Alexandria businesses discuss opportunity, competition at The Wharf

Alexandria businesses discuss opportunity, competition at The Wharf
A view of The Wharf from Alexandria's Potomac Riverboat Co. Asana's Reed Kracke recently said Old Town is losing business to the new development across the river (Photo Credit: Alexa Epitropoulos)

By Alexa Epitropoulos |

Years before ground was broken to build The Wharf in southwest D.C., Alexandria-based Potomac Riverboat Co. was already preparing to head in that direction.

By the time conversations began three years ago between the water taxi and The Wharf’s developer, PN Hoffman Founder and CEO Monty Hoffman, about starting a dedicated route to the buzzy, in-the-works mixed-use development, the water taxi company was in the midst of rolling out service to National Harbor.

“We looked at it as another opportunity,” Potomac Riverboat Co. Vice President Charlotte Hall said. “We looked at it as another development on the waterfront, in the same vein as National Harbor.”

Since launching its service to The Wharf last month, Hall said the route has seen similar growth to the one to National Harbor.

“It’s very similar to National Harbor. Not everything was complete,” Hall said. “… It’s getting the kinks out. A year from now, everything will be up-and-running.”

A view of The Anthem before its opening weekend (Photo Credit: Alexa Epitropoulos)

The company expects the route’s ridership to increase as more of the development’s highly anticipated restaurants open and as The Anthem, the music venue opened by 9:30 Club owner Seth Hurwitz, draws big name bands to town.

“As long as we can take advantage of people going to concerts, I think we’ll see an increase,” Hall said. “There are live bands, the old [Maine Avenue] Fish Market is up and kicking, there are many season ticket holders at Arena Stage. We love it.”

Potomac Riverboat Co. is one of the earliest arrivals to what’s been hailed as D.C.’s next big destination. It’s one of many Alexandria businesses that expect sales to pick up, rather than trail off, with the debut of The Wharf’s new attractions.

While many Alexandria restaurants, retailers and small businesses fear that The Wharf will draw would-be visitors away from Old Town, the city’s tourism organization sees it as more of a mixed bag.

“I think in certain ways it’s both a threat and an opportunity,” Visit Alexandria CEO
Patricia Washington said. “Of course, the threat is that it’s the newest destination, the newest and biggest on the Potomac. It’s got great music. It’s very well funded and it has dynamic programming, it’s got great recreational assets. It’s a tremendous waterfront destination. In that way, a lot of people are going to be looking at The Wharf and gravitating toward it.”

Washington said with the competition comes a benefit to Alexandria businesses in that another development adds to the number of attractions in close proximity to Alexandria.

“It’s also a great opportunity,” Washington said. “Anticipating The Wharf will draw 15 million people to the waterfront and a lot of those people will be new visitors – those are people we could attract to Alexandria … We see it as a ‘so much to do’ asset. When people come to Alexandria, they know there’s a lot to do both in Alexandria and the region as a whole. That’s been part of our strategy from the very beginning.

“Alexandria is so strategically located. It’s in the center of it all,” Washington continued.
“You can take a water taxi that’s a 20-minute trip to The Wharf, National Harbor, Georgetown … Our accessibility to all of those experiences just got stronger.”

That’s something Hall and Potomac Riverboat Co. are looking to capitalize on.
Hall encourages Alexandria restaurants to hand out samples and coupons to riders
boarding or getting off of her water taxi. She said the company is working on cross promotions with local restaurants to get more visitors to make the trip across the river, such as pairing dinner at an Alexandria restaurant with a concert at The Wharf.

“When there’s a special event at National Harbor, it’s a great opportunity,” Hall said.

The Wharf’s opening ceremonies attracted crowds last month (Photo Credit: Alexa Epitropoulos)

“I think restaurateurs were leery at first. Many restaurants here are very small …
But a crowd of people coming off The Wharf, just in front of the Charthouse, those could be 40 of your customers.”

At least one local restaurant group is readily preparing for more business with the opening of The Wharf. Cathal and Meshelle Armstrong of Eat Good Food Group are preparing to open Kaliwa at TheWharf late next month. Kaliwa will serve Filipino, Thai and Korean cuisine.

“I think The Wharf changes D.C. and the D.C. area forever in a way that nothing
else possibly could,” Cathal Armstrong said. “It’s such an amazing development. Every day I’ve been down there, it is absolutely packed with people.”

Meshelle and Cathal Armstrong, owners of Kaliwa, which will open in late December at The Wharf in southwest D.C. (Courtesy Photo)

It’s the first restaurant that Eat Good Food Group, which owns local eateries Restaurant Eve, Eamonn’s, Bar PX, Society Fair and runs Hummingbird, will open in D.C.

Armstrong is particularly excited about how The Wharf will tie into other areas of the greater D.C. area, including waterfront areas like Alexandria, Georgetown, National
Harbor and Navy Yard. He said the water taxi’s routes to those areas have bound those destinations together.

He said the restaurant group has plans to connect Hummingbird, which it opened in the lobby of Hotel Indigo in Old Town earlier this year, together with Kaliwa.

“We have an interesting opportunity to tie together Hummingbird with Kaliwa
and the water taxi. We’ll do some cross-marketing to bring people back and forth across the river,” Armstrong said.

A rendering of Kaliwa at The Wharf (Courtesy Photo)

It’s a homecoming of sorts for Armstrong, who worked as a chef for almost two decades before opening Restaurant Eve in Old Town in 2004. The restaurant group had sought out locations in D.C. before, but nothing had seemed like the right fit.

“There is a significance to it. I worked in D.C. for almost 17 years before we came to Alexandria, so it’s almost like going back to where we started,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong said he has many hopes for the restaurant and The Wharf as the
restaurant group prepares to open Kaliwa.

“It’s the kind of food I love to eat,” Armstrong said. “I’m worried about how busy it’s going

An entree at the soon-to-open Kaliwa restaurant at The Wharf (Courtesy Photo)

to be. That scares me a little bit. We’ll do what we can to initially control the crowds at least. I hope everyone enjoys the food as much as I do. It’s going to be very, very authentic southeast Asian food. The thing I’m really trying to target is it’s not just a watered down version of something you’d get in Asia. It’s true to the authentic nature of the dish.”

As more restaurants and retailers open their doors across the river, Washington said the focus for Alexandria businesses should be on collaboration and enhancing customer experience, as well as better utilizing the waterfront and creating public-private partnerships that will continue to make the city a tourist destination.

“We need to look at not how we can not lose market share, but how we can
strengthen our competitiveness by enhancing the things that are inherent to our experience,” Washington said. “We have tremendous historic streets and historic architecture and history and our restaurants and signature events are like no other, like the Scottish Christmas Walk Parade.

“All of those things can be enhanced at the same time, while we’re looking at how we can be more strategic with waterfront activation and regional promotion,” Washington said. “I think each of our businesses can also look at how they can elevate their experience. Some businesses are already doing that.”

Potomac Riverboat Co. is focusing on getting through the next year.

“We just want to get our first year under our belt and take advantage of all our opportunities, with events like the Boat Parade of Lights,” Hall said. “This year, it’ll be exciting. There will be a multitude of people on both sides [of the Potomac]. Now you can take the water taxi and follow the parade up.”

Hall said it’s a matter of getting people to the waterfront – no matter where that waterfront may be.

“Our bottom line is getting more people to The Wharf. Once you get people to the waterfront, whether it’s getting them out on a kayak or on a sightseeing tour on the taxi, they’re hooked,” Hall said. “Once people get a taste for the waterfront, it’s a whole other world.”