Inauguration is typically a prosperous time for Washington’s hospitality industry. This year, it’s the opposite. Between Covid, the indoor dining ban, Capitol attack, and widespread road closures and restricted areas, many business owners feel like it’s rock bottom. But that hasn’t stopped Washington’s restaurant industry and its supporters from going above and beyond. On Friday, Capitol Hill restaurant We, the Pizza launched We, the Troops—a spontaneous cause and fundraising effort to provide meals to the 20,000 newly arrived national guard troops, DC and Capitol police, fire department, and Capitol custodians. The initiative snowballed over the weekend and now 31 restaurants have signed on and are feeding roughly 3,000 people around the clock each day.
It started small. Micheline Mendelsohn, CEO of the hospitality group that owns We, the Pizza and Good Stuff Eatery with chef/brother Spike Mendelsohn (PLNT Burger) donated 100 pizzas for the troops. A photograph of two congresspeople handing out the pies to service members sitting on the Capitol floor went viral, and the public started calling the shop to ask how to donate. But the fast-casual is fairly small, and even with help from its sister locations, can only produce so much pizza. And do the troops really want pizza for breakfast? So Mendelsohn says she started calling her friends in the industry, starting with Buffalo & Bergen owner Gina Chersevani, who’s since provided thousand of bagels from her Capitol Hill deli.
“That’s what I love about the hospitality industry,” says Mendelsohn. “We’ve all had such a horrible year. We can’t do anything for free. But it wasn’t even a thought.”
Mendelsohn quickly organized a donation page so that participating restaurants could be reimbursed for their efforts—a huge help to the small businesses, especially those on Capitol Hill that were forced to close because patrons and staff couldn’t get through the road closures. Suggested donations range from a $12 sum that feeds four troops up to $300 that feeds 100 (custom donations are also welcome). Mendelsohn says the restaurants are doing what they can—anything from 30 sandwiches from a small takeout to hundreds of meals—and that she’s been “overwhelmed” by the support. In addition to the pizzas—close to 4,000 pies have gone out at this point—there are hundreds to thousands of Nomad dumplings, Rasa bowls, Lebanese Taverna shawarma, Shouk vegan meals, Rockland’s barbecue, Ben’s Chili Bowl dogs, and sandwiches from Chiko and Maketto (you can see a full list of participants here). There are treats from Dolcezza and Ice Cream Jubilee. When We, the Pizza ran out of pies, Pizza Paradiso owner Ruth Gresser stepped up to help. Caribbean restaurant Cane, which was recently closed due to a second robbery at the H Street restaurant, was there with food. Brand new Capitol Hill restaurant The Duck and the Peach donated meals, while longtime Bayou Bakery owner David Guas spent hours trekking from his Arlington cafe through road closures and security checkpoints to bring the troops biscuits and muffalettas. The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington put a call out to its members for support. Parents of troops and police officers have called in donations from all over the country. An eight year-old girl in Herndon, Mache Leask, helped raise over $1,000 after putting out a message with the help of her parents on Facebook. She then visited We, the Pizza to hand out the pies.
“It felt really good. Because it makes national guard troops feel special because they are special,” Leask told Washingtonian.
In addition to meals, restaurants are also donating gift certificates to Capitol custodial staff that they can use any time throughout the year. Mendelsohn says there’s no timeline for when they’ll wrap up their efforts—as long as troops and police are present and donations are coming in, they’ll provide meals.
For all the good will, there are some who’ve criticized the Mendelsohns for providing meals to those who already have food access. The siblings, who’re both closely involved with organizations like DC Central Kitchen and Food Rescue US, say this latest effort isn’t meant to take away from their other charitable work.
“This is a thank you from a city of restaurateurs who’re grateful to these people for protecting our democracy, our capitol building, and our back yard. We certainly aren’t forgetting and haven’t stopped any of our many efforts for the homeless,” says Micheline.
Says Spike: “We’e had such bad news, one thing after the other. We’re losing businesses and livelihoods. To do something to change the momentum to feel good and get back to work, that’s the best feeling for all. They may not need to be fed, but I guarantee the food they’re getting from us is better than what they’re provided and it’s made with a lot of love.”
We, the Troops isn’t the only effort to send hot meals to the Capitol. Humanitarian-restaurateur José Andrés has been on the ground since the January 6 attack with World Central Kitchen providing hearty hot meals like chicken and pasta and fresh fruit to the troops. There’re also acts of individual good will. Mike Brand, owner of Penn Quarter Sports Tavern, says business has virtually stalled at his bar and restaurant located two blocks from the National Mall. So they started making 400-odd meals a day for law enforcement totaling over $8,000 in donations. He says the restaurant is looking for donations from local companies or charitable organizations to help offset costs.
“I’m doing this so last minute. I’m not José Andrés trying to save the world. I’m just helping the officers on our blocks,” says Brand. “We’re doing donations when we don’t have money to give. I’m hoping this could spark some good in people. It’s all kind of hope right now.”