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Cafe au yay! Cups to reopen in April

Coffee superfans finally see an end to the pandemic grind

We all have our own watershed moments, the events that delineate life before coronavirus and the waking nightmare after. For some, it was when the NBA suddenly sent home fans on March 11. For others, it was when news broke that Tom Hanks had COVID-19.

But for a cadre of caffeine-addicted congressional staffers, it was an announcement on St. Patrick’s Day that made them realize everything was about to change: Cups & Company would be shutting down.

“As of 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Cups has shut down for the next three weeks and plans to reopen April 6,” Heard on the Hill reported at the time.

Oh, how naïve we were.

It turns out the month might be right, if not the year: Cups plans to reopen in early April, says owner Kathy Chung.

The exact date will be announced soon, Chung wrote in an email to Heard on the Hill. Chung did not respond to a follow-up interview request.

The thought perked up Cups superfan Don Stewart, a former Sen. Mitch McConnell staffer who would go there every day at 1 p.m.

“This is fantastic news. It’s good news for everybody, good news for the Hill community — the Hill denizens — but also for that great couple, Charlie and Kathy [Chung],” he said.

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The beloved cafe located in the basement hallways under the Russell Senate Office Building has been closed much of the past year, with brief exceptions. As for the bleary-eyed staffers and reporters who normally keep Cups full, many have been working from home.

That’s starting to change, though, now that vaccination efforts are well underway. Members of Congress started getting vaccinated in December, and aides began a few weeks later, limited to two people per personal office and four on the committee staffs of each chair and ranking member. Vaccines were rolled out to Capitol Police employees last month.

Even now, with many shops closed as the pandemic continues, the Capitol does not want for coffee. You can fill your thermos at the Senate carryout or the Capitol Market in the House basement. But pumping a sputtering urn for some over-roasted sludge doesn’t compare to sipping a freshly prepared cappuccino or gulping down a readymade cold brew. 

Cups stands out on the Hill as a locally owned shop amid a host of national chains and cafeteria food products brought to you by Sodexo Incorporated. The smiling faces of the Chungs brighten the windowless warrens of the Capitol complex.

Stewart likened Cups to other brands that have morphed into a generic term: You grab a Kleenex when you sneeze, throw garbage out in the dumpster, slap a Band-Aid on a cut and — at least on the Hill — you make a Cups run for a quick pick-me-up.

“It’s more than just a place to pick up a cup of coffee — you can get coffee anywhere — but Cups, that’s where you go,” said Stewart, who nows works for the Alliance For Automotive Innovation. 

Cups survived threats to its existence before COVID-19, which has shuttered around 100,000 businesses and caused a 20 percent spike in Chapter 11 bankruptcy filings last year. The company’s food service contract was up in 2017, and the Architect of the Capitol considered competing bids from corporate competitors before renewing it.

The cafe’s imminent return is like a light at the end of this year-long tunnel, said Stewart. “Having a meeting at Cups is a clear sign of a return to normalcy,” he said. “The next time I’m at Cups, I’ll feel really good about where we are as a country.”

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