WASHINGTON — You can eat three meals a day in this town if you know how to stay awake through endless policy discussions. This is the story of how sequestration drove one man to drink — on someone else's dime.
Washington, meet the Panel Crasher: he roams the streets, anonymous, preying upon unsuspecting food spreads at think tanks across town. A former Democratic Hill staffer, The Panel Crasher asked BuzzFeed not to print his name for fear that if his identity leaks he'll lose face (and access to all the free grub.) But he's blogging his adventures in free food and think tank discussions here, providing a kind of how-to guide for hungry wonks.
Panel Crasher lost his job at a K Street nonprofit after, he says, sequestration led to belt tightening at the federal department providing funding to the project he was working on. He's headed to grad school in the fall, so for the next couple months he's looking for something to do. And something to eat.
That's where the think tanks come in. Every day across Washington, there are countless panel discussions about one aspect of federal policy or another. In order to woo audiences (or keep the crowds who were clamoring to be there full of energy, depending on who you ask), these panel discussions often offer up food. And the big budgets behind many of the most powerful think tanks in town can mean some pretty sweet spreads, too. The Panel Crasher has found breakfast buffets, sandwich stations and even wine with dinner. He described a lunch buffet at the American Enterprise Institute he stumbled upon on his third outing.
"AEI has the best lunch spreads because it's a hot buffet. You don't see that anywhere else that I've encountered. Not at lunch. It's legit too," he says. "Today they had a shrimp gumbo, and it was delightful. Tail on the shrimp, so it was the real deal. Only other seafood you see is tuna sandwiches."
At one dinner event he hasn't blogged about, The Panel Crasher said there was free wine.
The only cost for all these delicacies? Your email address.
"I use my real name and I write 'unemployed' or 'independent' under 'affiliation'," he explains. "As long as you show up and don't look like a homeless person, they'll usually let you in."
The Panel Crasher blog has started to get some attention around DC. That's partially because the sheer volume of free food available around town is so fascinating, but also partially because the author has turned his quest into a kind of DC political commentary and restaurant review in one, skewering the events he visits as he pockets toothpicks laden with cheese cubes.
"What I hope is clear through the blog is that the concept of getting free food at panels was initially a response to being poor and unexpectedly unemployed, but then I recognized that it might also be a fun vehicle to pick fun at the DC echo chamber. DC is good at making fun of others, or making fun of low level interns and high level politicians, but we're less used to making fun of the rest of us in the middle," he says. "Crashing panels feeds me, but I hoped I might also make light of a substantial segment of a town, of which I am a part, that takes itself just a bit too seriously. I'm too lazy and hungry to actually ask or answer the question. But I also do wonder what these panels really accomplish. I'm not saying it's nothing, but I'm not sure it's much, especially when they're usually preaching to the choir."
The Panel Crasher's quest might be getting tougher. In his post about the AEI event, he described some eagle-eyed interns who caught him snapping pics of the buffet and bristled. For for the most part, he says, event hosts don't care if you're there just for the free food, as long as you sit there and don't fall asleep during the discussions.
Robert Bluey, Director of Digital Media for the Heritage Foundation, hosts a weekly roundtable with one of the most talked-about spreads in Washington: Chik-Fil-A sandwiches, waffle fries and nuggets are on offer. The group estimates they've handed out more than 10,000 free sandwiches since 2006 to anyone who bothers to show up for Heritage's Blogger's Briefing. Bluey told BuzzFeed that if people show up for just for the sandwiches, it's fine with him.
"Heritage has a reputation for great food, great events and great policy," he said. "We take the holistic view that people should feed their bodies as well as their minds."