kera Carpenter opened "W. Domku Cafe" at 821 Upshur St NW in January 2005, taking a chance by opening a sit-down restaurant on the 800 block of Upshur Street. Back then, the only other option for a quality sit-down experience on Upshur was the long-loved Hitching Post. Otherwise you had take-out places like Dannie's and China American Inn. The street could be a bit rough, with people hanging out on the corner, violent crime at the Island Cafe (which once closed, became Petworth Citizen) and a streetscape that hadn’t seen care-taking in years.
Instead, Domku brought Petworth a fresh, weird and delicious mix of Scandinavian and Eastern European cuisines. A friend of mine became addicted to the gravlax salad, and my wife and I were loyal to the chicken and sauerkraut sandwich. The Swedish meatballs were excellent and our go-to suggestion for people we took to Domku. There wasn’t much choice of where to go if we wanted to entertain guests, so Domku it was. Filled with couches and a very odd assortment of chairs and tables with funky art on the walls, it was a cool place in what felt then like a rough area.
In 2007, my wife and some friends published a local newspaper called “The Grant Circular,” and I interviewed Kera about her background and the creation of the restaurant for a spotlight article about Domku. The person I got to know was serious, and focused on trying to create a place that benefited the neighborhood and offered interesting food.
Kera was a pioneer in many ways. A Peace Corp volunteer and world-traveler, Kera came back to DC for a job working on international affairs, but found that owning a restaurant offered a stronger pull than a desk job. “I’m a cook, not a chef,” Kera once said to me, when talking about the then 2 year old restaurant, saying she follows recipes that she thought people would enjoy. She said she tried to create a menu that offered an amalgamation of the places that held a special place for her, so she took different recipes and merged them into one eclectic menu.
Beyond trying to create a new dining experience in Petworth, Kera took the lead on getting the city to dedicate funds to clean up the 800 block of Upshur Street, putting in new street lights, replacing broken sidewalks, adding brick, garbage cans and trees. She started the Art and Crafts Fair, a place for local artisans and crafters to sell their artwork, jewelry and more. That first year there was only a handful of vendors. Last year’s event filled Upshur Street. It’s valid to say that the revitalization of Upshur Street was started and supported by Kera. The success of Domku gave other restaurants and stores the confidence to open.
And that success has now come back to cause the biggest problem of any revitalization. As real estate becomes more valuable along Upshur Street, property owners and landlords see the potential of great profit. This is one of the negative impacts of gentrification on a neighborhood. Kera is closing Domku at the end of June. She posted the message below on the Domku Facebook:
Domku is closing its doors at the end of June due to the landlord’s unwillingness to negotiate down from a 66% increase in rent on the new lease. While this is extremely sad for me, I am also extremely proud of the role this business has played in the nearly 12 years of a changing Petworth. I am grateful for the many friends I’ve made here, honored to have been part of your lives, and privileged to have been accepted and supported by so many loyal customers.
While this is sudden and upsetting, I hope that we can also celebrate all that has been accomplished here. Even after all these years, there is nowhere else in DC like Domku. We hope we will see you all many times over in the course of the final weeks so that we can say our good-byes. #petworthdc #upshurstreetnw #domku
“It’s not an unusual story,” Kera told me when we spoke today. “It’s often the person that takes the risk doesn’t get to also reap the reward.”
The property is now valued by city assessors to be worth $977,510. It once sold for $100,000 only a decade ago.
Kera’s lease is up next month, and the landlord for 821 Upshur Street, Lucky Alley LLC, told her last week the rent was going up $3,000 per month — a 66% increase from what she’s paying now — and they weren’t interested in negotiating, according to Kera. If she didn’t agree to the new lease, she had to move out by June 30th. So Kera is moving out, as she can’t afford the higher rate.
“There’s nothing next for Domku,” Kera said. “I have to make some decisions for what’s best for my life and my family. We may not stay in the area, and I doubt I’ll be opening a new restaurant business.” She said the change is sudden and unexpected, but in some ways she’s ready for a break from the 80+ hours a week she devotes to Domku.
Kera is planning a community party to celebrate the accomplishments of Domku on June 25th, and hopes that people will come out in the next month to say goodbye. The last brunch will be served on June 26th, and she’s planning on a “yard sale” to clear out the furniture and fixtures.
People have differing opinions on Domku and on Kera herself, but no one can deny that Kera has done a lot for the Petworth neighborhood and should be celebrated for those accomplishments. Any restaurant that takes over the space at 821 Upshur will have big shoes to fill… and it seems, a large rent bill to pay.