By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Early on Saturday morning, Larry Ponzi, owner of Del Ray pizzeria Piece Out and St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub, and his staff were brewing coffee in anticipation of Art on the Avenue. The annual event draws upward of 50,000 people to Mount Vernon Avenue and is one of the most important days of the year for Del Ray businesses.
“We were preparing for a $30,000 day between our three places and outdoor kiosk,” Ponzi said.
Unfortunately, all Ponzi’s preparation and hopes flew out the window when, at around 5:45 a.m., a massive power outage hit most of Del Ray.
While the outage lasted only a few hours for many residents, the businesses located along Mount Vernon Avenue were left without power until 10:30 p.m. According to Dominion Energy, the outage left about 350 of their customers in the area without power until Saturday night, well after the end of Art on the Avenue.
“It’s just a big hit to our restaurant community for the day, the day that should be the best day of the year,” Ponzi said.
The power outage on Saturday, which Dominion traced to faulty underground switch and cable equipment, was only the most recent in an increasingly frequent string of outages that have occurred over the last few years. Mayor Justin Wilson called the most recent outage “unacceptable” in a Tweet on Saturday and called for Dominion to improve its infrastructure and response time in the city.
Wilson’s response comes after he sent a strongly worded letter to Robert Blue, president and CEO of Dominion, on Jan. 21, 2021, and called on the power company to take steps to address the concerns of city leadership and residents. In that letter, Wilson cited 16 outages that took place in 2020, including one on Oct. 23 that left 12,750 residents without power. He also pointed to Dominion’s continued lack of infrastructure support, even after more than a decade of shared funding in areas like undergrounding.
“Recent inquiries have shown very few undergrounding projects being undertaken by Dominion to improve reliability. In fact, it has been the City’s efforts, either through development proffers or taxpayer-funded projects that have led to most of the undergrounding efforts in recent years,” Wilson wrote.
According to Wilson, the situation hasn’t improved, as outages continue to occur with upsetting frequency.
“Our argument is it’s just not enough, clearly, and that if our outage time is increasing and we’re continuing to have these kind of problems, then clearly we need to have some more investment,” Wilson said in an interview.
According to a statement released by Dominion on social media on Saturday, repair work along Mount Vernon Avenue could not occur until after Art on the Avenue, since heavy equipment needed to be brought in.
“Our crews made repairs as safely and quickly as possible and we will continue working with the City to deliver on our reliability improvement projects,” Peggy Fox, media and community relations manager for Dominion, said in an emailed statement. “We will also conduct a thorough review of the outage, including scrutiny of the switch and cable that failed, and the operating conditions.”
Wilson acknowledged the work required to address the outage but argued the response of Dominion’s repair crews is not the real issue.
“The issue is that we should have some more resilient infrastructure so that if a transformer or a switch blows up, which happens from time to time, that it doesn’t take our thousands of people every single time,” Wilson said. “… We want to see an expanded infrastructure investment. [Dominion] showed a multiyear history of investment with similar numbers every year. It doesn’t seem like they feel like there’s any need for large investments, and we believe there are.”
Wilson also called Dominion’s response time to other requests, from home construction related queries to municipal work, “really problematic.”
There is no right time for a power outage, but for the restaurants along Mount Vernon Avenue, the inability to cook and serve food on Saturday was potentially the worst timing possible.
“Every year, it is our busiest day, and we really gear up for it,” Bill Blackburn, co-owner of Homegrown Restaurant Group and its array of Del Ray restaurants such as Pork Barrel BBQ Restaurant, The Sushi Bar and Holy Cow, said. “We bring in a lot more food, a lot more beer and a lot more staff, and there’s a lot of planning and preparation and costs that go into what we do before the day even starts.”
“We didn’t have a single customer inside the building all day. So, it was extremely frustrating, extremely disappointing for everybody,” Blackburn added.
All told, Blackburn said he lost about $30,000 in sales across his three restaurants on Saturday. After seeing the power was out, Blackburn, who lives a few blocks from his restaurants, assumed the outage would last only a few hours, so he and his staff got as much done as possible with the expectation of opening at 11:30 a.m.
However, around 9 a.m., staff from the Alexandria Health Department notified all the restaurants impacted by the power outage that, in compliance with the city’s health code, they would have to shut down for the duration of the outage. Even then, Blackburn said he remained hopeful that he would be able to open back up. By 1 p.m., Blackburn heard through the grapevine that power wouldn’t be restored until late on Saturday or even early on Sunday.
“At that point, we sent everybody home and cut our losses,” Blackburn said.
Many restaurants also had to throw out the vast quantities of food that they had stocked up on in anticipation of Art on the Avenue. Dairy Godmother announced on Facebook that it had lost 400 kolaches and 1,500 donuts due to the outage.
“We were able to save some of our processed foods,” Ponzi said. “We got ice and dried ice, and we were able to put some band aids on to not lose everything, but we definitely lost the stuff that was already prepared in the small containers and on the lines and all that. So, there’s definitely a substantial food loss with that.”
However, even before the end of Saturday, Del Ray community leaders had kickstarted a campaign encouraging people to dine out in Del Ray on Sunday and the following week.
“We saw 50% more business on Sunday than we did the previous Sunday, which is tremendous,” Blackburn said. “It puts only a small dent into the losses from Saturday, but it just shows that this community supports us and this community rallies around us.”
Wilson said the city isn’t just sitting idly by as power outages happen more frequently.
“We are exploring what options are available to us to get Dominion to up their game, and we’re going to continue exploring that,” Wilson said. “… We’re going to continue our work to make sure that we provide a more reliable electricity source to our city. Whatever we need to do over the next weeks and months to make that happen, we’ll explore that. This is not a conversation that is by any means done.”
For many restaurant owners, the power outage during Art on the Avenue became another tough day after almost two years of tough days for an industry that’s been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In the restaurant business, we always roll with the punches. We’ve been doing that for the last two years, and I gotta tell you, I’m tired of getting punched,” Blackburn said. “It is what it is, and we’re going to continue to move forward. If this was an easy business, everyone would be in it. We’re just gonna keep on fighting.”