Not Out To Lunch: Businesses That Rely On Federal Workers Suffer The Shutdown

Jan 5, 2019
Originally published on January 5, 2019 3:42 pm

Along with garbage piling up at National Parks and federal workers furloughed, the government shutdown is also slowing down businesses that rely on federal workers during the day, like the restaurants and cafes where they eat lunch.

The Denver Federal Center in the suburb of Lakewood, Colo., houses 28 government agencies in 44 buildings. Many federal employees working there are not on the job because of the shutdown.

Calls to many of those federal offices, such as the Bureau of Land Management, result in outgoing voicemail messages that explain the office is closed because of "the lapse in appropriations."

Nearby businesses suffer

Down the street from the building complex, Nick Andurlakis has been running Nick's Cafe for 32 years. It's unabashedly Elvis-themed. The walls are adorned with photos of the King and album covers from his many hits.

[W]e've lost, you know, maybe 20 percent of our business, 25 percent of our business. - Nick's Cafe owner Nick Andurlakis

According to Andurlakis, the cafe's signature "Fool's Gold" sandwich was ordered and loved by the Elvis himself. Andurlakis normally sells a dozen of the peanut butter and bacon sandwiches each day, give or take. However, during a recent weekday afternoon, things were pretty quiet.

"I think we've lost, you know, maybe 20 percent of our business, 25 percent of our business," he says.

He suspects the shutdown is partially responsible for his drop in customers but also says he thinks a lot of regulars could still be out for the holidays.

Andurlakis says everybody suffers a little when the government shuts down. Still, he thinks these sorts of things usually happen for a reason, and he supports the push for more border security.

"I'm the kind of guy that wants the government to be safe. I can understand where the president's coming from," he says, calling the shutdown a little political fistfight.

Losing hours, and morale

Colorado has more than 50,000 federal employees, many of whom are still on the job. But the state also has large numbers of federal departments affected by the partial shutdown, including about 6,500 workers with the Interior Department, 3,700 employees with the Agriculture Department, and 1,400 workers with the Department of Transportation. Fewer people in office parks means fewer people going out to lunch.

Right across the street from the Federal Center in Lakewood, Tokyo Joe's fast food restaurant franchise manager Jolie Voss says 30 to 40 percent of her customer base are federal workers.

"You kind of just get used to the same faces," Voss says. "Bob from accounting is going to come in and get his white chicken bowl, so to not see those faces as often, you really notice."

We have to start sending people home earlier, so people are losing hours. - Jolie Voss, franchise manager for Tokyo Joe's in Lakewood, Colo.

As a franchise manager, she is expected to meet certain sales quotas and says business has been down thousands of dollars per week since the shutdown.

"We have to start sending people home earlier, so people are losing hours. We're starting to waste more food product, which means we're spending more money on things we're just not gonna go through and in general just decreases the morale of my store," she says.

She describes the shutdown as a squabble over petty affairs.

The customers who were in the Tokyo Joe's during a recent weekday lunch rush could take solace in getting through the line faster.

Jeda McKenney was sitting at a table outside. He's not a federal employee and says he's not paying much attention to the shutdown, though he might "when stoplights stop working and they don't shovel my snow."

Those aren't federal obligations, but the sentiment reflects those of other Tokyo Joe's customers. They were not noticing effects of the shutdown in their daily lives.

Still, the businesses federal workers use certainly are noticing.

And while the furloughed workers are likely to get back pay, a sandwich shop is not going to get paid for a sandwich not eaten.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to talk a bit more about the partial shutdown of the federal government, which is entering its third week. We've talked earlier this hour about workers not receiving their pay. But that also means garbage piling up at national parks, taxpayers not getting questions answered from the IRS. We'll have more on that tomorrow. But the shutdown also has repercussions for businesses that federal workers use, like restaurants. This week, Colorado Public Radio's Dan Boyce checked in during what's normally the lunch rush just outside of Denver.

DAN BOYCE, BYLINE: The Denver Federal Center in the suburb of Lakewood houses 28 government agencies in 44 buildings. It's a big complex. And call around those offices right now...

(SOUNDBITE OF VOICEMAIL RECORDINGS)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You have reached the public room at the Bureau of Land Management.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Due to the lapse in appropriation...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Due to a lapse in funding of the federal government budget, I am out of the office.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We are prohibited from conducting work as federal employees.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: But we'll return your call upon our return to the office. Thank you, and sorry for the inconvenience.

BOYCE: Colorado has about 6,500 Department of Interior employees, 3,700 Department of Agriculture employees, 1,400 Department of Transportation workers. A lot of them are out of work and are not going out to lunch.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: You're up on one.

BOYCE: It's being felt.

NICK ANDURLAKIS: I think we've lost, you know, maybe 20 percent of our business, 25 percent of our business.

BOYCE: Nick Andurlakis runs Nick's Cafe down the street from the federal center.

ANDURLAKIS: I've had the cafe for 32 years. It's an Elvis cafe.

BOYCE: Boy, is it - walls adorned with photos and Elvis album covers. And Nick's specialty sandwich...

ANDURLAKIS: We have the Fool's Gold Sandwich. It's a peanut butter, jelly and bacon sandwich.

BOYCE: He says he normally sells a dozen of those Fool's Gold Sandwiches, give or take, every day. On this lunch day, it's pretty quiet. Andurlakis says his slower business is probably partially from a government shutdown. A lot of people are also still out for the holidays, right?

ANDURLAKIS: So it's hard to say.

BOYCE: He says everybody suffers a little with these government shutdowns. Still, he thinks they usually happen for a reason, and he supports the cause of more border security.

ANDURLAKIS: I'm the kind of guy that wants the country to be safe. I can understand where the president's coming from.

BOYCE: He calls the shutdown a little political fistfight.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Order up.

BOYCE: Right across the street from the federal centers, it's the local Tokyo Joe's franchise. Cooks pull from plastic bins of fresh stir fry vegetables near a line of grilling chicken breasts. Manager Jolie Voss says 30 to 40 percent of her customer base comes from the federal center.

JOLIE VOSS: You kind of just get used to seeing the same faces. Bob from accounting's going to come in and get his white chicken bowl. So to not see those faces as often - you really notice.

BOYCE: Managing a franchise, she's expected to meet certain sales quotas, and her business is down thousands of dollars this week.

VOSS: We have to start sending people home earlier. Some people are losing hours. We're starting to waste more food product, which means we're spending more money on things that we're just not going to go through. And, in general, it just decreases the morale of my store.

BOYCE: Meanwhile, Washington is keeping the federal government closed, Voss says squabbling over petty affairs. For the customers who are in Tokyo Joe's, the bright side - maybe they get through the line faster. Jeda McKenney is sitting at a table outside. He's not a federal employee, and he's not paying much attention to the shutdown.

JEDA MCKENNEY: Yeah, I guess when stoplights stop working and, you know, they don't shovel my snow, I'll - you know, I'm that guy.

BOYCE: Those, of course, not federal obligations - point taken, though. None of the lunch customers I spoke with had really noticed any effects of the shutdown. But again, the businesses federal workers use - they certainly are. And while the furloughed workers are likely to get back pay, a sandwich shop is not going to get paid for a sandwich not eaten.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Boyce in Lakewood, Colo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.