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Lunch from a vending machine? It’s the new happy hour

‘Guaranteed I’m not the only one,’ says congressional staffer

Finding lunch was hard enough during the pandemic — and then the razor-wire-topped fence went up around their workplace. 

Group lunches, happy hours and post-work cocktails used to be the lifeblood of political Washington and may be again. But these days, bland food from a vending machine feels like a better symbol of where things stand on Capitol Hill.

Congressional staffers say they mostly eat on campus and head home at the end of the day, if they work in person at all. When they do go out, the gatherings are tamer.

Several said they had been using popular apps like Uber Eats and Grubhub to order meals, but that changed after a pro-Trump mob stormed Congress on Jan. 6. The imposing security fence that now surrounds the Capitol makes food delivery a pain.

Joe Tutino, communications director for Democratic Rep. Rick Larsen, said going out for lunch seems like a relic of the distant past. Navigating the fences and trudging up to the area on Pennsylvania Avenue where some lunch spots are still open in the neighborhood can take more time than many have.

Within the Capitol complex, the options aren’t much better. Cafeteria offerings have been limited during COVID-19, especially near his corner of the Rayburn House Office Building. 

On late afternoons when he doesn’t bring his lunch from home, Tutino resorts to a place in Rayburn that’s always open — a bank of vending machines.  

“Guaranteed I’m not the only one,” he said. “But I’m probably one of the only ones to admit it.”

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The key is to keep it simple when assembling an à la carte vending machine lunch.

“I try to stick with the Uncrustables as much as possible,” he said. “Who doesn’t like a good peanut butter and jelly sandwich? I certainly do.” 

To round out the meal, he picks some type of snack and a Yoo-hoo — “or if I’m feeling really crazy I go for a Dr. Pepper or Coke,” he said.

The pandemic has upended life at the Capitol. Many staffers have been working from home, leaving an eerie quiet across the sprawling campus. People used to bring their dogs to the office, but that doesn’t happen as much anymore. Birthdays come and go without any cake, and he even misses water cooler talk, said Copeland Tucker, communications director for Rep. André Carson.

The Indiana Democrat’s office has been holding weekly Zoom meetings on Friday dubbed “Thankfultude” just to catch up and talk.  

“We’re not just coworkers, we’re a work family. And we really missed each other,” he said. “I think a lot of Hill staffers are realizing we need a lot of that interaction.” 

All of that spills over into the local ecosystem surrounding Congress, including the pubs, restaurants and empty storefronts that now sit mostly outside the perimeter of the temporary fence. 

Before, the Capitol could sometimes feel like its own universe, a place where junior staffers could eat for weeks just by gobbling down finger foods at an endless string of receptions. Yet even those events fed into the surrounding neighborhood, as attendees moved the afterparty to local watering holes. 

It may be too soon to tell which changes will stick around, said a senior Republican staffer not authorized to speak on happy hour-related matters. 

“There are no more receptions, drinks with random lobbyists, or coffees with journalists. It’s just not as fun anymore,” the staffer said. “And a few less trips to Bullfeathers. But at least you’re saving money.”

Drinks are still happening, just to be clear. Republicans are more likely to go to happy hour and have work lunches as the city reopens, the staffer said. “We’re also lucky to have the Capitol Hill Club, which is right near the office buildings — where we can have lunch and drinks in private.”

Restaurants around the Hill have been hanging on by a thread after a year of starts and stops and government-imposed rules calling for them to operate at reduced capacity. 

Bullfeathers is one example. The pub closed again in late December when D.C. revived an indoor dining ban and just reopened two weeks ago, said principal owner Anthony Harris.

He’s been able to survive with government loans and the generosity of a landlord willing to work out an agreement to charge a percentage of his old rent. But the equity Harris had in the business is mostly gone now, and so are other restaurants that folded during the pandemic. Among the permanent closures was Capitol Lounge, a divey sports bar for the suit-wearing set that had served the Hill for decades.

“Doing business in D.C. is a very expensive overhead with the rents that we have to pay. So money doesn’t go very far,” Harris said. 

Harris, who also owns two Stoney’s restaurants, said Bullfeathers gets about 55 to 60 percent of revenue from food. He attempted to expand its takeout business during the pandemic, but never came close to the triple or quadruple of what would have been required to carry the overhead of the operation.

“It’s a difficult situation in the city. I mean, the city’s dead,” he said. 

The pub has been limited to seating about 40 people inside during the winter, but Harris hopes the nice weather will help fill up the extra 35 or so seats outside.

The 81-year-old, who was born in Washington, said he has seen a lot of changes, but D.C. is resilient. 

“I’ve been in business since ’68, right after the riots. And I seemed to survive everything,” he said. “We’ve gone through ups and downs, and managed to pull through it somehow.”

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