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Around Independence Mall, empty tables and thoughts full of worry | Mike Newall

It's not just federal workers feeling the pinch — it's the people who feed them, serve them and cut their hair who also are starting to hurt.

Chaat and Chai chef and owner Anney Thomas works in the kitchen at her restaurant in the Bourse Food Hall. With all the federal buildings near the Bourse, her business has slowed since the government shutdown.
Chaat and Chai chef and owner Anney Thomas works in the kitchen at her restaurant in the Bourse Food Hall. With all the federal buildings near the Bourse, her business has slowed since the government shutdown.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Sam Patel knows he shouldn’t even have it on. But he can’t keep his eyes off the TV tuned to CNN in his deli on the concourse of the old Lit Bros. building.

Every time he looks up from the cash register, out over his increasingly empty tables, the ticker brings news of a federal shutdown hurtling deeper into the abyss. He’s survived other shutdowns, but this one — 21 days as of Friday — is set to go on longer than any other. Each day for Sam and his wife, Manisha, feels longer than the next. Since the shutdown, he has been rattling off the names of furloughed federal agencies within blocks of his eatery: DEA, Homeland Security, FBI, ATF, U.S. Attorney’s Office, Treasury, IRS, the General Services Administration. Each one a dagger to the heart of a man who relies on the traffic of government employees to make his bottom line.

Business, he says, has plummeted 30 percent.

Even if the government opens back up tomorrow, how long will it be before people with less money in their wallets come back to eat? Sam will think of all this and steal another guilty glance at the TV.

“If it keeps going…” the father of two says.

That’s the thing about this shutdown: It’s not just the federal government. It’s gone on long enough that it’s begun to seep into every aspect of people’s lives. People like Sam and Manisha, both London-born — he, a former banker, she, a former marketing professional — who bought Pagano’s in 2007 because they wanted to run a business of their own.

Dozens of small business owners in Philly’s robust federal district feel the ripples of the shutdown and become increasingly worried about their own futures as it stretches with no end in sight. Long-time owners miss their regulars. New businesses consider their future. Many of them are immigrants and working-class folks, living paycheck to paycheck.

A few hundred yards down the concourse, Mark Randall, the piano player who performs in the food court, notices a few more empty tables and thinks to himself that Billy the Barber was right: They are starting to feel the pinch.

Alone in his shop across the food court, with more and more downtime between clients, Billy “the Barber” Brocco has begun to employ a slightly alarming metaphor to make him feel better about his thinning clients — business is down about 15 percent.

Billy, a sharp guy who talks with a showbiz flash, says he’s got an ace in the hole: an understanding landlord, who he’s sure would cut him slack if he falls a few days late on the rent. “My landlord doesn’t have a gun to my head,” Billy said. Well, at least not yet.

Over at the shiny new Bourse Food Hall, Anney Thomas stands at the counter of her South Indian street food spot, Chaat and Chai, trying to push a phrase out of her mind: “Ghost Town.” Business had been booming from her October opening all the way through the holidays.

And she knows the first weeks after the new year in the restaurant industry are always the worst — but this slowness is just worrying, she thought. All those federal workers nearby, all going unpaid. Lost momentum, in the cold months before tourist season.

Born in India and reared in North Philadelphia, Anney took a leap four years ago, leaving her teaching job to open a restaurant in South Philadelphia. She painted the storefront’s walls bright orange, decorated it with parasols and murals of Indian movie stars, and served dishes like her delicious coconut-braised short ribs and chicken chaat rolls, which she learned to make from watching her father in her childhood kitchen. After rave reviews, she and her partner closed the restaurant in 2017 for a chance to be part of the Bourse, a historic building Anney always loved. Now, like the Patels, her numbers were about 40 percent from where she hoped they would be the past few weeks, and her stomach churns every time she allows herself to check news about the shutdown.

She is hopeful and optimistic, but in the slow time now, when she thinks of the shutdown, and how long it could possibly drag on, she feels like escaping to the food court bar for a beer. (She’s mostly kidding, Mom.)

“It’s just so depressing,” she said.