“We’ve All Been Through It This Year”

“We’ve All Been Through It This Year”

Survival stories and silver linings from one of the restaurant industry’s toughest years ever.

Arlington Magazine

By Jenny Sullivan

Nick Freshman inside his new cafe/bar at National Landing. Photo by Joseph Tran
Nick Freshman inside his new cafe/bar at National Landing. Photo by Joseph Tran

Nick Freshman

Nick Freshman landed his first bartending gig in 1998 at the now-closed Clarendon Grill. By 2020, the native Arlingtonian was celebrating the 10th anniversary of Spider Kelly’s—the Clarendon bar he owns with Nick Langman—and gearing up to open The Freshman, an all-day café and bar at National Landing, not far from his home in Arlington Ridge. When the pandemic disrupted his timetable for opening, he offered The Freshman as a temporary distribution site for Hook Hall Helps, a relief effort providing free meals to hospitality workers. Freshman is the founder of Mothersauce Partners, a restaurant venture capital and strategic planning firm whose portfolio includes Thompson Italian in Falls Church and several other D.C.-area dining concepts. He previously served as chairman of the board of La Cocina VA, an Arlington nonprofit that provides bilingual culinary training to immigrants. The Freshman opened for business on April 14.


The interior of The Freshman features a mural by Cita Sadeli, the D.C. artist who goes by “Miss Chelove.” We wanted a mural that celebrated not only the Central American region and its sustainable farmers who supply our coffee, but also the stakeholders who make our restaurants successful. They are just as important as the big white guy whose name is on the door. People from El Salvador and Guatemala make up a huge part of the workforce in this area. This was one way to elevate them.

The Freshman opened a year late. It sat vacant until we started using the space as a distribution spot for Hook Hall Helps. I was fortunate not to feel the pain so many of my colleagues were feeling. I had a restaurant I couldn’t open, which paradoxically made me one of the luckiest operators in the business. I didn’t have to lay anyone off there, stay open just to pay rent, put my employees at risk, take on crippling amounts of debt or deal with the crushing anxiety of trying to operate during a pandemic. The best way to win the war is to not have to fight the war.

We did have layoffs at Spider Kelly’s. Our pandemic policies were not all practical. Some were reactionary, and mistakes were made. We laid off dozens of people, then hired them back, then laid them off again, then hired some back, but not all. It was awful for me as an employer, but worse to be the employee who didn’t know if they were going to get their full 40 hours a week, and on top of that there was no net. I had employees who started trying to get unemployment in March 2020 and never got a check.

Read the full story here.