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Capitol basement cafeteria could get new vendor this fall

Legislative Administration is putting the operation of the cafeteria in the basement of the Oregon Capitol up for a competitive bid.

CLAIRE WITHYCOMBE/CAPITAL BUREAU - Legislative Administration is putting the operation of the cafeteria in the basement of the Oregon Capitol up for a competitive bid. The cafet has been operated by the Sassy Onion, a Salem restaurant and catering business, since 2010.SALEM — Come autumn, visitors to the Oregon Capitol's basement cafe may no longer be able to say they're patronizing "The Sass."

Legislative Administration's agreement with The Sassy Onion, the operator of the public cafeteria in the basement of the Capitol, ends Oct. 31.

Legislative Administrator Dave Palmer said his agency plans to put out a competitive bid for a vendor to run the basement cafe, serving sustenance to staffers, lobbyists and other visitors to the Oregon Capitol, by the end of September.

The Sassy Onion, a Salem restaurant and catering business, has been operating the cafe since 2010. The owner, Kevin Boyles, says the company intends to bid to keep the gig.

Palmer, who has been at his post for about a year, said last week that it's not clear the last time that Legislative Administration put out a competitive request for proposals to run the cafe.

According to the 2013-15 contract, The Sassy Onion agreed to pay $250 per month to operate the cafe during the interim periods in between long legislative sessions.

Long sessions last about five months during odd-numbered years. During that time, per the agreement, the monthly rent leaps to $4,000.

The cafeteria can be a convenient option — whether for coffee, snacks or lunch — for many staffers, lobbyists, press and others caught up in the throes of legislative chaos. It can do brisk business on busy days.

But it can be hard to staff, given the stark difference between when the Legislature is in session and the interim. This year's legislative session concluded July 7.

"During session, there's easily 30 people in there all day long," Palmer said last week. "Today, they're lucky if they have 30 customers."

That said, Boyles said the Sassy Onion plans to put in a bid to keep the spot.

"I think it's, for lack of a better term, an honor," Boyles said. Oregon has only one capitol building, he said, "And we get to run a cafe in it."

Cafe Today, which had a location on State Street southeast of the Capitol building, first got the bid in the late 1990s, Boyles said.

He was working for that outfit, owned by erstwhile legislator Kevin Cameron, R-Salem, when they went through their first legislative session in 1999. Cameron later served in the Legislature from 2005 until his resignation in 2012. Cameron, who is now a Marion County Commissioner, did not return a message seeking comment through his county commission office Tuesday.

The Sassy Onion split off from Cafe Today in 2002, Boyles said, and The Sassy Onion purchased the capitol cafe operations from Cafe Today in 2010, five years after Boyles left Cafe Today to work for The Sassy Onion. Last year, Boyles became the sole owner of The Sassy Onion.

The cafe's comestibles are pretty much spelled out in the fine print.

The 2013-15 contract stipulates that the vendor has to supply breakfast, lunch and "between-meal foods." Specifically, the lunch menu "must provide a variety of soups, hot entrees, sandwiches, salads and beverages."

Lest you believe that the chocolate scones are arbitrarily priced, any price or menu change requires "written justification" and has to be approved in writing by Legislative Administration, according to the contract.