Most schools in the Washington region will remain closed this fall. So, what's being done to prepare students, teachers and families for continued remote learning?
As the partial federal government shutdown continues into its second month, furloughed employees aren’t the only ones feeling the pinch. Many local restaurants and bars are struggling with the drop in patronage as the ripple effects of the shutdown spread throughout a region where many people work for the federal government. We take a look at how the shutdown is affecting business, and also discuss how some restaurants are trying to make life easier for furloughed workers who aren’t sure when their next paycheck is coming.
Produced by Mark Gunnery
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast we check in on the Chesapeake Bay, which is again in declining health according to a recent report. But first the partial federal government shutdown has hit the Washington region particularly hard as many local federal employees are either staying home or coming into to work, but not getting paid.
KOJO NNAMDIBut federal employees are not the only ones feeling the squeeze. Today we look at how restaurants and bars are struggling with the drop in patronage and also how they're trying to make life easier for furloughed workers, who don't know when they'll see another paycheck. Joining me in studio is Al Goldberg, founder of Mess Hall and co-founder of payitfurloughed.com. Al Goldberg, thank you for joining us.
AL GOLDBERGGood morning. Thank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Anthony Harris. He's the principle owner of Bullfeathers. Anthony Harris, thank you for joining us.
ANTHONY HARRISGood morning, sir. Thank you.
NNAMDIAnd Jessica Sidman is again with us. She is Food Editor at Washingtonian. Jessica, good to see you again.
JESSICA SIDMANHi, Kojo. Good to see you.
NNAMDIJessica, just how hard is the local restaurant and bar industry being hit in this shutdown?
SIDMANIt's being hit hard. January is already a very tough month for restaurants. You have people with their New Year's resolutions going on diets, not drinking because of dry January, trying to save money after the holidays. So this is one more big thing on top of all of it and, you know, the federal workforce is a big part of the dining force in D.C. And those people are trying to save money as they miss paychecks.
NNAMDIAnd this the time of year where generally bars and restaurants see a slight drop in business. Do they not?
SIDMANExactly. As I was saying, January is one of the roughest months for restaurants already, as I mentioned after the holidays, saving money, going on diets.
SIDMANYes. So good and bad sides to the resolutions.
NNAMDIPeople making resolutions. Anthony Harris, you own a bar on Capitol Hill, Bullfeathers.
NNAMDIAnd other Stoney's on L and the Stoney's on P Street.
HARRISThat's correct, sir.
NNAMDIBullfeathers is frequented by a lot of Hill staffers, but also by many government employees. How are you doing in this shutdown?
HARRISWe're probably down about 40 percent at the present time. As Jessica said, January is a tough month, but with closure now, it really giving us a hard time right now.
NNAMDIAnd being on Capitol Hill, your establishment is a hangout for many people in politics. How did the fact that 2018 was an election year affect your bottom line?
HARRISThe last quarter of the year was a little bit slower, because of -- a lot of the Congress out of town going home to campaign, and you got to remember something, the government is the industry of Washington. And if the government is not around, the people aren't around to come and lobby for their causes, what have you.
HARRISAnd we do a fair amount of events up there, so that's been limited lately now because of the government is not here. They're not coming. And tourists also is another factor, with all the museums that are closed and everything is closed up and we're not picking up the tourism as much as we normally do.
NNAMDISo you're kind of experiencing a one-two punch right now.
NNAMDIBoth of the election and with the government shutdown.
HARRISYeah, the last quarter of 2018, yes.
NNAMDIAl Goldberg, you run Mess Hall, which is an incubator that hosts various food service operations that don't serve in tradition restaurants. How are those kinds of businesses like food trucks and caterers doing right now? Are they feeling the same kind of pressure as restaurants and bars?
GOLDBERGThey are. I wish I was here to tell a different part of the story, but they are definitely suffering too. It's simple math. There's a lot of food trucks that go down to the government areas and set up shop, but absent all of the workers, there are fewer customers and a lot of the food trucks, for example, are just sitting in a parking lot.
NNAMDIJessica -- and you can answer this too, Al. Beyond the shutdown, how are restaurants in the District in general doing right now?
SIDMANI think 2018 was a really rough year for a lot of restaurants for a number of reasons. I mean, there's so many years where we had opening after opening and all this growth. And, you know, it's so concentrated now. I think people are really fighting for customers and in some cases, kind of cannibalizing each other. You know, there may not be enough diners to go around. And on top of that, it was just a really rainy year as we all remember. The wettest in Washington and that actually does have a big effect. People don't go out a lot when it rains. And so, yeah, a lot of people have told me in recent months that 2018 was not their best year.
