The pandemic ruined all of that. The number of toppings has been reduced, and staff now pack your pita or bowls based on your selection, a sign that honesty bars haven’t quite made a comeback.
But something else is also missing in the Amsterdam falafel shop. Or more specifically someone else. You may have watched him at work behind the counter before the pandemic, or you may have seen him camping out on the store’s patio as the coronavirus tried to take the lives of everyone in the neighborhood and beyond. He was radiating megatons of energy as if this place and this world couldn’t contain him.
He was Scott Bennett, co-founder of Amsterdam’s falafel shop and unofficial ambassador of cool, an artist, musician, diver, restaurateur, storyteller and the center of gravity wherever he stood.
He is no longer among the living, and I wanted to take a moment this week to acknowledge his death and the hole it left in Washington’s dining community — and in the life of the woman who continues to carry Scott’s dream.
For 2½ years, the restaurant community has mourned the things the pandemic has taken from us: our neighborhood restaurants, our beloved bars, our favorite dishes, our sense of recovery in public places, our ability to sink into joy without worry. Yet profound as these losses are, many are eventually replaced by other restaurants and bars, by new favorite foods, or by the healing nature of time itself.
Scott, on the other hand, is a pandemic victim whose loss is immeasurable and irreplaceable due to the sheer grief for him on Facebook. I don’t mean that he was irreplaceable as a restaurateur – because who is really irreplaceable in their job? — but as the kind of person who internalized the essence of the industry: he had this ability to translate his passions, whether for food or calvados or restaurants, into something that friends, family and guests could understand. He had an innate talent for bringing people together in what many would eventually call “Scottie’s World”.
“Scott took people to everything in life,” says Arianne Bennett, his wife and business partner. “Scott would say, ‘Oh, you’ve never been scuba diving? Well I’m going next month. You should go with me.’ The guy would say, “But I’m not certified.” “Well, you’ve got five weeks, man. Let me tell you where to get certified.’ There was no ‘no’ to say to him.”
Scott died of complications from Covid-19 on January 13 at the age of 70, despite being fully vaccinated and boosted. The day he died – alone, unconscious, paralyzed on a ventilator – Arianne was beside herself. She had survived her own Covid bout, only to lose the person who had been by her side for decades, even before August 1991, when she and Scott were married on the grounds of the Maryland Renaissance Festival. She had lost, as she explained to me, the man who “brought the light and happiness and joy.”
Eight months after Scott’s death, 53-year-old Arianne is still pondering how to move on. Her shop, which continues to produce excellent falafel despite its self-imposed restrictions, stayed open on the day Scott died, not because Arianne was in any form to work, but because the staff, led by manager Beatriz Ortega, kept it required. They told Arianne that Scott “doesn’t want us to close.”
Again and again Arianne is asked if she wants to continue the business. The question seems loaded with assumptions: that running the store will only remind her of Scott, that she needs to take on more responsibility, that the store was Scott’s idea, not hers. As Arianne will confirm, she didn’t even like falafel before trying them during a trip with her husband in Amsterdam.
But for Arianne, the question is naïve. It doesn’t understand the complex relationship between her and Scott. She met him at the Center Cafe in Union Station, where they both worked. She was 20 and still studying. He was 38 and previously married and had children. He had served time selling drugs in California. She attended Catholic schools, including Georgetown Visitation and Catholic University (where she earned a degree in psychology). She was a rule follower. Scott, mostly self-taught, was a rule breaker. They complemented each other in ways no one could have foreseen.
“He wasn’t the type to be held by boundaries. He wasn’t the type to be told, ‘You can’t do that,'” says Arianne. “He was the guy who said, ‘Let’s try.’ I was the girl who said, ‘Okay, but let’s try a little more legal. Let’s try to respect the rules a little because I don’t want to go to jail.’ ”
Arianne, she recalls, was sometimes affectionately called “le petit commandant.”
Scott was the visionary and Arianne was the one who was able to realize that vision. That’s how it worked with Amsterdam Falafelshop, which they opened in 2004. The store was Scott’s baby, but, as Arianne jokes, she was “the babysitter.” She still is. She takes care of payroll, social media, purchasing, basically all administrative work. When Scott and Arianne decided to franchise Amsterdam — a plan that wasn’t worth the fight in hindsight, she says — it meant even more work for Arianne. She negotiated contracts. She wrote manuals. She taught franchisees.
“It was his passion and his dream, and I’ve done everything I can to support him the whole time,” says Arianne. “I wouldn’t put it down because he’s gone.”
As we sit on the terrace outside Amsterdam on a warm September afternoon, Arianne picks mosquitoes out of her coffee and tries to put the couple’s working relationship into perspective for me. Yes, Arianne shouldered many of the day-to-day burdens, but Scott had his roles. He went shopping. He came up with ideas. He definitely represented Amsterdam because, as Arianne says, she doesn’t drink and doesn’t like staying out late. Scott also enjoyed playing the role of house husband when she was inundated with work.
Most importantly, Scott brought joy to their relationship, and right now Arianne is struggling to pull that off for herself. The memories are still too strong, like the last time she saw Scott in person at George Washington University Hospital, where the couple were admitted when they contracted Covid in December. Someone had parked Scott’s bed next to Arianne’s with a curtain between them while the staff looked for a room for him. When the couple realized they were dating, Arianne crawled into his bed. Little did she know it would be the last time she touched him.
Arianne says she cries all the time. But she doesn’t cry alone. She has a therapist who helps her with grief. She also has her dog, Dax, who has been protective of her since Scott’s death. She even has her friends and neighbors from Adams Morgan, some of whom greet Arianne from the sidewalk during our interview. One tells Arianne that she looks amazing. Another spontaneously blurts out that she loves her.
“I can’t imagine my life without it [Scott]and yet I am 53 years old and know that I have at least 30 years of life ahead of me, as many years as we were married,” says Arianne.
So she works to make herself happy. Joy, Arianne learns, does not come from religion or movement or a tangible object. It comes from moments of spontaneity, which was Scott’s specialty. She plays a lot of music, loud, in her apartment above the Amsterdam falafel shop to create a little joy. But that only works, she says, if she follows one rule: she can’t play music she and Scott heard together.
Amsterdam falafel shop, 2425 18th St NW. 202-234-1969.