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Campus Dissolve: The Battle over Sugar's

Given its home in one of the most expensive neighborhoods on the East Coast, Georgetown University has never had much of a chance to develop a typical college retail strip with all-night eateries, bars, bookstores and coffee haunts. Instead, Hoyas have had to share the M Street corridor with neighborhood residents and a singles scene that serves the entire D.C. metro area.

But at the corner of 35th and O, Sugar's Campus Store sits as a gloriously unrenovated reminder of college life of the mid-20th century, a barebones diner that only college kids and people who love their energy and sense of discovery could love.

Now, Sugar's faces the end of a long road, as the owner of the corner storefront proposes to send the shop's longtime owner packing come May. Students and neighbors alike have banded together to try to save the store, though they appear to have no grounds to stop the transaction, other than the slim possibility that public pressure might persuade the landlord to step aside.

Twenty years ago, when Georgetown was still home to more than half a dozen little independent pharmacies, Sugar's was a classic corner store--a soda fountain, drug store and newsstand, as well as a community hangout. The Georgetown drug stores were almost all owned by Jewish merchants who had grown up in Washington--there was Doc Dalinsky's place on Wisconsin Avenue, Marty Levin had Sugar's, and Dumbarton's and Morgan's and Pearson's and MacArthur Drug over near the fabulous MacArthur movie house, also now gone. It became a CVS, adding insult to injury.

Starting in the 80s, most of those old drug stores sold to Korean merchants; the pharmacies were eventually targeted and driven under by CVS. The shops that survive moved into other product lines; Sugar's became a short-order eatery under the Chul Kim and his wife.

The Kims have run Sugar's since 1992 and they own the name of the shop, which has been open on that corner since 1917. But when their lease expires in May, the property owner, Nabeel Audeh, who also owns the nearby Wisemiller's Deli, intends to take back his storefront and convert it into an off-brand Starbucks. There are some in the neighborhood who would welcome a coffee house with long hours, but this is Georgetown and so there are many voices that want to keep things exactly as they are. For decades, many residents have sought to pretend that they live in a sleepy old neighborhood that is neither at the heart of a major metropolis nor smack up against a busy college campus. So these folks like Sugar's early closing time, its strictly neighborhood appeal (no one is traveling from, say, Rockville because they just have to have a Sugar's sandwich), and its unambitious look.

A touching student movement of sorts has developed with the goal of saving the old Sugar's. And the Kims have obtained the pro bono services of a lawyer, John Froemming, who has put together a list of the difficulties in the relationship between the Kims and Audeh that could, if things go against the Kims, morph into legal action. But for now, the battle is taking place at the neighborhood level; the Advisory Neighborhood Commission, after a heated discussion last week, issued a statement of thanks to the Kims for all they've done.

Audeh, meanwhile, is facing some barbed questions from students who have dug into the real estate records and wonder if the landlord had the permits he needed for some work on his own very nice R Street rowhouse in Georgetown.

The Kims have a compelling personal story--Mr. Kim literally walked out of North Korea with his mother after she protested the rise of the communist government there. He was a civil engineer before starting up his own business by buying Sugar's for $250,000 in 1992. Kim still owns the rights to the Sugar's name, which Audeh has proposed to rent for a paltry $1,000 a year.

Of course, there are some who don't see any big deal here. As one D.C. blogger put it, "Sugar's - a crap-tastic deli near Georgetown's campus - is closing. Count me among those happy to see it go."

But there's something comforting about a corner store that's nothing fancy, that has no plush lounge chairs and no self-important names for a cup of coffee. That's probably not nearly enough to save a neighborhood institution, and I'm not sure it should be. Just because we might love a place doesn't give it the right to continue to exist without regard for the forces of the marketplace and the march of time. But it would be nice if they kept the name.

By Marc Fisher |  March 7, 2006; 7:09 AM ET
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Having never dined at Sugar's, I have no right to weigh in. However, I have "dined" at locations that sound similar. A fine example is (those among the University of Scranton folks in the area will know this) Chick's Diner high atop Moosic St. hill in that quaint city. This diner was always open at 2 am when we all were partied out and starving. It was (is still, I assume?) an unpretentious gathering spot that is the basis for many memories of those who spent a portion of their lives in Scranton, PA. Even my parents have their own Chick's memories. Yes, places like this are greasy spoons, as they say, but when you view the whole package - it's the experiences of such a place that keep it memorable. These spots are typically great spontaneous gathering spots. If Sugar's has any similarity to Chick's, keep the place like it is if possible - keeping the name and reforming the "atmosphere" won't do.

Posted by: maggie | March 7, 2006 10:26 AM

One of my earliest childhood memories is my mother taking us to the movie theater at MacArthur - and then - up to Sugar's for a treat. She was a Georgetown Visitation girl and knew it well. Years later I was a Visitation girl who also spent plenty of quality time there (and at Booeymongers). I wish the Kim family good fortune - and while I haven't been back in years - Sugar's is beloved by many.

Starbucks? Sigh.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 7, 2006 11:28 AM

At places like Sugar's, where the food is only tolerable and the atmosphere is utilitarian, what makes the experience memorable are one's companions and one's life circumstances. In other words, one doesn't look back fondly on Sugar's as such; one looks back fondly on being in college and going out with one's friends.

