Blind vendors expanding as economy flounders RECESSION? NOT FOR EVERYONE

July 04, 1992|By Mensah Dean | Mensah Dean,Staff Writer

The recession has taken no prisoners: Hutzlers, Zales, Ames, Macy's and other retailers have either gone under or reorganized under federal bankruptcy laws. But one Maryland retailing chain is bucking the trend -- and plans to expand.

The chain is the federally funded Randolph-Sheppard Vending Program for the Blind. Over the next few years, the program plans to add seven outlets to the 82 cafeterias, food stands and newspaper/magazine stands operated by the blind in government buildings in Maryland.

The program is big business in Maryland, where the unemployment rate for blind people is an estimated 60 percent.

Last year, state vendors grossed $14 million with a combined profit of $2.3 million, according to the Maryland Vocational Rehabilitation Center, which coordinates the program. Vendor salaries are based on profits, and the average Maryland vendor makes $30,000 annually, roughly $5,000 more than the national average, says state program director Scott Dennis.

The program's economic fruits aren't limited to the vendors. Last year, for example, the vendors purchased about $9.5 million in supplies from Maryland businesses. And they employ about 260 people to help them run their stands.

To support the program, government agencies provide rent-free space for the cafeterias and stands. The vocational rehabilitation center provides business training and start-up capital. Vendors, meanwhile, work as independent contractors.

Their responsibilities include hiring employees, ordering merchandise, paying bills and all of the other tasks of food-service managers. Vendors return 8.5 percent of their profits to the program.

In the state program's early days, it handled vendor tasks ranging from filing income taxes to deciding what would be on menus. But in 1985 the state program gave vendors much more freedom.

"When we went independent in '85, I think that made better business people out of us because we had to learn the ins and outs of everything," says Linda Edwards, who has been in the vending program for more than 20 years.

Mrs. Edwards' first stand, a coffee shop, was smaller than the walk-in refrigerator in her current 24,000-square-foot Linda's cafeteria, the largest blind vendor's stand in Maryland. Last year, her cafeteria in the Social Security Metro West building grossed nearly $1 million.

"I personally think this program is fabulous . . . because it has given me a chance to be a business person, which I may never have been," says Mrs. Edwards, 42, who has trained 20 to 30 other vendors.

Mrs. Edwards has 18 employees but says, "I want something bigger."

Since she opened the Greene Street cafeteria in 1990, its sales have increased by $100,000, Mrs. Edwards says. "I feel that if I can run this place, I can run any place."

There's plenty of competition, but Mrs. Edwards thinks she and her colleagues have the upper hand.

"I feel that blind vendors will handle these large cafeterias a lot better than a private contractor because this is our livelihood; this is our heart and soul," she says.

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