Family’s Cafeteria in Ford Set to Close

Posted November 14, 2007 at 6:48pm

For 14 years, the Skenteris family has brought a unique flair to Capitol Hill, serving up pizza and sandwiches alongside Greek dishes like gyros and rice pilaf in the Ford House Office Building cafeteria.

But with the impending introduction of a new food vendor for all House cafeterias, the Skenterises likely aren’t going to have a home in the Ford Building much longer.

House Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard has terminated their food services contract in the Ford Continental Cafeteria. The family’s last day is set for Feb. 15.

“We’re very successful here,” said Artemis Dimopoulos, who runs the cafeteria and nearby carryout with her brother, Christopher Skenteris, and her parents, Jordan and Soula Skenteris. “We’re a small business. My family was shocked.”

The House Administration Committee officially announced in August that Restaurant Associates, a New York-based company that has earned praise for its menu at the National Museum of the American Indian, would take over House dining operations in December.

Restaurant Associates is expected to bring an array of changes to House cafeterias. All will be remodeled in some way, with environmentally friendly lighting, energy-saving cooler configurations and expanded food layouts.

Menus also will change. The Longworth Food Court will get a new salad bar and soup stations, while the Rayburn cafeteria will get a buy-by-the-ounce breakfast bar, for example.

The decision effectively ended the House’s relationship with Guest Services Inc., which currently runs food service in every House building except Ford. But the Skenteris clan thought its spot in the Ford Building was secure.

After all, they have been on their own for more than a decade. And in that time, they have acquired a loyal customer base and managed to make a profit while staying affordable, Dimopoulos said.

“I have kept my prices extremely low,” Dimopoulos said Wednesday, speaking at her memento-filled office just off the cafeteria’s kitchen. “Low, so it can be fair for the people to come and eat.”

CAO spokesman Jeff Ventura said the decision to switch all the buildings to Restaurant Associates was based on a number of factors, including statistics that showed the approval rating for the Ford cafeteria had declined to 58 percent in 2007 from 74 percent the year before.

“The Skenteris operation did not bring as much to the table as Restaurant Associates,” Ventura said. “That said, the CAO is willing to review his own decision based on any new information the Skenteris family wishes to share.”

House Administration spokesman Kyle Anderson said Wednesday that Restaurant Associates was selected for the job after an extensive process that looked at a variety of issues, from unionization to green issues.

“All of the proposals were reviewed by an evaluation team which deemed the Restaurant Associates proposal as the best one,” Anderson said.

Added Ventura: “RA brought a long list of valuable services to the table, like more selection, healthier options, a willingness to invest in and upgrade facilities, diverse offerings that frequently change, and chef-led cooking. These are the changes people have been asking for.”

The family officially will appeal the decision with the CAO, an action that must take place by Nov. 30, Dimopoulos said. Should Beard side against the family, they can further appeal to the House Administration Committee. But that appeal could only move forward if there had been procedural errors in the earlier appeals process.

Ventura said the contracting process has been fair and was conducted in strict compliance with applicable regulations.

When the family’s five-year contract expired in 2004, CAO officials told them that their status in the Ford Building could be affected by the new vendor hired for the planned Capitol Visitor Center cafeteria, Ventura said.

Still, in 2004, the CAO and the family agreed to a two-year contract extension, Ventura said.

In 2006, the CAO gave the Skenteris operation two options: modify the contract to extend it for another year or keep the two-year option included in the original contract, with the understanding that the 1999 contract gave the CAO the option to terminate at any time, with six months’ notice.

The family decided on the latter, Ventura said.

But the family said they were completely blindsided by the CAO’s decision, and they remained baffled. Dimopoulos said they had thought the only way their contract would be terminated would be if they had an extremely bad approval rating or did something wrong — neither of which has happened.

They are taking the possible closure as a personal insult, they said, because they felt they had become a permanent part of the Capitol Hill family.

When the anthrax attacks in 2001 shut down the Ford Building, the family still made time to make dishes for overworked Capitol Police officers trying to make things safe, Christopher Skenteris recalled.

“We were closed for the anthrax,” he said. “And we gave police food anyway. Everyone who was working on the emergency.”

Since word of the termination has gotten out, the family has garnered support from customers who manned a petition table across from the Ford Post Office during lunchtime this week. The petition asks customers to help “Save the Ford Cafeteria.”

Whether that happens is not yet known.

“After 14 years of dedicated service to the House of Representatives, we thought we would get a plaque of distinction,” Dimopoulos said. “Not a letter of termination.”