Posted by: Tom T. | March 7, 2006 12:07 PM

A Starbucks is coming!? Alright! Can't get enough coffee!

Posted by: HP | March 7, 2006 1:22 PM

Most of the food may be utilitarian. But the bulgoki (Korean marinated beef) subs are one of a kind, and they are fantastic. Long live Sugar's -- under the Kims' management.

Posted by: CT | March 7, 2006 1:46 PM

As someone who lived for three years just across the street from Sugar's, I am very sad to see this great place close. It is a fixture in Georgetown. If it is not losing money, and there are enough patrons that want to see it stay, then it should stay. This article reminds me that I need to stop by and say hello to the Kims, buy some lunch, and thank them for their great service over so many years.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 7, 2006 2:25 PM

Yes, the Bulgoki Sub at Sugar's is a delicious, guilty treat. Imagine a Korean riff on a cheesesteak and you'll get the idea. Try one before they're gone!

Posted by: Sandwich Hunter | March 7, 2006 3:08 PM

If the student population wishes to pressure Nabeel, they ought to organize a boycott of Wisemiller's. Although it would be no doubt difficult to live without overpriced 6 packs of beer and Peggy's Special/Burger Madness, I suspect that this would have an effect.

Posted by: Boycott Wisemiller's | March 7, 2006 3:13 PM

As a born and breed true washingtonian I too have seen many places close or get purchased and are turned into a new and improved kinda place. And some of these great places didn't make the news, but they still are talk about today,despite the building being gone the "memories" remain.

Langston, Atlas Theatres were my regular hangouts and where I fell in love with many movie (female) stars. Then there was Ms. Walkers Carry Out on the corner of 18th & Benn. Rd. NE,(right next to the A&P which is also long gone) Ms. Walker was a kind woman who served real dinner rolls by hand with every meal (melt in your mouth), and my favorite was sitting and eating my favorite ice cream (Butter Almond), with my mom after church. And lets not talk about the ice tea, (my mouth waters right now just thinking about it), good old country tea.

There's a famous song by George Benson, "Everything must Change" "the young become the old"....and with that said...

We'll have our memories of Starbucks when their final days (the fad is no more) is but a circle.

It's ok, it's gone....move on and grow with the new fashions of our times.


Posted by: Frankey | March 7, 2006 4:17 PM

I have to admit I was shocked to hear that Sugar's is ever open. In the 18 years I've known of the place, driving by it at different times of day and days of the week, I can't ever remember seeing it with customers inside or even open for business.

Perhaps some enterprising Gtown students could also look into how Mr. Audeh runs Wisey's and the under-the-table wads of cash he pays employees...

Posted by: OD | March 7, 2006 5:27 PM

Didn't you get the WaPo memo? Change is good. There's nothing you can do about. The market reigns supreme. Listen to Frankey.

Posted by: guez | March 7, 2006 5:29 PM

Aaron Sugar, son of the founder is still alive at 96 living in Sarasota Florida. He has worn as a badge of honor his jewish heritage and that coming from humble beginnings he is a graduate of both Georgetown undergrad and law school. He celebrates how wonderful the Jesuits had been to both him and his family allowing him to get an education. In turn Sugar's was a place that welcomed students for years as a home away from home. It is a shame that what made for our college education outside of academic life is slowly slipping away.

Posted by: Kerry Kirschner | March 8, 2006 9:58 AM

I love Sugar's. I could never get enough of their bulgoyki subs. It was always a treat.

It pains me to hear of the place shutting down and ANOTHER high-end Starbucks or pseudo-starbucks coming in even though the Georgetown shopping strip is only a few blocks away.

I hope that something works out for the Kims. They are truly terrific people and what's happening to them is a damn shame.

Posted by: Zach | March 8, 2006 12:15 PM

What a loss? During our GU days Sugar's was indeed a well-loved 'dump': cheap eats for the empty-walleted; a spot where we could recover from the night(s) before with the Post. The Kim's seem to have maintained the tradition, yet as we all know, the landlord has the option to improve his lot. More to the point, though, is what the neighborhood wants and whether there is any effective means to contain the scale of a replacement. Should the Kim's and Nabeel reach a mutual agreement, Sugar's could remain, although an increease lease for the Kim's would certainly create a change to generate more income. So change will occur. And what of the dingy (my recollection) appartments above - will they become office or condo's?? I'll miss the old Sugar's at our 40th, but the memories will remain!

Posted by: PB McDonough | March 8, 2006 2:23 PM

I have been taking my fourth grade classes to Sugar's since 1992 in conjunction with a book that they read called The People in Pineapple Place by Anne Lindbergh. We "walk in the characters' footsteps" from 9 a.m until 3:30 p.m., seeing and doing the sights and activities described in the book. I weave in historical facts (the good, the bad, and the ugly)throughout our walking tour. Our day always ends with a trip to Sugar's. Mr. and Mrs. Kim allow us to place an advance order for milkshakes. The children slurp their milkshakes on the sidewalk and end the day on a sweet note. I can't believe the Kims' lease is not being renewed. This is TERRIBLE.

Posted by: Jackie | March 20, 2006 1:40 PM

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