Which Restaurateurs Are in the Tank For Obama?

Barack Obama’s candidacy motivated millions of people to become politically active. But how did the people running some of the most popular restaurants in the DC area balance their personal passion for the candidate with their obligations to their own public?
On the one hand, Andy Shallal, for whom social activism is as much a part of Busboys and Poets’ business as is the menu, suffered no internal debate. “I come from a different country, and…I had to give up a lot [to be here]: my identity, my whole family background. So for me, to just be silent is not an option.” Already popular gathering spots for progressives, all three Busboys and Poets outposts became magnets for Obama supporters. They came in droves to fundraisers and events such as one in March to view and discuss Obama’s speech on race. The 14th Street location even served as a regular staging area for volunteers headed to “red” states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. Says Shallal, “when DC votes 95 percent for Obama…you’re not going out on a limb supporting an Obama candidacy.”

Local restaurateurs who hew to a more traditional line, however, were not as comfortable turning their businesses into bully pulpits. When the Obama campaign asked Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s Michael Babin whether Buzz Bakery could be an official viewing place for Obama’s Democratic convention speech, Babin was more than happy to oblige. Pastry Chef Josh Short got straight to work on cupcakes emblazoned with the campaign logo. But Babin and his management staff agreed that if the other team came knocking, they would be just as obliging. They didn’t have to wait long. “As soon as it was announced…a customer challenged us, ‘so, why are you doing it for Obama? Are you going to do it for McCain?’” It reinforced for Babin that NRG has “an obligation to be effectively non-partisan,” no matter how passionate he and many of his staff were about Obama’s candidacy. He channeled his energy instead into voter registration and ensuring that his staff got to the polls on November 4th.

Michel Richard and his partner at Central, Chipp Sandground, were similarly fastidious about avoiding the impression that Richard himself endorsed one candidate over another. “We didn’t want to alienate anyone,” says Sandground, himself an ardent and vocal Democrat. He suggested to the Obama campaign that they host a fundraiser at Central, but made it clear that the campaign would have to pay the same fair-market price charged anyone who uses the restaurant for the roughly 20 private events they do each year (per Sandground, that price elicited a “Wow!” from a member of the famously thrifty campaign). They knew they were accountable to their investors as well as to the public at large. “It wasn’t without a lot of consideration that Michel agreed.”  

Proof owner Mark Kuller, on the other hand, felt no obligation to be evenhanded. An active, early supporter of Obama, he reached out to his contacts early in the campaign to offer Proof for fundraising. When they took him up on the offer he relied on Proof’s mailing list to publicize the event. But when he considered displaying fliers, breaking his own interdiction against hanging notices of any kind in the restaurant, his staff intervened. “I was…reined in by my management team in terms of how public Proof went in its enthusiastic support for Obama,” says Kuller. This was especially true on the night of the event itself, when campaign staffers arrived with posters that Kuller found so beautiful, one of them hangs in his living room today. When Kuller agreed to hang them during the event, General Manager Michael James expressed concern about offending two loyal and likely Republican regulars who had reservations just after the event. Kuller appreciated his staff’s reluctance to offend. “I can achieve the goals I want to achieve without putting signs in the window that I support Obama.” He remains adamant on one key point: “I can assure you we would not have been doing any fundraising there for McCain.”

Mike Franklin can attest that restaurateurs’ concerns about customers’ perceptions are not idle worry. Part of the enormous appeal of Franklin’s popular Hyattsville restaurant and brewery is their general store. The store’s selection of pro-Obama t-shirts, when jumbled together with the pro-Obama magnets, paper-dolls, and bumper stickers, didn’t get much reaction from McCain supporters. When those shirts were moved to the cash register, however, where shoppers and diners alike must check out, some customers went “ballistic,” says Franklin, and declared, “We’re never going to come in here again! How can you be political?’” When a second group had the same reaction, Franklin relented and returned the t-shirts to a spot deeper in the store. “We kind of have to be Switzerland,” he says.

There is general consensus among them all that being in Washington made any political statement more magnified than it would be anywhere else in the country. Ultimately, though, being in this city after an election that went just as they hoped has had one other very measurable effect: thanks to Barack Obama’s inauguration this week, they’re all gearing up for the busiest January they have likely ever seen.