Happy hour is canceled for Congress. Here’s how pubs are coping

The boozy ecosystem that has grown up around the Capitol has collapsed, for now

A man wears a face mask while waiting for a takeout order at Kelly’s Irish Times on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
A man wears a face mask while waiting for a takeout order at Kelly’s Irish Times on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 25, 2020 at 6:00am

Pubs aren’t exactly known for their takeout orders, but Union Pub is adapting. How about a side of toilet paper with that, or a Jell-O shot to go? Behind the scenes, almost everyone has been laid off. 

“We’re saying ‘furloughed,’” said owner Matt Weiss. This should have been one of the busiest months of the year for the Capitol Hill watering hole. Instead, he’s pivoting hard.

As legislation to address the coronavirus pandemic inched through Congress this week, business nearby was even slower. Barstools were empty, as they had to be, at pubs and taverns surrounding the Capitol. With a citywide ban on dining in, the next best thing is takeout and delivery, but that’s easier said than done when happy hour is your lifeblood.

At four longtime drinking spots on the Hill, the refrain was the same: No one has seen anything like this in the industry. Owners intend to reopen, but the timeline is murky, and privately, some workers use “if,” not “when.” In short, the boozy ecosystem that has grown up around the nation’s legislative body has collapsed, for now. 

Union Pub

On a typical night, Union Pub would be overrun with government staffers knocking back drink specials and sharing a plate of “chicken totchos” (that’s tater tots plus nachos). Like many pubs, this one didn’t have delivery until last week. Why would they, when the whole point is to show up and hang out?

Now Union Pub is offering carryout, plus delivery through Uber Eats and Postmates. Specials include “U.P. To-Go” (get a free roll of toilet paper with purchases over $50) and Jell-O shots (choose from flavors like birthday cake and piña colada). The shots come sealed in little to-go ramekins, and the fact that you can get them at all is strange, a product of an emergency measure in D.C. temporarily allowing alcohol with takeout and delivery, provided the order also contains prepared food.

“Adding the beer, wine, and spirits is nice, but it’s a Band-Aid on a head wound,” Weiss said of the relief bill signed by Mayor Muriel Bowser. So far he’s taking in “maybe 5 percent” of his usual daily revenue at Union Pub and has laid off about 30 workers, hoping they can return when the pandemic lets up. 

Bartender and closing manager Nikki Del Casale was laid off after four years at the pub. She’s hoping for the best but planning for the worst, adding her name to a “virtual tip jar” for hospitality employees and offering video mixology lessons in exchange for Venmo payments

As for the business itself, donations are appreciated. Earlier this year, Union Pub announced it was running for president, part of a promotional campaign that was supposed to be a joke. The idea was to lean into its image as a gathering place for politicos, celebrate its 25th anniversary and maybe sell a few T-shirts. Now, like any good political candidate, “we’re actually asking for real contributions,” said publicist Sam Sanchez. Donate a certain amount and you get to go to a keg party after the place reopens, whenever that may be. Donate even more and you get your name on a plaque. Sanchez envisions a whole wall of them, inscribed with the names of customers and neighbors.

Bottom line, the remaining staff is trying stuff each day and seeing if it works, tinkering with the menu and operating hours. (So far, they’ve tried noon to 7 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.) “People’s routines are different now,” Sanchez said. On Monday, the pub sold 20 Jell-O shots.

Tortilla Coast

Meanwhile, at Tortilla Coast, the owners have taken a different approach: They’ve shut down entirely for now. 

“It is my intention to get that restaurant back open. It’s got a lot of history,” said co-owner Geoff Tracy. Known as a Republican hangout (and the onetime workplace of Paul Ryan, who waited tables before he was speaker of the House), Tortilla Coast has changed over the years, switching hands a couple of times. Getting it up and running post-pandemic will feel like opening day all over again, said Tracy. 

He’s keeping some of his other restaurants, Lia’s in Chevy Chase and the eponymous Chef Geoff’s in Northwest D.C., going for takeout and delivery. Employees are running a profit-sharing community pantry, selling essentials like vegetables, bleach and gloves.

But the demand just wasn’t there on Capitol Hill, he said. The final day of business for Tortilla Coast was March 17, and sales were down more than 91 percent from this time last year. He laid off about 200 people across all his businesses, among them 40 or 50 people at Tortilla Coast. A GoFundMe to help them had raised $13,000 as of Wednesday, and he plans to distribute the money to former hourly workers next week.

“I’m going to have to write a gazillion thank you notes,” Tracy said.

Bullfeathers

Next door at Bullfeathers, things were headed in a similar direction, with the doors shut altogether. The tavern laid off all its hourly workers, at least 30 people.

But after several days of total closure, the 40-year-old standby will reopen Wednesday for takeout and delivery, even if business is glacial. “We’re going to make a few dollars, hopefully,” said principal owner Anthony Harris, who took over a decade ago. “It keeps us visible. It’s a morale thing too.”

It’s hard enough to say goodbye to customers whenever Congress leaves for scheduled recesses, said Stephanie Connon, who manages both Bullfeathers and sister restaurant Stoney’s. “But this time, it was open-ended.” A GoFundMe she organized for workers had raised almost $5,000 as of Wednesday.

Being in D.C., Harris had thought about worst-case scenarios, wondering what would happen if a terrorist attack were to hit the city, for example. And the tavern had already survived one recent challenge, making it through the month-long government shutdown at the end of 2018. “We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs,” Harris said, “but nothing like this.”  

The tavern will offer a limited menu for now, including “quarantinis” (a pandemic-specific trend that’s taken hold nationwide) and a make-at-home pizza kit aimed at families looking for a hands-on activity. The carryout process, however, will be hands-off, with a table set up in the foyer for no-touch pickup.

Bullfeathers usually does a big events business, whether it’s political fundraisers or lobbyist blowouts, and spring is a busy season. That’s not going to happen this year.

“We kind of rise and fall with what happens on the Hill. That’s just the way it is,” Harris said. “We rise and fall with the Congress.”

Kelly’s Irish Times

On the other side of the Capitol complex, near Union Station, how was business Tuesday at Kelly’s Irish Times? “Slow,” said daytime manager Phil Rice.

The pub is offering a limited menu for takeout and delivery, and general manager Sean Ryan said he’s handling a lot of those orders himself. About 20 to 25 people were laid off, but Ryan said “everyone will have jobs” whenever the pub can fully reopen, which is the “absolute intention.” 

A GoFundMe for staff had raised more than $5,000. Without St. Patrick’s Day sales, the pub, which opened in 1978, took a substantial hit. And with National Police Week events in May called off, it will lose out on another busy time.

What was once a prime location is not so prime anymore, with the nearby Georgetown Law campus mostly shuttered and lots of people working from home, including many congressional staffers and even some self-quarantining lawmakers.

“There’s not a lot of foot traffic,” Ryan said.

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