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Restaurants And Food Trucks In D.C. Struggle During Shutdown

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now let's hear the effects in Washington, where the traffic has seemed a bit lighter at rush hour lately. Fewer people are going to work. Tourists have fewer destinations since many museums are closed. The lack of people is affecting Washington restaurants and food trucks. Here's Mikaela Lefrak of our member station WAMU.

MIKAELA LEFRAK, BYLINE: On a regular day at lunchtime, the streets around the National Mall are crammed with tourists and office workers. But these are the days of the shutdown, and things are far from normal.

MOHAMMAD BADAH: There's no tourists - nothing.

LEFRAK: Mohammad Badah leans out his Mediterranean food truck and surveys the empty streets. He's parked in a prime spot, right near the National Portrait Gallery and a couple big federal office buildings. But business is horrible.

BADAH: So far, I have not even sold one piece of falafel - nothing. Not even one piece of French fries.

LEFRAK: The portrait gallery's closed, as are all Smithsonian museums here. Normally, Badah sells about 80 lunches a day to tourists and office workers. During the partial shutdown, he's been averaging a fourth of that. He says he can't hold out much longer.

BADAH: Next week, if it's going to stay like this, I'm going to shut down. It's really bad.

LEFRAK: Restaurants big and small are feeling the pain. Kathy Hollinger is the president of the Metropolitan Washington Restaurant Association.

KATHY HOLLINGER: They are seeing a decrease in sales ranging from 20 percent to as high as 60 percent. And that is a lot.

LEFRAK: She says dozens of restaurants have been offering special deals to furloughed workers - free coffee or 20 percent off a meal.

HOLLINGER: They want to help, and they want to give back to a constituency that has been loyal but may, right now, not be in a position to be able to come in and spend money.

LEFRAK: The deals help attract business, too. But not all restaurants can afford to offer steep discounts. Kristen Brabrook is the executive pastry chef at a local bakery called Bakers & Baristas. They've been giving away free coffee, but it's not enough to make up for lost business.

KRISTEN BRABROOK: It's been rough. I mean, we rely so much on office parties and meetings and all that sort of stuff. And there's just nobody having birthday parties and nobody having meetings because nobody's in the office.

LEFRAK: Their sales have been down by more than 30 percent from last January. At their sister business, a cupcake shop down the street, sales are down 50 percent. She's had to start making a lot of tough decisions regarding her staff.

BRABROOK: It's really depressing. I mean, we're cutting hours left and right. It's difficult to have those conversations, especially with people with kids. And you're just like, I'm really sorry. Like, these are literally all the hours I can give you. Yeah, it's heartbreaking.

LEFRAK: Even as they cut shifts, restaurants are being deluged with applications from furloughed employees in need of a paycheck. One furloughed worker has been picking up bartending shifts at a fine dining restaurant across the street from the White House. Others have turned to food delivery as a way to earn cash. Brabrook says she has just one thing to say to the politicians debating the federal budget in Congress just a mile away.

BRABROOK: Stop having standoffs with each other, and think about all the little people who are not getting paid.

LEFRAK: She says she knows it isn't that easy. She's really just hoping the shutdown ends by Valentine's Day. It's their biggest sales day of the year, and her livelihood depends on it. For NPR News, I'm Mikaela Lefrak in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.