NNAMDIAnother is the impact of the Wharf development?
SIDMANAbsolutely. I mean, the Wharf development. There's so many restaurants -- more than a dozen restaurants and bars over there drawing a lot of people maybe away from other areas of the city. You know, they're feeling the pinch, because so many people -- you know, the Wharf is the hot new thing.
NNAMDISame question to you, Al.
GOLDBERGAbout the Wharf, specifically?
NNAMDINot about the Wharf specifically, but restaurants in the District in general now that we've become such a restaurant destination.
GOLDBERGWell, I mean, I would preface this by saying that I think the restaurants that we have in town are better than we've ever had. I've been here since '93. So the quality is there, but there are a lot of them. And the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington did a recent survey and found that the average decrease in January revenues to date has exceeded 20 percent with some reporting as high as 60 percent. So there's definitely a pinch that's happening.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Jessica Sidman. She's Food Editor at Washingtonian. Al Goldberg is founder of Mess Hall and co-founder payitfurloughed.com. And Anthony Harris is the principle owner of Bullfeathers. Anthony Harris, Restaurant Week is one way that restaurants deal with the post-holiday slump. What exactly is Restaurant Week and how do local restaurants that participate and bars approach it in normal years?
HARRISWell, we don't participate in that, because of our menu pricing is the way it is. But its affected that -- I think they extended Restaurant Week by week. I think from what I read about it.
SIDMANYeah, they did because of the shutdown it's extended through this Sunday.
HARRISAnd we just don't participate in that. But still when I look back at things -- Washington is a very trendy city. When new places open up, everybody runs to new places. That's the way it's been. And with so many places that have opened up now in the last year and a half, two years, it's insane what's happening. And plus, the cost of doing business has hurt us. The minimum wage is going up every year now. And the cost of good salt is, you know, it's gone up, everything has going up. It's getting tougher.
NNAMDIAl Goldberg, Restaurant Week as Anthony said has been extended in response to the lull in eating out during the shutdown. How much of an effect do you think this extension will have on local restaurants?
GOLDBERGA smart move, I mean, you normally -- in Restaurant Week we see whether it's the January version and the August version, it packs the restaurants. And it's a really great marketing endeavor to get people into the restaurants. When they're in the restaurants they're buying drinks. They're buying additional things and it just feels better. You know, I think just having a lively atmosphere begets more sales. And it really helps the small businesses that make up the restaurant industry in D.C.
GOLDBERGUnless we forget that the figure that we use is 96 percent of the restaurants in D.C. are independently owned and operated. So these are real people that are running these restaurants. These are employees that are, you know, depending on paychecks and hourly wages.
NNAMDIHere is -- you want to say it Anthony?
HARRISYeah, as business has dropped down at Bullfeathers, we've moved people around, some of our staff into the other places to compensate for their losses and tips and hours of working. So we have to watch our hourly wage situation. So we have to move the people around to give them, you know, supplement their income.
NNAMDIHow has it affected business on Stoney's on L and Stoney's on P?
HARRISI would say Stoney's on P is down about 10 percent. And Stoney's on L is about 20 percent down.
NNAMDIOkay. Here now is Ann in Manassas, Virginia. Ann, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANNHello. I'm an owner of a condominium in Ocean City and usually at this time of year my calendar for rentals is very full and it's mostly federal employees from the D.C. area. Many of the owners of condominiums and rental units in Ocean City pull from the federal employees' pool of renters. And this year my calendar has one person. There's been a lot of cancellations. The people who are renting are from Pennsylvania. And I'm wondering what the ripple effect will be in Ocean City, Maryland and colonial Williamsburg, places like that that rely on federal employee dollars -- spending dollars on their vacations this summer.
NNAMDIWell, I got to tell you, Ann, as we think about the ripple effects of this federal shutdown, that one never occurred to me at all. That it could be a affecting a place like Ocean City at this time of year, because I frankly was not aware that a lot of federal employees were booking in Ocean City at this time of year. So thank you very much for sharing that information with us. It's something that we can probably take a look at in more depth at a later date. Ann, thank you very much for your call. Jessica, a local brewery, Atlas Brew Works is suing the acting U.S. Attorney General on 1st Amendment grounds. Why?
