I-95 rest stop will have a full plate for holiday

Maryland House has bolstered staff and supplies as it prepares to welcome the traveling throngs


The calm enveloping the Maryland House rest stop yesterday obscured days of furious preparation for the crush of holiday travelers expected to plow through today: thousands of hamburgers, coffee cups and pizza ingredients stockpiled; the bathrooms loaded with toilet paper and hand towels; and extra workers hired.

About 20,000 people are expected to pass through the rest stop on Interstate 95 in Harford County today as 1.6 million vehicles hit Maryland's major highways over the next five days. And it will be worse on "Black Sunday," employees say, when more than 30,000 people are expected.

"It'll be a madhouse," said manager Michele Gentry.

Yet, with most of the arrangements made, Gentry spent yesterday afternoon giving the place a subtle touch of the season by hanging holiday wreaths.

She will be joined today by 200 staff members - including 30 hired just for this weekend - who will work 10-hour shifts, receiving extra pay and a 15-pound turkey for their efforts.

Lines of customers at the rest stop's six restaurants will stretch through the building's foyer and out the front door as people on their way to gorge on turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce load up first on hamburgers, pasta, Cinnabons and espressos.

Sbarro's manager Billy Van Dyke said he doubled the usual orders for ingredients such as cheese, sauces, spaghetti and flour, and preparer Haruko Floran has made enough stromboli, spinach and mushrooms to keep things moving.

"We know it's coming," Floran said.

The staff at Maryland House knows how to prepare for a heavy demand on supplies. Rapper Fat Joe and his entourage, Terror Squad, invaded the buffet at the Bob's Big Boy last year.

"They ate a lot," recalled supervisor Paula Castillo.

On a Thanksgiving weekend Sunday, visitors to the rest stop have consumed 6,000 burgers, 3,000 hot dogs and 1,000 cups of coffee in previous years, said general manager Vern Bingham.

And that was before the opening in February of a 24-hour Starbucks. In contrast to the cafeteria-style feel of the fast-food restaurants nearby, Starbucks is stylishly decorated. It is painted in warm colors, and the aroma of cappuccino is in the air, giving it the mellow, ambience one might expect.

Until tomorrow.

"It's really going to put a big strain on operations," said Starbucks manager David Kohlbus. "But, on the plus side, we can definitely prepare and pump people up, knowing it's coming."

Kohlbus said he tripled the store's orders for the week, from 20 cases of coffee to 60. Though this will be the new store's first Thanksgiving rush, holiday trends suggest that overnight orders will quadruple as drivers seek an extra push to make it to their destinations.

"That's a lot of coffee," he said.

Some customers at the rest stop yesterday were trying to avoid the rush by leaving a day earlier than most holiday travelers. Wes Lyvers guided his 87-year-old mother, Ginny, to his car while carrying a cup of coffee in each hand. He had driven six hours from Hartford, Conn., to pick her up in Rockville so that they could spend the Thanksgiving holiday together up north.

"He's a good son," said Lyvers' mother, holding his arm as a gust of wind blew through.

One thing Lyvers, a technical consultant, won't do is battle I-95 and the bustling rest stop the day before Thanksgiving.

"Avoid Wednesday at all costs," he said.

The rush can be fun for rest stop employees, a "good type of stress," said retail supervisor Angie Frampton, 21. And management has taken strides to make it worth their while. Service employees, whose pay ranges from $7 to $10 an hour, will be paid time and a half, and each will get a 15-pound turkey to take home. Some workers who do not eat meat have donated their turkeys to the homeless.

Supervisors also will be looking for standout employees, who could receive passes for a paid day off, Gentry said.

The peak hours are expected to last from the lunch rush today until about 2 p.m. tomorrow. The crush will resume Sunday and last long into the night.

The weather forecast doesn't bode well for smooth travel in the Northeast this weekend. Snow and rain is predicted from the upper Midwest to New England tomorrow, which could snarl traffic on I-95 through Philadelphia or New York.

That's not likely to soothe the frayed nerves of travelers seeking to find solace at the crowded Maryland House.

"They come in with an attitude regardless," Van Dyke said, laughing. "Everyone wants to get in and out; we try to keep them happy."

Bingham said, "It's hectic, but that's the business we're in."


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