House Cafeterias Roll Out New Deals in Meal Options

May 20, 2010
By Emily Yehle
Roll Call Staff

Members and staffers have long complained about the price of food in the House cafeterias, but newly enacted discounts appear to be appeasing their concerns.

This week, House Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard announced two new programs to cut food costs: “Red Tag” deals and “meal deals.” The former are meals for $4 to $7, while the latter are simple sandwiches and snacks for $1 to $3.

The changes come two months after members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch told Beard that the existing value meals were not sufficient. The options, they said, were limited: Value meals changed only every week and sometimes weren’t the healthiest option.

At the time, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who chairs the subcommittee, called the situation “obnoxious.” Beard, the Florida Democrat said, needed to put more pressure on Restaurant Associates, the company that runs the restaurant.

But on Tuesday, she praised the new options as “a step in the right direction.”

“I’m pleased to see that more affordable meal options will be available throughout the campus, but the Legislative Branch Subcommittee on Appropriations will continue to closely monitor the availability of a variety of affordable options in all cafeterias,” she said in an e-mail. “Our House staff work long hours and deserve a menu that gives them good prices and high quality, nutritious food choices.”

CAO spokesman Jeff Ventura said the new deals will enable Members and staffers to save money on a wide variety of items. For example, before the changes, a wrap, chips and a drink cost $7.50. Now, that same meals costs $7. Another example is entree deals: In the Cannon cafeteria, a cheeseburger, fries and drink goes for $5.75. That’s a savings of $1.70.

The meal deals, which start Monday, will offer new food options at lower cost. The idea is for customers to “mix and match,” Ventura said. Sandwiches such as chicken salad or roast beef, cheddar and horseradish will sell for $3. Customers can then match those options with $2 snacks such as edamame with sea salt or $1 snacks such as hummus or crackers.

The new discount offers include breakfast as well, such as a doughnut or bagel with a 16-ounce coffee or tea for $2.50.

“We really have been listening to customer feedback with regard to the fact that people really want value options,” Ventura said. “We realized that needed to be expanded and have been collaborating with Restaurant Associates to try to figure out where we can expand these values.”

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger said it was a “good start” but added that the House should perhaps bring in chains like Subway to give staffers the option of a cheap lunch.

“I give [Beard] credit that he does listen when we raise issues,” said the Maryland Democrat, who also sits on the subcommittee. “I hope we keep up this momentum.”

Since Restaurant Associates took over management of the House cafeterias in 2007, food prices have risen an average of 10 percent — and for certain items, closer to 20 percent. Most of that increase took place in 2008, and RA attributed the bump to a nationwide rise in gas and food prices. A grilled cheese sandwich, for example, rose to $3.95 from $2.75; an 8-ounce bowl of soup increased to $2 from 30 cents.

But some of RA’s food options are simply just more expensive than their predecessor’s because the company offers local food and higher-quality options. The cafeterias are also environmentally friendly, using compostable takeout containers and utensils.

Ruppersberger said Restaurant Associates does a great job of providing healthy (and sometimes organic) meals. But some staffers just need cheap meals, he said.

“I know you have to pay for what you get. I know the vendor has to make a profit,” he said. But “I’d like to see more. We have a lot of hardworking people on the Hill, and we can’t pay them a lot of money.”

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