Editorial: We've had our Fill of Philly

Geez. Can’t Mehmet Kocak just give it a rest?

Rumors, arresting as the scent of melted mozzarella, have seeped out and spread fast among neighbors that the former owner of the irreparably besmirched Philly Pizza has again filed papers for an operating license at the same location he was forced to board up just six months ago. At the time, Kocak so vehemently defended his rights as a restaurateur he began to seem a kind of self-styled paladin of pizza.

You can’t say he doesn’t get points for effort. However, it’s one thing to stick to your guns for a time, and another to remain totally intractable when backed into a corner — literally — by residents on all sides. When the neighbors are inviting the mayor out to see you off, isn’t it time to throw in the towel?

Kocak maintains that this time around, his proposal is for a different, more innocuous sort of operation — a kind of hot sandwich shop — but the signs are ominous, most notably his request for a 550-degree conveyor oven three feet wide. You want pepperoni with that?

At the height of the fiasco earlier this year, we sat down with Kocak to make sure we understood his side of the story. His argument — essentially that he was being singled out — was a little maudlin, a little put-upon, but on the whole well reasoned and worth a listen. That, however, was before an organized coalition of neighbors, ANC commissioners and city officials, including the attorney general, mayor and DCRA chief, ordered him out. In the process, he huffed, dragged his feet and even operated on a suspended license until he was threatened with jail time. In a word, Kocak played bad politics in a town where politics matters.

Now, to put it bluntly, we’re as tired of this perpetual debacle as the households of Potomac Street. Exactly why Kocak would want to rekindle a neighborhood feud and further strain relations between the University and neighbors is a mystery, but it seems more and more to have to do with a misguided and self-interested pursuit of profit. While we applaud the growth of small businesses in Georgetown, it must take a back seat to the welfare of its residents, without exception. Philly, or whatever its latest genesis, has worn out its welcome.

Aug 27, 2010 at 1:34 PM G. Greene

It is one thing to find Mr. Kocak's persistence annoying ("a little maudlin, a little put-upon"), and quite another to consider the merits of his case invalid. Your argument here seems to be that even though his points were "well reasoned [sic]" he lost the establishment popularity contest, and that counts more than the merits of his defense. Coming from a proud line of newspapermen, it's interesting for me to see one take the side of the elite against the underdog--and without even bothering to back up juvenile rambling (starting with "Geez"?) with some "well-reasoned" argumentation of their own.

Philly Pizza was forced out of its location because it allegedly failed to meet its zoning criteria as a sit-down restaurant. The double-standard here is that neighboring businesses like Tuscany Pizza, Quick Pita...and, perhaps Georgetown Cupcake (though I am unfamiliar with their zoning) could be charged under the same legal complaint. Tom Meyer is not alone in gawking with frustration at the line at the latter, which disrupts the sidewalk (albeit during the day) far more than Philly Pizza ever did.

When Philly Pizza moved to its current location on Potomac Street, Mr. Kocek took steps to depart from his earlier business strategy at 34th Street of serving slices mostly, with little room to sit down. The Potomac Street location had a large dining area on two levels, which was frequently used by patrons. The menu not only included the standard pizza take-out fare, but also some diverse Turkish sandwich and entree offerings. The amount of noise and collateral garbage associated with the Potomac location was no where near the egregious levels at 34th Street.

Furthermore, with several hundred thousand dollars worth of his own life savings invested in that new location--tied up indefinitely in a fallow storefront in a bad real estate market--it's not surprising that he'd fight for it, whether The Georgetowner considers his persistence gauche or not. Wouldn't you? Furthermore, I'm not sure when a business owner pursuing his bottom-line (i.e. a "self-interested pursuit of profit") was also declared a faux pas.

Mr. Kocek clearly took concrete, good-faith efforts to accommodate his neighbor's complaints. What is less clear is whether his neighbors and their neighborhood publication took a good-faith approach towards him.

The snide, unserious tone of this editorial is evidence enough of that.

Aug 27, 2010 at 3:29 PM VOLTA place

So what is YOUR argument, then? That because Kocak added some ethnic menu selections and reduced his patronage’s noise level to “no where near” its 34th St levels (a meaningless bit of data), he deserves to be thrown a bone? Hardly.

Kocak was singled out because a group of vocal residents presented photographs and testimonials that Philly customers were littering and destroying their property, and that he, as the property owner, did little to prevent such behavior. It is true that this responsibility is not entirely incumbent on Kocak (GU students have made it out of this debacle far too unscathed), but as a businessowner in a dense residential area, he made the choice to scuttle relationships with his neighbors and half-heartedly entertain the cooperative strategies put on the table in the months before he was shut down. In the end, he was made to reap the consequences.

Yes, it’s safe to say his attitude in this was lukewarm at best. He refused to curtail his hours until after his cessation notice was issued and his “solution” for the garbage problem was to put one or two garbage cans outside and hope they would be used. And a “large” dining area? Please. Including the second level, Philly had at most 4-5 tables with an average seating capacity of 3. That leaves room for only 12-15 patrons, a far cry from the dozens congregating outside his establishment in the early morning hours. All the while, Kocak complained that he was being picked on. But what would be the neighborhood’s motive be besides protecting their property and quality of living? Don’t tell me it’s sentiment against immigrants (as Kocak has implied in article quotes) in a neighborhood that votes Democrat and seems to have no problem with other immigrant-owned and –staffed restaurants nearby (Subway, et al.) When I think of it from Kocak’s perspective, I realize that I’ve heard the “I’m just trying to make a buck” line far more from dubious characters than honest ones.

And, if we can speculate that Philly’s neighboring establishments also violate their zoning agreements and ask why they weren’t also prosecuted, we can further speculate that Potomac St residents and the DC government probably WOULD have pressed charges, if they had a reason to. The fact that they haven’t is evidence that those other establishments (Georgetown Cupcake included) haven’t been shown to disrupt the livelihood of the locals. The zoning nitpicks against Philly were the method by which the neighborhood chose to act against it, not the impetus.

Finally, I don’t think the Georgetowner at all makes a legalistic argument against Philly, as you suggest. Rather, it seems to simply state the restaurant has worn out its welcome after months of causing headaches, a perfectly appropriate position for an opinion page. Personally, I’ve found its earlier coverage of this issue to be some of the most even-handed of any local pubs. It was also one of the few to actually run some quotes from Kocak himself.

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