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The Boss Goes to Boot Camp

August 31, 2006
Washington Business Journal - December 10, 1999
by Steve Davolt
Small Business Editor

When District restaurateur Lynne Breaux returned to her native New Orleans for three days last June, her trip wound up being a strange sort of homecoming.

Instead of the Garden District and the French Quarter, Breaux took in a side of the Big Easy she had never seen. She toured the surrounding military bases, observing jet fighters, heavy armament and ranks of sharply creased reservists.

Breaux was among 30 D.C.-area employers participating in a program called BossLift, which allows business owners and community leaders to witness firsthand the military activities that National Guard and Reserve members engage in while away from their civilian jobs. The entourage for the June 9-11 trip also included D.C. Councilman Vincent Orange and Maj. Gen. Warren L. Freeman, commanding general of the D.C. National Guard.

Breaux owns and operates Tunnicliff's Tavern at 722 Seventh St. SE, just across the street from Eastern Market. The comfortably furnished, dimly lit establishment offers an oasis to the lawmakers and staffers of Capitol Hill, as well as the occasional out-of-town celeb. Sightings in recent years have included James Carville, Newt Gingrich and Melanie Griffith.

"One night [then-White House Chief of Staff] Leon Panetta and Paula Jones were in here at the same time," Breaux recalled. "It was when that case was just getting started. As far as I know, they never bumped into each other."

Breaux prides herself on having imported a bit of the flavor and easy-going hospitality of New Orleans to Washington. Chef Jeffrey Palmer's menu boasts such Cajun staples as gumbo and jambalaya. Even Breaux's e-mail address -- -- reflects her roots.

During her tenure, Tunnicliff's has earned a notoriety for its Mardi Gras revelries and a slightly raffish atmosphere. Expat British pundit Christopher Hitchens once described the Hill hangout as a place where "you can recline in the company of delinquent congressional staff members."

Breaux has logged more than 30 years in the hospitality industry. She first came to Washington in 1984 and turned stints as catering director of, respectively, the Ritz-Carlton and Madison hotels. Then in 1985 she purchased Tunnicliff's because, she said, "I got tired of having to dress up for work every day."

A year and a half after buying Tunnicliff's, Breaux hired Atein Riggins, a 15-year-old who washed dishes part-time on a work permit and eventually would become one of her "stellar employees," tending bar and serving at private parties.

Then one day Riggins entered the Army National Guard. "It was December 17, 1994 -- I will never forget the day," Riggins said. After several months of basic training and military trade schools, Riggins returned to his job at Tunnicliff's. But serving as a reservist meant one 15-day training period each year and a weekend of training each month at the D.C. Armory.

Since joining the National Guard, Riggins has been torn between two bosses -- Lynne Breaux and Uncle Sam. Sensing Breaux's frustration at his routine disappearances during some of the restaurant's busiest hours, Riggins nominated her for inclusion in the BossLift program.

Participants in June's D.C. BossLift were flown on a C-141 transport, or "jump plane," from Andrews Air Force Base to the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base in New Orleans. Over the next three days, Lynne Breaux saw a "new" New Orleans. She and the other employers inspected F-15 Eagle jet fighters and their weapons systems, toured historic barracks and a military museum and visited a U.S. Coast Guard station at Lake Pontchartrain Lighthouse.

The BossLift program operates under the aegis of the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, a Department of Defense agency established by Congress in 1972 to promote understanding and support among employers for employees who serve as reservists in the U.S. armed forces and regularly miss work for training and deployments.

Following the Cold War, when U.S. military reserves were truly set aside for the possibility of large-scale conflicts, reservists have increasingly been called upon to serve -- in everything from international peacekeeping efforts to humanitarian aid missions. In 1998, reservists served 13.3 million active "duty days," as opposed to .9 million in 1987.

"Today's reservists are serving in more places and in more cases than ever before" said Charles L. Cragin, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs at a Pentagon ceremony honoring employers last month.

"It is tremendously important that we recognize the contributions of employers, especially those who go above and beyond the requirements of law," he said.

The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, enacted in 1994, protects employees who serve in the National Guard and Reserve as long as they provide timely notification of military duties and report back to work in a timely manner.

Greg Ayres, an executive with Base Technologies, a McLean-based IT services firm with major contracts with federal agencies, agreed. Out of Base Technologies' 175 employees, 12 serve in reserve units.

"BossLift is a practical approach to showing what employees in the reserve are doing when they're away from work," Ayres said. "It's valuable to me as an employer to see what kind of training employees are getting. It cuts both ways."

Still, with an ever tightening labor market, the absence of key employees adversely affects business. "Increasing the deployment of reserve personnel definitely has its economic downside," said Lt. Col. Mike Edrington, noting the potentially devastating impact for small businesses in particular. "We try to mitigate that impact as much as possible."

For Lynne Breaux, the brief brush with military life helped. Before the BossLift excursion, the military represented an irksome inconvenience that regularly stole one of her best employees. Afterward, she recognized how reserve activities have imbued Riggins with what she calls "a seriousness of purpose."

"Now I see the bigger picture," she said. "I really have a sense of contributing to the greater good."