Hard Times, Health Food Take A Bite Out Of Snack Bar Profits

County Concessionaire Struggles To Keep Customers Satisfied

January 23, 1991|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff writer

There is a tinge of sadness in Eugene Penn's voice as he talks abouta job he "wouldn't have changed in the last 14 years for anything."

But Penn does not know how long he can continue in it.

It is not merely the recession, although that hurts. Penn's business has been declining for at least six years, and he says there is little he can do to turn it around.

Penn, who is blind, operates the snack bar in the basement of the county office building. He was thebuilding's first tenant, moving in the day after Christmas 1977.

In the early days, the snack bar provided more than food. It was a gathering place for people from various departments.

Since then, thecounty government's roster has grown to such an extent that Penn estimates "very conservatively, that 190 people have moved out of this complex" to offices outside the county building.

The most recent departure -- 25 employees and officials who staff the Fire Administrator's office -- was particularly hard, Penn says. He calls those workers "friendly extroverts."

"I really miss them. They were 'real people' people -- friendly, smiling, never picky. And they were consistently like that," he said.

"When I came here, most people were very happy. There were lots of smiles in their voices. But over the years,there were growing complaints -- they felt like somebody was lookingover their shoulder," Penn said.

One thing Penn, 43, says led to the change was a "crackdown on everybody" that resulted from a late 1987 ban on smoking in the county office building. Not only could workers wanting a smoke no longer stay at their desks, but they had to leave the building altogether.

But then smokers started taking five or six breaks a day. Non-smokers got jealous, Penn says. They wanted the same number of breaks and initially took them at the snack bar. So officials moved to keep employees from taking long breaks. Most departments sprouted microwave ovens, small refrigerators and coffee makers. Keeping employees at their desks kept them away from the snack bar.

At lunchtime, many preferred a change of scenery and left the building. Many who stayed changed their eating habits. Rather than sharing sodas and soup and sandwiches, they joined aerobics classes, drank juices and ate salads and foods low in sodium and cholesterol.

County Administrator Buddy Roogow sees the move to in-office coffee pots and microwaves as having more to do with changes in people's eating habits -- special diets and call-in pizzas -- than the smoking ban.

"It's a very difficult situation," Roogow says. "Gene provides a valuable service and we want to work with him, within reason. We would like to see more people use the snack bar, but cannot require it.People have a right to eat where they choose."

With a limited clientele -- "only the 360 people in this building and the citizens who come in to pay taxes" -- and operating hours of 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Penn has been unable to keep pace.

"I'm never going to be a McDonald's or Pizza Hut in volume," he says.

It is virtually impossible for him to vary his menu. Even simple provisioning can be problematic.

For example, people who want something less than the full breakfasts he offers have asked Penn to sell doughnuts each morning. To do so, he says, he would have to order seven or eight dozen from a supplier -- although he doubts he could sell more than four dozen.

While 14 years ago, nearly everyone knew his situation, Penn estimatesthat now, less than 10 percent of the workers in the county buildingknow his background.

They do not know, for example, that he receives no state aid and does not own the business in the sense that he can sell it to someone else. The state owns all the cooking equipment.And although he is given space rent-free, he gets no paid sick time,no retirement benefits, and no paid vacation -- "the same as all self-employed people."

Penn lost his vision through retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that gradually reduces vision until a person becomes blind.

Born in Washington on New Year's Eve in 1947, Penn wore corrective lenses by the time he was in high school but was not aware of any visual problem except that he had trouble tracking fly balls whenplaying baseball.

He earned a degree in history and secondary education with a minor in mathematics from Towson State University. In 1971, he took a job teaching social studies at an all-girls school in Baltimore. Initially, he wore magnifiers on his glasses. But by the fifth year, he could no longer correct papers. His wife, Linda, whom he met in graduate school, was doing it for him.

It was then that Penn entered a state vocational rehabilitation program for the blind. Federal law requires that blind people receive preference as owners and operators of snack bars and concessions in federal buildings. The custom is often followed in state and county buildings, but state andlocal law does not require it.

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