We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
The food court in the guts of Union Station is a popular destination for commuters, Hill staffers, and tour groups given its ample, cafeteria-style seating and affordable meals from fast food chains. Like much of D.C.’s economy, the restaurants located down the escalators have been gut punched as the longest government shutdown in U.S. history ticks off its 25th day.
Student groups aren’t stopping for lunch after visiting Smithsonian’s many museums on the National Mall because the museums are closed.
Furloughed federal employees and contractors who would normally pass through the transportation hub via train, bus, or Metro en route to agencies like the Department of Justice are at home.
Workers who are required to show up without pay are likely pinching pennies and brown-bagging their lunches.
Those who staff the eateries at Union Station’s food court say a resolution to the shutdown can’t come soon enough.
Mahjoub Rhouribi has worked at the Johnny Rockets for 11 years. He’s now the assistant manager. “January is usually slow, but not like this,” he says. He confirmed with his boss Tuesday morning that sales at the burger joint are down by 60 percent. “Look at this! We have one table. Sometimes we have three or four tables until we close. Lunch we get a little bit, but after that there is no business.”
Unlike many of the other options in the food court where customers pay and sit wherever they please in a central area, Johnny Rockets is a full-service restaurant, meaning workers there depend on tips. On Tuesday afternoon, employees outnumbered patrons. “Our boss is ashamed to send anyone home and cut their hours,” Rhouribi says. “The owner isn’t making any money, but at least the workers are making their hourly wages.”
The Aloha Poke CEO for D.C. and Miami, Scott Miller, happened to be tending to his Union Station stall. “It’s been slow,” he laments. “We aren’t getting our business customers. It’s a ghost town. People aren’t commuting to and from work. We’re dependent on those customers and they’re not here right now.” The outpost of the Chicago-based company opened in June. “We’re trying to manage our costs the best we can,” Miller continues. “Everyone’s going to say the same thing. It’s really quiet.”
Indeed every restaurant City Paper spoke with reported a decline in customers that correlates with the start of the shutdown, including Leonard who manages the Subway. “We’re down $2,000 a day,” he says. “I used to open two lines. Now I only have one line. I’ve been working there for two years. It’s not just winter—the shutdown is a big problem for us.”
Leonard, who declined to provide his last name, says they’ve had to reduce workers’ hours and cut back on ordering ingredients. “I don’t know how long it’s going to take, but I wish today was the end.”
So does Sheeda Coleman, who works at the food court’s Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ‘n Biscuits. She’s been employed by the fast food restaurant for two years and says she’s seeing 15 to 20 customers during lunch instead of a more typical average of 25 to 30 diners this time of year. “For a lot of people, if they’re not working, there’s no point in coming outside,” she says. “It’s been really slow.”
While Coleman says her wages haven’t decreased because she doesn’t get tips, she wants business to return to normal. She looks around says, “It’s just not the same down here.”
It could get even worse. Amtrak is a government-owned company and depends on federal subsidies. It’s been able to withstand the brunt of government shutdowns in the past, but according to several railway publications, if the shutdown stretches on significantly its rail service could be interrupted. That means even fewer potential customers for Coleman, Rhouribi, and others to serve.