This Entrepreneur Fought Her Neighbors for Her Right to Open Her First D.C. Restaurant and Won
It took this restaurant owner three times as long as expected to get her liquor license after a community battle with men who accused her of trying to open a brothel.
In the Women Entrepreneur series My Worst Moment, female founders provide a firsthand account of the most difficult, gut-wrenching, almost-made-them-give-up experience they’ve had while building their business -- and how they recovered.
Rose Previte moved to Washington, D.C. after college and balanced nonprofit policy work with waitressing at a Capitol Hill dive bar for seven years. Briefly, she and her husband moved to New York and later Moscow to pursue career opportunities, but they ended up back in D.C. in 2012. At that point, Previte knew she couldn’t wait any longer to follow her lifelong passion of opening her own restaurant, Compass Rose. She found a business partner in her old dive bar boss, Mike, found her dream location and applied for a liquor license.
During this process, some lawyer neighbors tried to stop her from opening what they thought would be a loud bar (or worse). Opening the restaurant took three times as long as expected, and cost three times as much, funded personally and by friends and family. But Previte fought to obtain the license by making connections in the community -- and won. Today, she owns a second D.C. restaurant, Maydan, which has garnered a James Beard nomination.
What follows is a firsthand account of this person's experience. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
“In D.C., every application for a liquor license can be contested by neighbors. It’s archaic, almost like in the way that strip clubs can't just open anywhere. But if you don't get your liquor license, you don't open. We ended up being in the middle of a battle between a few old-time residents who didn't like the new development of the neighborhood. It took a lot of blood, sweat and tears -- mainly tears -- to fight these people who were trying to keep me from having a business.
You're expected to go to community meetings and explain who you are and what you're doing. Then individual boards have to pass you. You would think that you were literally trying to open a brothel -- which, by the way, some of the neighbors did say, ‘they're going to have a club, maybe she's going to open a whorehouse.’ I do think that's directly because I was female. Who would say that to a guy?
When I started this process I was 33. They said, ‘She doesn't have any experience, and her partner owns a bar. So, they say they're going to open a restaurant, but they're going to open a bar.’
We were going, as most of the businesses around us do, for a ‘tavern license.’ You could be in violation of a restaurant license, because there's a certain amount of food to alcohol ratio that you have to meet. If you're a busy restaurant where people drink a lot during dinner, but you're small and affordable, the numbers can be skewed. They also used that against us, even though we gave the business case.
We wouldn't start construction until we knew we had the license. And I was living upstairs at the time. I kept saying, ‘For God's sake, I'm living in the building. What do you think, I want to live in a club?’ It was so counterintuitive.
When you've never owned your own business, it’s scary as hell. It was a pretty traumatic time, especially because I was so close to getting what I'd always wanted and really felt there were these people who just wanted to take it away from me.
People who love me and advised me would say, you should really start looking at other places. And I knew in my gut when I first walked in that it was my place. I didn’t have a plan B. Hope is what got me through. And probably a little stubbornness.
The lesson learned was the importance of explaining to neighbors what you're doing and that you want to be part of the community. Many people in the community felt like they were fighting the good fight for an entrepreneur whom they knew had good intentions. By writing letters and fighting for us in community meetings, they were part of our success. The fight had this unintended consequence of actually getting us a lot of press before we opened and a pretty dedicated following.
At the end of the day, all that matters is I got what I wanted. The lawyer from across the street, he has apologized profusely and has come in many, many times. The first time he came in, I was like, you've got to be kidding me. This man caused me so much stress and anxiety. But I fed him, and I gave it to him for free. I told him, ‘I accept your apology,’ and we are at peace.
Did this process help grow my confidence? Absolutely. It probably served me well when staff started showing up, and all of a sudden, I was a boss for the first time in my life.
I’ve since been able to help other people get their licenses, because I'm knowledgeable of how it works. And I don't cost as much as a lawyer, obviously. They can just buy me a coffee.”