Save Your Pennies: House Cafeteria Prices Are Going Up

Posted October 15, 2008 at 6:42pm

High gasoline prices and an unstable economy have hit the House cafeterias, driving up the price of most food items by 10 percent to 20 percent.

On Oct. 24, the chamber’s cafeterias will increase the price of everything from french fries to salads, with some items costing as much as 40 percent more.

For example: A grilled cheese will soon cost $3.95, up from $2.75; a main course will set you back $6.25, instead of $5.95; and an 8-ounce cup of soup will jump from $1.70 to $2.

Made-to-order sandwiches will vary in their price increases, with a club sandwich rising by less than 1 percent and a BLT costing about 41 percent more.

House officials say profits of Restaurant Associates, the private company that runs the House cafeterias, are shrinking because of rising gas and food prices. The company’s contract with the House allows it to raise its prices once a year in response to market conditions.

And the past year, according to Restaurant Associates, has seen the price of wholesale foods skyrocket, averaging a 7.6 percent increase nationwide. The cost of products such as flour, eggs and cooking oil, meanwhile, have risen by 50 percent since January.

Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard, who oversees the cafeterias, said in a statement that the average increase for food in the House will be about 10 percent — a symptom, he said, of a “dramatic” price increase nationwide.

“Unfortunately, the House food operations are not immune to what everyone is experiencing in supermarkets throughout America,” he said. “While most increases are slight and will be barely noticeable, other items are more affected by the rise in wholesale food prices, and some consumers in our cafeterias will notice the increase, as they already have in grocery stores and restaurants all over the country.”

The move is bound to be an unpopular one. When the House first awarded the contract to Restaurant Associates last year under the promise of fresher food and more environmentally friendly practices, staffers worried that the cafeteria’s notoriously low prices would rise.

Indeed, for some new menu additions, food was more expensive. Restaurant Associates buys some of its food from farms within a 150-mile radius of Washington, D.C., and stocks always-pricier items, such as sushi.

But Restaurant Associates kept prices constant for menu items that were stocked by the previous vendor.

Now Beard says those prices were too low at the outset. In an Oct. 9 memo to House Administration Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.), Beard wrote that those prices were unrealistic and thus will be subject to a larger price increase.

“They started with prices that did not match the economic situation of that time, and unquestionably do not match the current economic situation,” he wrote in the memo. “In addition, RA is using all natural and fresh products, compared to the previous contractor, which did not. RA started with higher costs to produce the same item.”

In an e-mail, CAO spokesman Jeff Ventura said the company kept the low prices “in anticipation that wholesale food costs may stabilize.”

“They did not,” he added. “Once prices started to severely cut into their profit margins they were forced to request price increases.”

However, compared to area restaurants, the prices are hardly extreme. For example, a made-to-order club sandwich in a House cafeteria will cost $6, while a similar sandwich at Corner Bakery in Union Station costs $7.

Right now — before the price increase — the average purchase at a House eatery for lunch is $6, Ventura said. Based on the 10 percent average increase, the same purchase would cost $6.60 (though it would depend on the food). The average breakfast purchase of $3.30 would increase to about $3.65.

The House Administration Committee, which oversees Beard’s office, hopes those prices won’t rise again.

“While we continue to encourage RA to find ways to mitigate price increases, we also recognize that, over the past year, prices have increased on many of the food staples that go into RA’s meal preparation,” the committee’s Democratic Members said in a statement. “We urge RA to find creative solutions to ensuring that House restaurant facilities remain affordable for Members, staff and visitors to the Capitol complex.”