30 Years of ‘Hard Times’

30 Years of ‘Hard Times’

Hard Times Café founder reminisces on 30 years in the chili business.

My brother Jim and I grew up in Northern Virginia. In the late 1950s we would catch the bus down King Street to the Reed Theater to see a double feature or in the summer to the public swimming pool on Cameron for a dip. Sometimes for fun we’d go to the train station to put pennies on the tracks for trains to mash flat.

About the only thing I remember at the other end of King Street was Dockside Sales, a forerunner to Pier 1. The favorite places for family Sunday dinners were the Sea Port Inn and George Washington’s Old Club on Washington Street. For the next 20 years upper King Street was a rough area. I heard that one tavern had so many fights that broke out the front window, so they eventually just left it boarded up with plywood. That was before there was an architectural review board.

I remember there were lots of "massage parlors" in the 1970s but never had the nerve to check them out. The building that houses the Hard Times was constructed in 1959, and one of its incarnations was a store-front church.

By 1980 when Hard Times opened, the area wasn’t much better. What is now a flower shop across from the Hard Times was then the alcoholic rehab center. As folks waited in line to get into the Hard Times it was not uncommon to have police cars lined up dropping off drunks to dry them out right across the street. Serious local color.

Even though cars were often broken into, it did not deter those in search of a good bowl of chili. A 1983 review in the Washington Post described the area as follows: "There are art and antique galleries here and there, otherwise the area includes a used car lot, a Laundromat, a wholesale restaurant supply house, shells of stores boarded up and drab houses with fake stone fronts. And blooming like a buttercup in the pavement is the Hard Times Café."

IN THOSE DAYS there was a parking lot next to the Hard Times. Originally it was a used car lot but was then a commercial photo service. In fact, that’s how the Hard Times got started. In the late ‘70s I was a graphic designer at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and I contracted with Murray Photo for giant photo murals for exhibitions. Murray, who also owned the building next door, was getting out of the business and asked me one day if I knew anyone who would be interested in putting a restaurant in the building.

Well, my brother said he would partner with me, and as they say the rest is history. My house in Del Ray secured a loan and by doing much of the work ourselves, we were able to get open for $80,000. (It would take half a million today.) One day when brother Jim and I were laying the brick pavers on the floor a young woman who worked for Murray walked in and asked us if she could have a job. Terrie Charping is still with us today. After raising a family she still picks up a shift every Tuesday night.

After our first year, we hired Sandy Karpe as a cook. Sandy is still slinging chili for us and has a huge following. She has regulars who have been coming for decades to be served and insulted by her at the counter. There have been quite a few Hard Times romances also, both customers and staff. Many first dates at the Hard Times have bloomed into long relationships. One of our former cooks, Chris Thackeray, married Asta, a server who came from Lithuania, and now with two kids still takes care of her many regular customers. We have a manager whose parents used to bring her to the Hard Times as a baby. Now that makes me feel old.

HAVING WORKED at the Hard Times gives a resume serious credibility. Our alumni are all over the country. Doctors, dentists, lawyers, a state politician in Iowa, a newspaper columnist in Portland, and an airline pilot in North Carolina. The pilot, Mark Boudreau, when he lived in the area would pick up shifts in-between flights out of National. One of his favorite stories was when his plane was boarding and a passenger passing Mark in his uniform at the cabin door said "you look familiar," to which Mark replied "I served you a chili mac last night at the Hard Times."

Mark still comes up every February for the George Washington birthday parade, where he plays George on the back of the horse in the Hard Times pickup truck. The horse and truck also participate in the Saint Patrick’s Day parade and the Scottish Walk. On evenings and weekends, the horse in its other incarnations as a unicorn and Rudolph is one of the most photographed images on King Street.

People ask me if I’ll ever retire. There are two answers. One is I retired 30 years ago and didn’t realize it. The other answer is if you love what you do every day, why would I want to stop doing it. For me, the Hard Times has been a labor of love and I can’t think of a better place to be in business. Alexandria has some of the best customers in the world, many who have become friends. And in a business that is notorious for turnover, it is gratifying to have attracted such incredibly good people over the years. Virginia may be for lovers, but for the last 30 years the staff at Hard Times has made Alexandria an international destination for lovers of good chili.