Food vendor courts

Repast: Rich Waxler's Blue Rooster Cafe is filling a need - and stomachs - at Howard County's old circuit courthouse.

April 27, 2004|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

The sandwiches and salads and hot dogs are a hot commodity. So are the meatball subs and, for that matter, just about anything else at Rich Waxler's Blue Rooster Cafe.

No matter that Waxler's joint is as far from a traditional restaurant as you can get, or that his more aptly described food stand is jammed into a corner of an already crowded building - Howard County's old circuit courthouse.

Seven months after he set up shop, business is booming, and county and court officials, who struggled for years to find a vendor who could make a go of the tricky courthouse site, are cheering his good luck.

"He's a delight, and it's wonderful. He's just something," said Judge Diane O. Leasure, the county's administrative circuit judge. "I always had great hope it would [succeed]."

By the time Waxler, 60, and his partner, Joel Penenburgh, 52, opened the courthouse snack bar, county officials had spent nearly three years looking for a vendor who could replace - and even improve on - the packaged foods and drinks offered by local bail bondsman Howard F. Duncan for years. Duncan had given up the site in late 2000, noting employee problems and the limitations the courthouse space placed on what he could sell.

The county first tapped West Friendship-based Nixon's Farm to run the courthouse food stand - and a larger one on the ground level of the George Howard Building. Although the West Friendship business installed the plumbing and sinks needed to sell fresh food, the arrangement lasted less than a year.

With Nixon's moving out, county officials turned to Waxler and Penenburgh, two Columbia residents who, through their business, KISS Catering, sold concessions from hot dog carts at soccer tournaments and other venues.

The men, along with Penenburgh's daughter, Randi, began running the courthouse and Howard building food stands in September.

There were a few bumps along the way: When Waxler and Penenburgh hit a rough patch in their business relationship late last year, the courthouse stand closed for a few weeks.

But the men dissolved the partnership amicably and split the county contract. Waxler returned to the courthouse, while Penenburgh stayed on at the George Howard Building. Penenburgh's larger food bar continued to provide the fresh sandwiches and salads for Waxler's stand, and the men worked together to purchase supplies.

Over the next few months, Waxler, a retired nursing home administrator who said he returned to work after his wife told him to stop "bugging" her, gave the courthouse something it never had before: hot food and classical music.

He heated meatballs in a giant pot and served them, sub-style, when the marinara sauce began to bubble. He tried out barbecue sandwiches and Italian sausage and hamburgers and found a following among the courthouse employees, lawyers and others who ply their trade in the building. He blared classical tunes from a small boom box atop one of his two refrigerators and drew people to his perch.

County officials told him that previous vendors had failed in the site, but "you always think you're smarter than the guy before," Waxler said. Things were slow at first, he said, but the courthouse stand is now a "financial moneymaker."

With a stand to call their own, courthouse workers and lawyers say they plan to do everything they can to make sure he stays.

"I'm just so thrilled to have food in the courthouse," said Assistant Public Defender Janette DeBoissiere, who said she makes a point of buying lunch at Waxler's stand at least once a week. " ... And I try to do my part to keep it there."

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