It was just after 1 p.m. on a recent Friday when the rumors began to circulate that a VIP guest was coming. Before long, police had blocked off a section of H Street NE, and a big white tent appeared in front of Smith Commons. Crowds swarmed around the edge of the barrier taking photos. A counter-sniper team peered down from the roof.
This means just one thing in D.C.: The president is coming.
What most people didn’t see were the weeks of planning and small army of organizers that went into the “Dinner with Barack” campaign event. Although Smith Commons’ owners didn’t know President Barack Obama was coming until three days beforehand, his campaign first contacted them about a mysterious event three weeks earlier. From then until 5 p.m. when the motorcade arrived, about 50 to 60 people—Secret Service, campaign organizers, White House staffers, and production crews—were involved in the visit. (And those were just the ones the owners could see.)
Leaving the White House for a meal is a highly choreographed production involving extreme precision and secrecy. And during Obama’s presidency, it’s a production D.C. has gotten quite used to. In just under four years, Obama has hit up highly rated restaurants like Komi and The Source, hot newcomers like Mintwood Place and Boundary Road, and a never-ending run of burger joints from Five Guys to Ray’s Hell Burger.
For “Dinner With Barack” events, preparations typically start two to three weeks in advance. An Obama staffer calls the restaurant to say they are interested in hosting a private fundraising event and that a high-profile VIP will be in attendance. They don’t say who.
“They were very cryptic about it,” says Lincoln owner Alan Popovsky, who hosted the president for lunch in June. Lincoln usually asks groups about the size and nature of the event, but in this case, they got no answers.
Restaurants the Obamas visit for a routine meal, not a campaign event, get far less advance notice. When the first couple dined at Vermillion in Alexandria on Valentine’s Day, Secret Service showed up 90 minutes before their arrival. A reservation had been made for them in another White House staffer’s name, who was not in the restaurant’s OpenTable database, more than a month in advance.
Obama tends to veer toward locally owned establishments. His campaign selected Smith Commons after aides met the restaurant’s former general manager Sheldon Robinson at New York’s 40/40 Club, where owner Jay-Z hosted an Obama fundraiser in September. “He was wearing a Smith Commons T-shirt during one of the preliminary sessions, and I think one of the people who’s based in D.C. saw the shirt, struck up a conversation, and one thing led to another,” says co-owner Miles Gray.
Boundary Road co-owner Karlos Leopold says he was told organizers chose his restaurant for a campaign dinner in March because they’d read that it was one of the hottest new spots on Eater D.C. The visit occurred only a month after Boundary Road’s opening.
Lincoln, on the other hand, had already hosted several Obama aides, including speechwriter Jon Favreau and former press secretary Robert Gibbs. “They thought it was a good place,” Popovsky remembers. (Plus, fellow Illinoisan Abraham Lincoln is Obama’s favorite president.)
Secrecy is paramount no matter what. Although the White House does not make anyone sign a confidentiality agreement, aides ask for privacy and often warn restaurants that if plans leak in advance, they will have to change venues.
“They don’t say, ‘We’re going to shoot you.’ They just say, ‘Please don’t make our job more difficult. We prefer to keep it as discrete as possible,’” says Mintwood Place chef Cedric Maupillier, who cooked for the president, the first lady, and their campaign’s guests in August. Only the owners, chef, and manager typically know who’s coming in advance.
Before the “Dinner with Barack” events, Obama aides asked for staff names and Social Security numbers for background checks. Lincoln turned in a list of 40 people, which the Obama team said was too many. “There was a lot of back and forth and ‘this is not a meet-and-greet for your restaurant.’ And we understood that,” Popovsky says. “We were just honored that we had the opportunity to have him here at all, so we said, ‘OK, we’ll bring it down.’” They then submitted 22 names—again, too many. They finally agreed to eight. At Smith Commons, some staff didn’t know Obama was on his way until they showed up for their normal Friday hours and were turned away by Secret Service. Management hadn’t told them not to come. “My staff, who would usually have been a little bit peeved—they were understanding,” Gray says.
