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National Restaurant Association - DC restaurants weather the federal shutdown

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DC restaurants weather the federal shutdown

Days into the federal government shutdown, a sign outside the Capitol Hill restaurant Tortilla Coast read “We’re still open! Happy hour starts @noon today.”

Extended happy hours are one of the ways Capitol Hill restaurants have managed to keep business steady during the federal government shutdown. At the end of last week, several reported steady business since the beginning of the shutdown, even as streets around the Capitol and other federal buildings were sparsely populated.

Restaurants in and around the Washington, D.C., area are feeling the effects of the shutdown in different ways, said Kyle Rees, spokesman for the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington. That means anything from a slower-than-usual lunch crowd to a complete shutdown for restaurants on federal property.

But the impact hasn’t been all bad. When the shutdown began on Oct. 1, several restaurants in the Capitol Hill area reported a surge in business, as many federal employees sought to either celebrate an unscheduled day off from work or drown their sorrows.

“It’s hit or miss right now,” Rees said. “We’ve heard from some members who haven’t noticed a drop in business. Some of our members are noticing a bit slower lunch or dinner service and noting that larger parties were being canceled.”

Operators are more concerned about the potential effects of a long-term shutdown than they are about an immediate drop in business, Rees said.

“Overwhelmingly, I think people are waiting for the other shoe to drop,” he said Tuesday. “I think we still have tourists in town whose visits were disrupted. Once this goes on for a prolonged period, and if people are their trips, we’re going to notice a much bigger difference.”

“[The first two days of the shutdown] we were busy,” said Catherine Ker, general manager at Bearnaise. “People are out earlier and staying later.” Ker said business was helped by unseasonably warm weather during the first week of the shutdown, an extended happy hour and regular specials. The shutdown was a hot topic of conversation in the restaurant, Ker said. “People have a few days off, but if it continues, it will hurt us like any restaurant.”

A few doors down, Karima Ouazzani, general manager of Sonoma Restaurant & Wine Bar, reported that several private parties had canceled engagements. Sonoma was still getting business from tourists, though fewer than usual, Ouazzani said. The restaurant had also been challenged to keep up with media requests, she said, as Sonoma was the site of a wedding reception for a couple whose wedding, which couldn’t be held on the National Mall because of the shutdown, had caught the interest of major news outlets.

At We the Pizza, manager Rob Earley said crowds have been steady during the shutdown, with lunch lines extending out the door. Restaurant staff was also busy with deliveries to House and Senate offices, he said.

Restaurants on federal property, forced to close during the shutdown, have likely been the hardest hit. Guest Services Inc., which operates food kiosks on the National Mall and restaurants on other federal properties, was forced to lay off 100 to 120 employees, said Chris Rohr, Guest Services director of marketing and communications.

Some of the employees would have left soon due to seasonal closings, Rohr said, and when possible, the company has transferred employees and moved food to operations not dependent on the government. But plenty are still out of work while the shutdown persists, she said. While Rohr couldn’t specify a dollar amount of losses, she said they have been significant.

 “We’re playing it by ear and making adjustments every day,” Rohr said. “In a sense, we’re fortunate, because we do have other operations not dependent on the government. We can transfer some food to those units. We’re all just waiting to see what happens.”

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