SIDMANSo one of the things that is shutdown with this government shutdown is the process for breweries to have their beer labels approved.
NNAMDIThat has to be approved by a federal agency.
SIDMANExactly. Exactly. So Atlas, they have all this beer ready to go. But they can't get it approved. And so they are, you know, not able to, you know, have this name out there. And they're suing the government.
NNAMDIOn the basis of their 1st Amendment rights being violated. It's a form of speech, labeling beer.
SIDMANYes, interesting strategy. We'll see how it works out, but it certainly has gotten some attention.
NNAMDIWell, it's also inspired some other people. Al Goldberg, the lawsuit gave you and food writer Nevin Martell an idea called Pay It Furloughed. What is that initiative and how is it going?
GOLDBERGYes. Pay It Furloughed was definitely born out of the need, not necessarily out of this lawsuit, which I think came subsequent. But certainly out of a frustration that Nevin and I were having about our friends and loved ones who have been working without pay or furloughed as well as the small businesses that have suffering.
GOLDBERGAnd so we devised a platform. It's an online platform called payitfurloughed.com where by anyone can go online and buy a government employee a beer. And it's a very simple and pure gesture. And federal employees and contractors can show up to any one of four different breweries that are in town. It's actually like three breweries plus Shop Made in D.C., which is in Dupont Circle. And have a free draft. In fact, they can have as they wish. They show up and show their I.D. And they get a little bit of liquid love.
NNAMDIWell, I find the concept fascinating, because it's based on a very simple premise. And that is if you're sitting next to -- explain that. If you're sitting next to a person at a bar --
GOLDBERGYou got it. What are you going to do? Somebody tells you this story, you're going to buy them a beer. And this enables you to do that, right from your smartphone or in front of a computer at payitfurloughed.com. And you can buy somebody virtually next to you, a beer.
NNAMDIHere now is Tony in Bethesda. Tony, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TONYHi, Kojo. My point is a brief one. There is quite a large number of federal contractors in the area, who will not be in a position to recapture wages.
NNAMDIThey won't get back pay.
TONYYeah, depending on the contract that they have with the agency they're working for, they will potentially be out of pay for 30 or 40 or how many ever days, and will never recapture that income. Thank you.
NNAMDIThank you very much. We have heard this before. How can something like Pay It Furloughed take contract employees into account?
GOLDBERGWe do just ask that -- we are encouraging federal contractors to come down and participate in the program. We are offering beers to them as well. All they have to do is self-identify. This is very much based on a trust system and we've been accommodating a lot of those employees as well. Have to a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation on how local restaurants and bars make ends meet during the shutdown. Later in the broadcast, we'll be checking in on the Chesapeake Bay, which is again in declining health according to a recent report. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing how and what local restaurants and bars are doing to make ends meet during the shutdown and what they're doing for government employees affected by the shutdown. And we're talking with Anthony Harris. He's the principle owner of Bullfeathers on Capitol Hill. Al Goldberg is the founder of Mess Hall and co-founder of payitfurloughed.com. And Jessica Sidman is Food Editor with Washingtonian Magazine. Jessica, local celebrity chef, Jose Andres, his organization World Central Kitchen set up a temporary kitchen in D.C. to serve furloughed employees. What has the turnout been like there so far?
SIDMANI believe the first day they served 4,400 meals and there were people wrapped around the block. And it's only increased from there and served more and more meals there now expanding the program around the country to help feed furloughed workers all over.
NNAMDIAndres has said he will keep the kitchen open until the shutdown ends. He has -- he's probably driving his accountant crazy. He has the resources of his relief organization, World Central Kitchen, at his disposal, but are the shutdown freebies and discounts sustainable for smaller operations in the long run?
SIDMANI do worry about it a little bit because I think a lot of places started offering discounts and freebies at the beginning thinking this is only going to last a few days. You know, this morning I heard from &Pizza, which has served more than 20,000 free pizzas. And, you know, in some cases, I guess they have to be smart about it. But it can help bring people in the door at a time when they might not otherwise come in the door. You know, you offer a free sandwich and somebody buys a drink. At least that's something. And it does build good will when the shutdown ends. People will remember it and want to frequent the places that were there for them.
NNAMDI&Pizza, 20,000 pizzas is a lot of pizzas. How long can an operation like that sustain?
SIDMANYeah, I don't know.
