The mission at a restaurant where the Obamas dine: Remain calm.
Friday, March 18, 2011; 12:34 PM
As a former chef-restaurateur, I always wondered what must go on in Washington restaurants when the Obamas come calling. Not just from the usual angles - What did they eat? Where did they sit? How did they tip? - but from an operations standpoint.
How and when does the management learn that POTUS and/or FLOTUS are coming? Who waits on them? Do they order off the menu? Is there an official food taster?
When I received a tip a few weeks ago that the first lady would be lunching at Equinox, Todd and Ellen Gray's quietly chic farm-to-table eatery, I rushed downtown to see firsthand.
This was Michelle Obama's second visit to Equinox. On Jan. 17, 2009, days before the inauguration, she celebrated her birthday there with the president-elect and 11 others. Restaurateurs hoped it was a harbinger that the Obamas, as they famously were in Chicago, would be very good for business here.
And they are.
One or both of them have eaten in restaurants across the Washington area, at tony spots such as Michel Richard Citronelle, the Source, Rasika and Komi and at more casual destinations such as Good Stuff Eatery, We the Pizza, the Majestic and Ray's Hell-Burger. When they show up, a restaurant takes on the vibe of the Peanuts character Pig-Pen: a placid interior surrounded by a cloud of chaos. Ensuring that everything at the center remains calm essentially rests on the shoulders of the management. Maria Chicas, general manager at the Majestic in Old Town Alexandria, says she has to make sure the staff is on point with everyone, not just the VIP tables.
"We are in the business of creating perceptions," she says. "We can't freak out, and we can't put all of our energy into that one person. The guests see everything."
The Secret Service doesn't share operational information, of course, but the arrangements described by restaurant owners are similar. There is little warning. On the day of an outing, a small Secret Service detail might show up (in the morning, for lunch; in the afternoon, for dinner) to do a walk-through with the restaurant manager, choose a table and inform the manager if other tables will be needed for Secret Service agents. About an hour before FLOTUS and/or POTUS arrive, 20 to 30 more agents appear.
Next comes the motorcade, which, in the president's case, includes police motorcycle and sedan escorts, armored limos, multiple black Suburbans and assorted vans, an ambulance and more police cars and motorcycles. The first lady's motorcade is shorter.
When the Obamas dined at the Source in January for the first lady's birthday, general manager Rikka Johnson says, "someone from [the president's] staff and someone from his detail stopped by in the afternoon. No call. They asked to speak to me by name. It was very easy. They were very kind and thorough and walked the restaurant with me without anyone really knowing."
Often when the president dines out, the event is more public, in that his staff might specifically ask that other diners sit at tables directly around Obama. But when the first lady and/or their children are the featured guests, the Secret Service is more intent on ensuring some level of privacy.
Micheline Mendelsohn, who handles public relations for chef Spike Mendelsohn's Good Stuff Eatery and We the Pizza, described the drill when Sasha and Malia show up at those Capitol Hill establishments, with or without their mother.