When the president described Haiti and its immigrants with a disparaging phrase, Brian Hill said it “crushed” him. So he began offering a sandwich special named after special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to overtly signal support at his downtown restaurant, Chef Brian’s Comfort Kitchen.
Ben Bronstein, the Bird’s assistant general manager, said its drink specials were not born of an anti-Trump sentiment but rather were crafted to poke fun at the political culture in Washington. The Bird wanted to “give people in this area . . . something fun to do when the news gets crazy.”
The drink that marked the departure of Rex Tillerson was “Rex on the Beach,” and it was, not surprisingly, “the Mooch” when Anthony Scaramucci left as White House communications director after only 11 days on the job, Bronstein said.
On the nights the Bird runs the specials, Bronstein said, “business at least triples, if not more.” He sees “hundreds of people coming in . . . specifically for those deals.”
“We have people who come in specifically” for the Moscow Mueller “even when we’re not running that,” Bronstein said.
Marches that draw people to the capital, such as the Women’s March and the March for Our Lives, spike profits for restaurants, but they won’t live or die based on a day or weekend bump, or even the special deals, said economist Stephen Fuller, director of the Stephen S. Fuller Institute at George Mason University. Although, he said, the catchy specials “may generate an extra layer of business.”
For some restaurants, these deals are “crafty marketing,” but they don’t necessarily mean that the businesses also don’t believe in the cause they’re supporting, Fuller said.
Restaurants have a “heightened awareness” of politics now because it’s “hard to avoid it,” said Michael Curtin, who worked for 20 years in the hospitality industry before becoming CEO of D.C. Central Kitchen.
And the reach can be long, as demonstrated Friday night, when a small-town Virginia restaurant nearly 200 miles away from the District and with just 26 seats asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave.
The attention to political events shown by smaller hospitality operations in the District occurs against a backdrop of superstar activity, including events at the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue or by Chef José Andrés at his various outposts.
And a new hotel — Eaton D.C., set to open in late July just blocks from Trump International — trumpets its liberal leanings.
“A business that is resisting Trump may have a ready clientele,” because the District is made up of 90 percent Democrats, said Bernard Demczuk, the Ben’s Chili Bowl historian who holds a doctorate in American studies and African American history and culture. Ben’s, however, is not among those introducing a political tone to its menu.
Supporting activism is familiar for the Potter’s House, an Adams Morgan cafe and bookstore that has been a meeting space for decades. But its management is seeing “a lot more people coming in asking questions” since the beginning of the Trump presidency, Mike Balderrama said.
Part of why Balderrama, the nonprofit’s general manager, says the space draws in more people is because they are “looking to answer questions that are bubbling up in their minds.”
Yet it’s a risk for businesses to be outspoken about their political views, Balderrama said.
Hill, the owner of Chef Brian’s, said he felt compelled to take that chance after the president’s comment over Haiti. He went to his restaurant the next day and put up a sign that always has political commentary from Hill on some recent event above a never-changing sign-off of: “All are welcome.”
Hill, who grew up in Petworth, said making the decision to be honest about his political views was not difficult, given his identity as a black man. But he “really stuck (his) neck out” when it came to the finances of his business, which had been open for less than 18 months when he decided to start specials with a political theme.
His business is new enough that he can’t compare sales over long periods, but he said he believes being open about his politics has brought in customers.
Hill said one woman came into the restaurant and was upset about his sign. “After reading us the riot act . . . she still ate the food.”
“This is the best time to tell other brown people that can’t stand up for themselves . . . (that) I can speak . . . I will not stop,” Hill said.
Curtin, of D.C. Central Kitchen, said as long “as there’s a politically active debate in the community, that’s good for us,” because the Capitol Hill-based nonprofit is “trying to get people to be engaged and not be content with slogans.”
Activism by restaurants and other businesses is more overt and “loud” recently, but it is not a new phenomenon. “Restaurants have always had their finger on the pulse of what’s going on and maybe have been cautious about being too active,” Curtin said.
The covfefe tweet drew so much attention that it was hard not to jump on it, said Michael Dorf, CEO of City Winery.
Dorf saw it as a message that was “compelling” to the company’s mostly liberal customers while being capable of bringing a smile to their Republican customers — without being overly partisan.
“It was a calculated, and I think smart, marketing opportunity for us,” he said.
(Correction: This file has been corrected to say that Chef Brian Hill grew up in Petworth. A previous version said he was a native of Haiti.)