Shutdown screwup: City Tavern clobbered by feds

DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Chef Walter Staib looks out a window at his City Tavern, which was forced to close during the partial government shutdown.
DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Chef Walter Staib looks out a window at his City Tavern, which was forced to close during the partial government shutdown.
Posted: October 18, 2013

WE'RE SITTING at the re-creation of the second-floor window table where George Washington took his dinner and the German immigrant is wondering what has gone wrong with his adopted country.

Chef Walter Staib is the immigrant from the Black Forest and his famous City Tavern at 2nd and Walnut, where we are talking, was closed as part of the federal shutdown of sanity. It didn't matter that not a single federal employee is among his 80 workers, almost all of whom lost pay for 10 days. How he was able to reopen last Saturday you will learn a bit later.

Further insanity: Staib not only does not take a dime from the feds, he pays $67,999.92 a year to the government for the right to run the restaurant in a building owned by We, the People.

The shutdown notice went out Oct. 1, but Independence National Historical Park superintendent Cynthia MacLeod gave City Tavern until 3 p.m. the next day to close.

To his anguish, Staib was 7,159 miles - and 12 hours - away when he got the news. He had left for China on Sept. 29 to film an episode for his Emmy-winning PBS series, "A Taste of History."

Yes, he knew a shutdown might happen, but he relied on personal history. The last time the government went into partial lockdown, the City Tavern was untouched.

While he was shooting in Beijing by day, he was piling up mountainous text bills at night trying to stay on top of the situation through his managers.

One of them, public-affairs coordinator Molly Yun, took the brunt of the general public's wrath.

Surprisingly, or not, there was a lot of "blame the victim."

"They called us idiots, wimps, we have no balls and we wouldn't stand up to the government and open anyway," says Yun, who deleted profane comments from City Tavern's Facebook page.

Staib's own ears were burned by voicemail messages demanding he live up to his "German heritage," as if the furious callers wanted to see him mount a panzer and shell Independence Hall.

When it wasn't the crazies, it was the disappointed. The ordered-closed restaurant had to cancel a wedding-rehearsal dinner, birthday parties, a party for the Princeton class of 1960, all suddenly thrown out in the cold.

With their business also went future bookings. Staib lost $125,000 in receipts for the 10-day shutdown. His loss will approach $250,000 once he totals catering, tour operators and other business that migrated elsewhere because of uncertainty about his business.

Then there are the losses suffered by his employees, collateral damage. They are eligible for unemployment, if they jump through the state's carefully constructed hoops - and there are no benefits for the first week of unemployment.

The National Park Service (NPS) was following orders. The City Tavern is a concession and since concessions theoretically require oversight - even though there is none at City Tavern - NPS had to shut it down.

"Someone with a cool head could have looked and seen we were different, not put us in a big kettle. I blame the schmucks who run the government," Staib says. "The local NPS management had no interest in having me closed."

Throughout the ordeal, Mayor Nutter's office tried to help, made some calls on Staib's behalf, but nothing moved until Friday, Oct. 11, the 10th day of the shutdown.

That day, Staib joined Dom Giordano, in perpetual overdrive about Big Government, on his WPHT/1210-AM show. U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, Philadelphia's heftiest D.C. Democrat, called in to say he'd see what he could do.

"Brady called me 10, 15 times during the day," says an amazed Staib. At 9:10 that night the chef got an email saying he could open the next day.

I asked Brady where he sprinkled his fairy dust.

He called Interior Secretary Sally Jewell (Interior runs the NPS), made his pitch and she put him in touch with some people.

"It wasn't that easy," Brady says. "It was four hours of phone-calling, bitching and moaning," making the case that with no federal employees, the City Tavern shouldn't be shut down.

Getting a green light, Staib and some staffers pulled an all-nighter and opened by lunchtime - to paltry business because everyone thought the Tavern was closed.

This past week, Staib was still getting cancellations from groups deciding to go elsewhere.

"The Park Service people will get paid" when the shutdown ends. "Who will take care of me and my people?" asks Staib.

I imagine George Washington shaking his head.


Email: stubyko@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5977

On Twitter: @StuBykofsky

Blog: ph.ly/Byko

Columns: ph.ly/StuBykofsky

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