NNAMDIOoh, Anthony, a lot of restaurants have been hosting specials for government employees. Anything special going on at Bullfeathers?
HARRISWe're doing some Happy Hour specials, some drink specials. But we're limited as to how much we can -- we'll buy some people some drinks when we know that they're out of work right now, but you got to be careful. You got to make those bottom lines because the landlord is not too happy if you don't pay the rent on time.
HARRISSo you have to think about that. And let me say this, I've been doing business in the restaurant business now since 1968 and it's 50 years, May 1 of '68.
HARRISThank you. And I think this is probably the toughest time that I've had when I look back at everything now.
NNAMDIDuring the course of those 50 years.
HARRISDuring the course of those 50 years, that's correct. A lot of ups and downs, a lot of neighborhood changes, and the city has really progressed. It's amazing what's happened with the quality of food that is now in the city, as we're getting Michelin Stars in the city now. Of course, our place isn't Michelin Stars, but we have nitch that we follow and it seems to work for us and we've been fairly successful with that.
NNAMDISo this is a 50 year low for you in terms of --
HARRISYes, it is. Yes, it is.
NNAMDIJoan in Washington D.C., you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOANOh, thanks so much for letting me share a story about another very considerate company. Actually it's the bakery in Van Ness, Breads Furst.
NNAMDIRight down the street from us.
JOANRight down the street.
NNAMDIUp the street, I should say.
JOANAcross the street, exactly, And I walked in the other day and they had signs throughout the bakery saying, If you are a federal employee, you get our employee discount. And I have been furloughed for several weeks and it wasn't until that moment that I actually stood there and I said to the cashier, I said, I'm standing here in tears. I said, It's the first time I'm moved by this, but moved in a positive way that there's outreach to those of us who are struggling through this time by such generations acts of kindness. So adding to your guests and your listeners, that Bread Furst too is helping those of us out of work at the moment.
NNAMDIDefinitely a community institution in these parts, Joan, thank you very much for your call. Here is Eric in D.C. Eric, your turn.
ERICI just wanted to echo what the previous caller said. And thanks for taking my call, Kojo. I grew up working in a small family owned single location restaurant. But I know how difficult the economics can be. But as a furloughed fed, I really appreciate what the restaurant has done for us. And when my wife and I go out, she's not a federal employee. So usually I'll take advantage of whatever the discount is and we'll pay full price for her to try and alleviate that. But I just wanted to, you know, get the word out from at least one fed to restaurant owners that the good will, we certainly appreciate it. And we'll remember that when things are back to normal when we're choosing where to dine. It's been a fantastic response from the community. So thank you.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Eric. Jessica, are specials and discounts for government employees mostly a way -- On the one hand they get people in the door. But do you know if they're having a real impact on business?
SIDMANLike you were saying, I think as it drags on, I think it's going to probably hurt some businesses that maybe weren't expecting so many people to come in to get freebies for so long. You know, I -- honestly I wouldn't be surprised, you know, just with the down turn in traffic if ultimately we do see some closures from maybe some restaurants that are already struggling in this being kind of the last straw. The thing that ultimately, you know, broke them. But, yeah, I mean, I think a lot of times we'll see it in kind of a charitable way and are hoping that it does bring in long term good will.
NNAMDIWe got a tweet from Latia who says, We've been encouraging our employees to purchase and frequent small businesses who are near to government buildings who may be losing business, because of the shutdown. And I suspect, Al Goldberg that would include a lot of food trucks. Doesn't it?
GOLDBERGLove it. I mean, I love anybody that is going to go out and support small businesses what we're all about. You know, we're -- Mess Hall is a community of about 40 different producers. There's personal chefs and caterers and consumer packaged goods. And it all boils down to creating a strong local food economy. So, I mean, we love seeing anybody and everybody become supported. And, you know, that's one of the reasons why we decided to do this program for the breweries.
GOLDBERGThey're small independently operated shops as well. And so when somebody comes in and redeems a beer from them, they're getting the price of their beer through this program. And so they're an example and sort of a little bit of an exception where they're not taking a discounted code per say that some of the restaurants have sort of had to do to help drive in business.
GOLDBERGBut rather we're driving people in where the breweries do actually really benefit from that. And we've tried to ripple that out. So our Mess Hall members have been going there to the breweries to provide food and so they'll vend food from there. And we've even had generous donors want to sponsor our program. And we do a buyout, so we'll do food truck buy out send the food truck there so that not only can the beer be obtained for free, but also the food. And the food truck gets paid in full. And the brewery gets paid as well. And it's helping to stimulate small businesses.
