As thunderstorms raged outside last weekend, there was a steady flow inside Dr. Dremo’s Taphouse. It wasn’t beer pouring from the bar’s taps, though - it was rain, flooding through holes in the roof.
It’s been almost two months since county inspectors shut down Dr. Dremo’s Taphouse, at 2001 Clarendon Blvd. Closing the funky Courthouse neighborhood bar has cost the owner at least $120,000 in lost revenue, and the county at least $10,000 in lost taxes.
County inspectors shut down the business Thursday, July 3, for code violations stemming from a leaky roof. That was just the beginning. The storms that rolled through the area last weekend took the situation from bad to worse for the owner, manager, employees and patrons of Dr. Dremo’s. As of press time, Dremo’s had been closed 54 days—the last 14 days the roof of the building has had no protection from the rain.
Bill Stewart, who owns the business, said miscommunication, bureaucratic red tape and unfair treatment from county officials have drawn out the process of making repairs to the roof.
“This is not normal procedure, and we’re not getting the same story each time we go over there,” he said.
The real problem, say county officials, was the condition of a bar before any inspectors showed up. Water leaked from the roof before the county showed up, they said, creating a public health hazard.
It took nearly a month just to get the permits for roof repairs. Believing he was ready to begin construction, Stewart told workers on Aug. 11 to remove the protective coating from Dremo’s metal roof.
But county inspectors stopped construction dead, he said, and the building was left with no protection from the elements. Rainstorms caused major damage to the interior of the building, Stewart said, and it will take weeks and thousands of dollars to fix.
“It just keeps going on and on,” he said. “I’m sitting here with my roof open and the rain pouring in.” Between lost revenue and repair costs, Stewart says the ordeal will cost him close to $200,000.
COUNTY OFFICIALS deny that Stewart was treated unfairly. In a letter to Stewart on Friday, Aug. 22, chief building inspector Mike Lewis said he and other county officials followed standard procedure in dealing with Dremo’s.
“This is the standard procedure for structural repair to a roof,” Lewis wrote. “Any current project under construction is expected to meet the same requirements for roof design and construction.”
Lewis’ response to Stewart’s four main concerns consisted of five sentences, and Lewis has been unavailable for interviews for the last two weeks. However, a county official familiar with the Dremo’s situation said nothing appeared out of the ordinary in the inspection process.
County officials are focusing not on how long it’s taken to resolve the situation, but instead on conditions at Dremo’s they say endangered customers. “He had water coming through the ceiling in multiple places, and it was affecting the electrical outlets,” said Chief Fire Marshal Shawn Kelley. “Also, it was coming down in the public area where people were eating and drinking.”
Kelley checked out the building in response to a citizen complaint. When he saw the roof problems, he called health inspectors and building inspectors, who together shut down the business. County Manager Ron Carlee sent Stewart a letter outlining his understanding of the situation and referring to “serious code violations” at the bar.
“I am quite concerned about the dangers to which patrons and employees of your establishment have been exposed as a result of the unsafe conditions that led to your establishment being closed by the Fire Marshal’s Office, Inspection Services Division, and Environmental Health,” wrote Carlee.
CLOSING DREMO’S has its hazards too, say the bar’s employees. Theresa Darrah, a Dremo’s bartender, has been scrambling to find ways to pay the bills.
“It’s been super-tough,” she said. “That was my number-one source of income.” For the last two months, she’s getting by with freelance graphic design jobs, but that’s far from full-time employment.
Darrah said looking for another job would be a last resort. “Dremo’s is more than a job to every one of us,” she said. “We love that place.”
For some, working at Dremo’s has become a way of life. One employee simply goes by Dremo Charlie. “I’ve been there since day one,” he said.
Despite his dedication to the bar, he’s had to look elsewhere for work. After the bar closed down, Charlie headed to North Carolina, where he now works as a landscaper. “It’s a lot harder work for the money,” he said. “I think I’d rather pour beer in the air conditioning than mow grass in 100 degree heat.”
When county inspectors shut it down, Dremo’s employed about 15 people, and “one of the things that set this place apart was the staff,” said Stewart. If he can’t re-open soon, Stewart fears they will have to find other jobs, which will hurt the atmosphere of the bar.
Dremo’s manager Bill Speiler hopes employees will stick it out, but after months of delays, he can’t offer them assurance. “You want to make promises that we’ll be done soon,” he said, “But I’m not in a position where I can make those promises.”
WHEN INSPECTORS SHUT it down, Dremo’s employees were looking forward to a big weekend — the bar offers views of Fourth of July fireworks over the National Mall. Just three days before the closure, Dremo’s staff had opened an outside bar, which cost Stewart $25,000 to renovate.
Stewart said it’s more than coincidence that after three years of satisfied customers and no sign of county officials, inspectors showed up to shut down the business on the busiest weekend of the year.
Now 54 days after being shut down, Stewart said he hasn’t seen anything to make him think the county has any intention of letting him re-open. “When they don’t apply standard procedures, then you have to ask why,” he said. “They’re stonewalling me, and they’re trying to put me out of business.”
He’s not alone in that belief. “Dremo’s is very un-Arlington,” said Darrah. “Arlington is really moving quickly into this yuppie, ritzy deal, and Dremo’s is the opposite of that. Arlington has this plan for the direction they want to take, and Dremo’s doesn’t fit that.”
George Williams, a spokesperson for the fire department, said prior to the July 3 closure, fire department officials had had no concerns about the building’s safety, or about the management.
Kelley said Dremo’s management has been cooperative and, as of two-weeks ago, had satisfied the fire department’s concerns. “We’re not going to slow him up, and if he’s ready, he’s ready,” said Kelley.
But the roof must still be repaired, and Lewis, the building inspector, must sign off that it’s safe. “As soon as the building is deemed safe to occupy, we will be there within an hour to try to get him back open,” Kelley said.
OFFICIALS RARELY FEEL the need to shut down a business, said Kelley—it happens no more than four times a year. Especially rare is how long it’s taken for Dremo’s to re-open. Kelley could recall only one establishment that didn’t reopen within a few days.
County officials are well within their rights to shut down a business for safety concerns, said an attorney familiar with the county’s zoning, planning and inspection processes. But two months is a long time to keep a business shut down—significantly longer than most safety-related closures.
There’s no reason to think county officials are trying to drive certain businesses out of Arlington, said the attorney, who is not involved in the Dremo’s case. But county bureaucracy does sometimes create situations that are unfair to a particular business owner, he said, and this could be one of those instances.