Immigrant Food, a fast-casual restaurant in D.C. that sells global fusion bowls a couple blocks away from the White House, went the extra mile to stay open this week while National Guard troops and other authorities shut down traffic leading into Inauguration Day.
Due to the restaurant’s location in the heart of a “red zone” perimeter, closed off to all traffic except for authorized vehicles, Immigrant Food had to halt its deliveries from vendors’ trucks during a period of heightened security stemming from the insurrection at the Capitol. By Saturday, January 16, the shop had run out of food, but it was determined to stay open despite all the uncertainty surrounding the celebration. So co-owner Peter Schechter and communications director Tea Ivanovic solved the problem by packing up massive rolling suitcases with ingredients and pulling them right down the parade route on Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
“On our entire block, not one single restaurant is open — we wanted to really be there for customers,” Ivanovic says.
The kitchen gave them a “wish list” full of chicken, daikon, potatoes, onions, curry powder, and leafy greens, which they bought at Wegman’s and Walmart near Schechter’s home base in Culpepper, Virginia. On Monday, two days before inauguration, Schechter’s wife dropped him and Ivanovic off at George Washington Circle. With bags bursting with produce and poultry, the pair made the 14-minute trek to the restaurant in the middle of an eerily quiet artery of D.C.
So salads wouldn’t get squished, she tossed all the bags into one of IKEA’s ginormous royal blue bags and threw it over her shoulder. The civilians and their questionable luggage had to make it through three checkpoints. First past the National Guard checkpoint at 22nd Street NW, then the D.C. police check on 20th Street NW, and finally past the Secret Service perimeter.
“We were the randos with suitcases,” Ivanovic says. “I said, ‘We are Immigrant Food and these are loaded with food.’ They let us just go through.” One Secret Service member is a regular, she says.
Propane for patio heat lamps also ran out Friday, January 15. Immigrant Food toyed with the idea of stuffing suitcases with metal tanks, but Schechter and Ivanovich thought the flammable material might have gotten them in trouble with the Secret Service.
With few members of the public allowed inside the restricted parameter, Immigrant Food’s lunchtime crowd on Inauguration Day included CNN and Turkish TV crews and a “bevy” of different law enforcement agencies. Immigrant Food and a nearby McDonald’s were pretty much the only options open on the block.
“Even Starbucks was closed so we sold a lot of coffee, too,” Schechter says.
To celebrate Vice President Kamala Harris — the first woman, Black person and Asian American to hold the office — Venezuelan chef and co-owner Enrique Limardo released a new “Kamala” bowl with ingredients like curry chicken and plantains that play up her Jamaican and Indian heritage.
Immigrant Food plans to keep the bowls on the menu indefinitely alongside other creations that weave in stories of migration patterns in D.C. Most people on Inauguration Day made the VP’s bowl a top seller. With a prime view of the parade route and the Presidential motorcade right outside, bundled up customers didn’t seem to mind the cold weather.
“We sold a bunch of mulled wine. People started drinking at 11 a.m.,” she says.
There were still some barriers to entry on the Thursday following inauguration. When Schechter heard the sound of a diesel truck a few blocks away, it turned out to be the Sysco truck carrying the orders Immigrant Food had been awaiting. Bomb sniffing dogs were all over the truck before it was allowed through.
“How that guy got through was a miracle,” says Schechter, global affairs specialist who served on the board of José Andrés’s ThinkFoodGroup for 14 years. “I thought it was a mirage. The seas parted and I started jogging.”
Immigrant Food plans to bring back indoor dining on Friday, January 22, as roadblocks clear and the city lifts its monthlong ban on eating inside with a 25 percent capacity limit.