NNAMDILeslie tweets, And don't forget Baked by Yael feeding the zookeepers who are working without pay. And here's O in Silver Spring. O, your turn.
OHi, Kojo. Longtime fan, thank you for all you do. Just wanted to reach out, I work for a large company in downtown Silver Spring restaurant industry. We have seen our business slow down significantly due to the shutdown. In fact, I've had several federal employees come in and ask me for discounts as well. We're trying to do all that we can to help out, but we really need this government to open up as well.
NNAMDIOkay, O, thank you very much for your call. Anthony Harris, early in the shutdown there were reports of some bars seeing a rise in day time patrons, who'd normally be working. Is federal employee day drinking helping to offset any of the losses that restaurants and bars are experiencing otherwise?
HARRISWell, I believe that helped in the first few days and then when things started leveling off and realizing that this thing might last a period of time, people started thinking they're not going to be doing, you can't do that. You got to watch your money.
NNAMDIExactly right. So I thought as much as it would happen during the first few days --
HARRISYeah, it's like a celebration of some sort.
SIDMANRight. Yeah, people treat it almost like a vacation in the first few days. Oh, I have a few days off work, and they assume they're going to be going back soon. But when you start to miss a paycheck that really changes things.
NNAMDILoren tweets, And it's not just the restaurants and bars that are being affected. I have a full service pet care company and have really taken a hit due to the shutdown. Jennifer emails, I've been furloughed since just after Christmas. I love eating out, but haven't eaten out since I got furloughed. I've never been this worried about having money for groceries and utilities before. The stress is awful. I can't wait until this is over and I can go back to the lemon chicken at my favorite Chinese carryout. Here now is Carrie in Rockville, Maryland. Carrie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CARRIEKojo, how are you? I have a small skate shop in Bethesda and the sports industry is definitely suffering. You know, there's so many things that take precedence over skate boarding and bicycles and things like that. So this shutdown has a touch, you know, far and wide, sir.
NNAMDIYeah, I hadn't thought about that either, people are not going to be buying sporting goods as much at this time. Boys of Summer tweets, My vet's office said there have been lots of clients having to reschedule, because they can't pay the vet bills. Here's Matt in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Matt, your turn.
MATTI just wanted to know what kind of strain this is putting on our food bank system, because typically if we had had our federal employees -- if they were getting paid like they normally should be then most of them most likely would not be needing federal food assistance and since it's kind of an odd situation where people that should have enough money to be able to afford food don't, because they're not getting paid. What kind of strain that's putting on the food banks to provide services for people that really are low income?
NNAMDIWe had a show about that last week, Matt. And you can go into our archives to see it in which there is, yes, a great deal more strain on those agencies. A lot of businesses have been stepping forward and making more contributions to them. But they are not sure how much longer they'll be able to deal with this kind of expanded service that they're being required to give. So you can look in our archives and see what they're talking about. Al, Anthony, do you think we can expect to see long term effects in the food and beverage industry that extend beyond the length of the shutdown? I'm still struck by the fact that in your 50 years in the business this is the hardest it's been for you.
NNAMDIDo you see a long term effect of this?
HARRISYes. I do. It's going to set up back. The first quarter will be way off. And once you -- you know, you have to take care of your employees first of all. That's the most important thing. I can go without a paycheck. The employees need a paycheck. So we have to take care of them, but it's going to slow us down. With a bad first quarter and hopefully we can pick it up somewhere along the way.
NNAMDILong term effects here, Al?
GOLDBERGI mean, how do you rebound from it. Let's talk about those employees for a minute. Let's talk about the hourly waged dishwasher. Let's talk about the wait staff. Let's talk about the line cooks, who are getting fewer hours. You know, anecdotally I have a colleague, who has a job -- a second job as a hostess at a restaurant. Her hours got cut. She hasn't been needed for the last two weeks. So I mean, these are real stories and it really does trickle down and really ripple out.
NNAMDIAl Goldberg, he's the founder of Mess Hall and co-founder of payitfurloughed.com. Thank you for joining us.
GOLDBERGThank you so much.
NNAMDIAnthony Harris is the principle owner of Bullfeathers. Anthony, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd Jessica Sidman, Food Editor at Washingtonian. Jessica, thank you.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we check in on the Chesapeake Bay, which is again in declining health according to a recent report. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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