A decade ago, longtime college friends Ilya Alter and Dmitri Chekaldin found themselves standing in front of a small parking lot in the middle of Washington D.C.
It was the heat of the Great Recession. They’d both lost their corporate jobs, and the two friends were dreaming of something that seemed ludicrous at the time: Opening a beer garden on this unremarkable parking lot bordered by an ugly chain-link fence in D.C’s Shaw neighborhood.
During the Great Recession, opening a restaurant wasn’t top of mind for many folks. With an estimated $16 trillion of net worth lost amongst American households between late 2007 and early 2009, consumers began to cut back on small luxuries — and that included dining out.
“The owner thought we were crazy [for wanting to buy it],” Dmitri recalls. “A beer garden? Outside? In Shaw?”
But on September 4, 2013, Dacha Beer Garden opened for business.
It was a small operation to start: a beer truck, make-shift bar, port-a-potties and a few picnic tables.
Yet it caught on, despite the odds. Today, Dacha is far more than just a beer garden: It’s an experience and (some say) a local institution. With seasonal food menus inspired by traditional Bavarian beer gardens, Dacha provides a space to meet new people or spend time with familiar ones.
“Next year we will be celebrating our first decade,” Dmitri tells us. And what a decade it has been. Their ambitious decision back in the days of the Great Recession, mixed with an unbridled passion for hospitality, earned Dacha a well-deserved spot on the top 10 beer gardens in the USA by USA Today.
A personal connection in turbulent times
Ilya and Dmitri were used to taking risks. Long before opening day, Ilya Alter and Dmitri Chekaldin were faced with challenges very different than deciding which drafts to have on tap– they wrestled with leaving Russia permanently to start a new life in the United States.
Ilya’s family arrived in the U.S. as Jewish refugees from post-USSR Russia in the 1990s. Dmitri, also immigrating in the ‘90s, faced additional challenges as a gay teen.
Neither Dmitri nor Ilya expected the Ukrainian invasion to happen.
“Up until the very last moment, we did not believe he would attack,” Dmitri said.
Yet when the conflict in Ukraine escalated in late February, Ilya and Dmitri immediately jumped into action.
“The first day of war, we held a meeting with our Ukrainian employees and our Ukrainian GM and laid out a path to how we will be raising money,” says Dmitri. “We zeroed in on several important organizations, including UNICEF, that direct funds to help displaced civilians and especially children. We are also looking to add to this list smaller, on the ground organizations, which our Ukrainian employees are now vetting,” says Dmitri.
He adds: “The decision to raise money for Ukraine was a no brainer.”
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The decision to raise money for Ukraine was a no brainer.
The force of a restaurant community in their corner
Dacha went public with their plans. On February 25, Dacha Beer Garden shared a message with their community on social media: “Today, and until further notice, Dacha will be raising money for several important organizations aiding civilians in Ukraine.”
On the first day of fundraising, Dacha asked guests to donate and receive wristbands for a happy hour special — an effort that raised nearly $3,100. Next came a promotion in which $3 from every pilsner sold was donated to the cause.
And the fundraising continues from there. Dacha plans to have a raffle, a silent auction, and will soon be hosting a group of returned Peace Corps volunteers who lived in Ukraine as part of further fundraising efforts.
The support from Dacha Beer Garden’s community has been enormous. “Since the war started, our efforts are fast approaching $10,000,” shared Dmitri.
And they have no plans to slow down efforts. “Our fundraising goals are open-ended,” Dmitri says. “We will be raising money for Ukraine while we can.”
Dacha's advice for other restaurateurs
While global events are dominating the news cycle, it’s impossible to forget the hardship many restaurants faced these past few years.
The pandemic caused closures, staffing shortages, supply chain issues, and a need to pivot — fast. So, at a time when restaurant owners and managers may be struggling themselves, it can be daunting to identify ways to give back that won’t put additional stress on your bottom line.
We asked Dacha Beer Garden what their advice would be for others in the industry looking to give back.
Here are their best tips:
- Extend happy hour in exchange for donations
- Use your POS platform to offer guests an easy way to give back as part of their order (if you are a Toast customer, be sure to take advantage of Toast's Online Ordering round up feature)
- Create raffles or auctions to give away meaningful swag or wares
- Ask suppliers if they have deeply discounted products, ensuring that they are of good quality, and donate the extra margins
Dacha has also seen great success in sharing information on their social media accounts to keep others informed of the latest updates.
The satisfaction is enormous. As the team at Dacha says: “We are glad to be able to set this kind of example during this tough time and work with the community to do some good.”
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How Your Restaurant Can Give Back Year-Round
How can your restaurant give back? Here are five nonprofit organizations created specifically to enable restaurants to give back.
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