by Karri Allen; photos by Max Leaver
Sipping coffee in the garden patio of Firehook Bakery, owner Pierre Abushacra explains how the vines draped overhead date back to the old Roma Restaurant that once occupied this space.
Pierre was born in Lebanon, but his family was forced to leave the country because of the war. They fled to Cypress, then Greece, but never went back to Lebanon. His father worked in banking while he went to school.
He arrived first in the US on an immigrant visa. After a year in California, he moved to Washington, DC to start college at George Washington University, following in his father’s footsteps by studying finance. “After graduating, I worked in banking for the next four years,” he says, “but ultimately I left because I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do.”
The next few months changed his course. He met a bread maker and a pastry chef who wanted to start a bakery. They wanted a partner to help out with the financial aspects of the business. He helped them raise the money to start the business and together they opened a bakery in Old Town, Alexandria.
“After it opened, I should have just run the other way,” he says with a smirk. In fact, his attorney echoed this same sentiment and advised him, “Pierre, I’m not going to let you get into this,” but ultimately drew up the papers anyway.
The early years
In those first years, “everything that could go wrong did,” he explains. He was a silent partner, so as he was doing other work as a consultant, he watched as the business faced cash flow problems, tax problems, and “any other problems you can think of.”
When the next chance came to leave the business, though, he didn’t. Instead, he doubled down. He moved to Old Town. He had convinced his friends to put up the money for this business and out of loyalty to them, he wasn’t going to let it fail.
“It took me those first ten years to really understand the bakery business,” he says. During that time, he started looking for a location in Cleveland Park and came across the location of the former Roma Restaurant.
Pointing to the vines around us, he says “These same vines were here when Bobby, the owner, told me he took over the restaurant from his father. ‘When I met with Bobby,’ he said, ‘I want to meet your wife. I want to make sure you both know what you’re getting into.’” The next day, the real estate broker called to tell Pierre the space was his.
That relationship with Bobby continued over the years. Occasionally, Bobby would check in on the business, asking about the sales and meeting the new hires. And he would always check on the vines. “I actually miss running into Bobby in the garden pruning the vines. Having Bobby as a landlord gave me confidence in the future of the business.”
Special dedication to cleveland park
Even though Firehook has continued to grow and add more locations over the years, to Pierre, this location is special. He loves how involved and caring the Cleveland Park community and business owners are. He loves how the community takes ownership and how people are quick to volunteer to make the neighborhood better.
Although he’s grateful for the mistakes of the early years, he’s now built a sustainable business that is fun and rewarding. A big part of that success and reward has been watching his team of employees grow and develop new skills. He takes a lot of pride in how the dishwashers from the early years have grown into incredible bakers and general managers. When asked what he’s most proud of, he beams, “It’s this team.”
“We’ve attracted great people to the business and given them opportunities to stay with us and move up,” he says.
Having recently completed a renovation, Pierre lights up with excitement as he tells us about some of the other new developments coming to the Cleveland Park location. “We have a new executive chef coming onboard who is creating great new menu options. We’re reactivating our liquor license and will be bringing new life to the garden here. We’re transitioning from a bakery and coffeehouse to more of a bakery café concept. I want Firehook to be a place where people can meet up and simply gather to share dessert, coffee, a drink or a light meal.
Just like the people on his team, Firehook in Cleveland Park will continue growing and developing, and he assures us that Firehook will continue to nurture and care for the vines.