A few days ahead of time, Secret Service visits the premises. Restaurateurs say they ask to see floor plans, and in some cases, meet with the building manager. Several hours before the lunch or dinner, the Secret Service asks everyone to leave for a security sweep. They bring in dogs, block off the streets, and cover up the windows. Agents set up a tent in front of the restaurant where Obama can drive up and enter the front door without anyone getting a direct line of sight. (Although in some cases, the president actually enters through the back.) A couple hours later, the restaurant staff is allowed to return, and Secret Service screens them using portable metal detectors.
With less advance notice, Vermillion’s staff didn’t have to go through the same extensive sweep or background checks with its surprise visit in February. General manager Dave Hammond was at the host stand going over reservations when three members of the White House advance team arrived. After showing their credentials, they asked where the restaurant planned to seat the president, and Hammond told them he’d be happy to put them wherever they wanted, even by the front window. “I didn’t think about what that meant when I said it,” he says. “They looked at it and they were like, ‘We could probably do that. We’d probably have to shut down the street.’” They ultimately opted for a quiet table upstairs. The restaurant also set aside a nearby table for Secret Service. In total, there were about a dozen agents inside the restaurant. Fellow diners also seated upstairs were wanded by the Secret Service every time they entered the room.
“They seemed pretty knowledgeable about the restaurant business and how it worked,” Hammond says of the Secret Service. “They had a good sense of humor about everything. And they really did a wonderful job of making me feel like I still had control of the restaurant.”
When the president finally entered the main dining room, everyone looked up. “He just addressed everyone: ‘Good evening, everyone, happy Valentine’s Day!’” Hammond recalls. “He just went about his business as you heard forks hitting plates.’”
In the kitchen, a member of the security detail watches every dish as it’s prepared. He or she does not taste-test but asks a lot of questions. “They really want to know what are the components in the dish and where those components are coming from,” says Maupillier. Security asked Mintwood Place’s kitchen staff not to open any new containers or bags and to put all the components of their dishes next to them so they didn’t have to move too much during the meal preparations.
Most restaurants won’t disclose what the president ate, at the request of his staff. “They say, ‘We’re not going to force you not to say anything, but we are asking you for privacy,’” Maupillier says. “People don’t need to know what the president and his wife eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. They don’t want to be judged on what they choose and the diet they are following.”
During the meal, restaurant staff who aren’t directly serving the president are kept at a distance. Those who are allowed to approach him get little pins to wear on their lapels that signify to the Secret Service that they have been cleared.
Who pays? That varies. At Lincoln and Boundary Road, Obama’s campaign paid to rent out the entire restaurant space. When he’s not eating out for his re-election bid, the president personally gets the tab.
The whole meal typically lasts one to two hours before the president is swept away. At Smith Commons, as many as 100 people were already waiting outside for a chance to come in by the time Obama left.
But that doesn’t mean there’s always a noticeable “Obama bump” for restaurants that get a presidential visit. There’s certainly a publicity benefit: Popovsky says about 400 media outlets (including Washington City Paper) reported on the president’s visit, not to mention all the social media buzz. Lincoln immediately saw a 30 to 40 percent increase in sales for about six weeks following the president’s visit. After that, business dropped down to about 15 to 20 percent over the norm. Four months later, however, sales have returned to slightly above where they initially were.
Others see a bump the next day or week, but not much beyond that. On the Tuesday after the president’s visit, Mintwood Place experienced as much traffic as it typically only gets on weekends, but business returned to normal shortly after. Both Smith Commons and Boundary Road say they started to get more diners from out of town. Boundary Road’s Leopold says it’s difficult to judge whether they got a bump, because they’d just opened and were already packing the place every night.
But restaurateurs say just being able to claim you’ve hosted the president is worth it.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” says Popovsky. After nearly two decades owning restaurants, he’s seen a lot of big names come through his doors, including the Dalai Lama, Richard Gere, and Stevie Wonder. “But this is the ultimate guest that a restaurateur wants in Washington, D.C.”
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Photo courtesy the White House