Since the Senate’s first private dining venture — Cups & Co. — opened its doors just over two years ago in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building, the approximately 5,000-square-foot cafe has emerged as a classic American success story.
“We’re doing very well, it’s been a very successful operation,” said co-owner Charles Chung, who came to the United States more than 30 years ago from Korea.
Chung, who runs the cafe with his wife, Kathy, hopes to eventually open an additional branch in the Capitol complex.
“We’ve got a lot of compliments from the Senators and staff ... a lot of staffers and Senators in the Hart Building want us to expand,” Chung noted.
In fact, six months ago, the Chungs sold the parent Cups & Co., located at the intersection of Second and D streets Northeast, to a friend because of the demands and success of the Russell branch.
“It has filled a need of our customers. It’s provided a service that they have asked for,” said Eva Malecki, spokeswoman for the Architect of the Capitol’s Office, which negotiated the original contract for the shop. (The AOC oversees House and Senate dining operations.)
“Those services complement the Senate restaurants, they don’t compete with the Senate restaurants,” Malecki added.
The original contract with Cups & Co. designated 10 percent of the shop’s revenue for the Senate dining operating budget, with that figure jumping to 13 percent once yearly sales surpassed $500,000.
Since then, the shop’s sales have exceeded the target; the Senate now collects more than $100,000 per year on the cafe’s approximately $1 million yearly revenue, Chung said.
Located just inside Russell’s northwest entrance at Delaware Avenue and C Street Northeast, Cups & Co. offers a range of specialty coffees, light breakfasts, and sandwiches, as well as hot and cold Asian foods.
This spring, the menu will broaden to include spicier, Southeast Asian foods, including Thai cuisine, said Chung.
“Customers vote with their feet,” observed one Senate staffer having lunch on a recent Thursday. “And there seems to be a lot of footprints here.”
The unprecedented success of Cups & Co. has also served to lessen the strain on the Senate dining budget, which has long been forced to rely on appropriations in order to make ends meet.
“We were hoping that we would not count on appropriations at all effective 2003,” said Michael Marinaccio, director of Senate restaurants. “We were extremely close, but 9/11 hit us and that completely changed things.”
Over the years, Senate restaurants has tried a variety of means to boost revenues, including raising prices, creating an internal Web site, and even introducing a Senate bean soup cup (in honor of the Senate’s most famous dish), which since December has been sold in the Dirksen Building’s southside sundry shop for $5.65.
“There are reasons why the regular [dining] operations aren’t as successful,” said Marinaccio, pointing out that Cups & Co. offered a narrower range of services and was not confronted with the same restrictions and obligations as a federally operated venture.
While Marinaccio deferred questions regarding the extent of the Senate’s current budget deficit to the Senate Rules and Administration Committee — the panel with ultimate jurisdiction over Senate restaurants — he did say that Cups & Co. was “part of the budget’s improved outlook.”
As of press time, the Rules and Administration Committee had not returned several calls seeking comment.
“The genesis for Cups [& Co.] was the financial situation,” said Tamara Somerville, former Republican staff director for the committee. “Everything else they had tried down there had lost money. ... It’s a huge winner for taxpayers.”
Somerville, who left the Hill at the end of the 107th Congress to work as the National Food Processors Association’s senior vice president for government affairs, says the establishment is proof of the superiority of capitalism when it comes to providing quick and friendly service.
“I’m downtown now, and I miss it every day,” she said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.