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Blind to Lose City Contract for Cafeteria

January 18, 1990|MARTHA L. WILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A state program allowing blind vendors to operate the city cafeteria will end in Glendale this month following widespread complaints from city workers about the quality and variety of food.

Brian Butler, director of the Department of Finance and Administrative Services, said the city notified the state last month that it will terminate a 4-year-old contract with the state Jan. 31. A new outside vendor is being sought.

Butler said the action was taken after more than 75% of about 180 city employees surveyed rated quality, variety, value and service at the cafeteria as poor or worse.

'City workers obviously are disenchanted with the current operator," Butler said. "Things have gradually deteriorated and gone downhill."

Butler called the state-sponsored program "a smashing success" when the first blind vendor took over the cafeteria operation from a city employee association in 1985. Prior to that, the association had been losing $2,500 to $5,000 a year, which was paid out of employee association dues.

But the program has suffered within the last two years from a high turnover in operators and cafeteria workers, he said, and the city since has been paying a $1,000 a month subsidy to keep the operation afloat.

Councilwoman Ginger Bremberg, a longtime patron of the cafeteria, once called it "the gourmet sky room," referring to its panoramic view of downtown Glendale and Griffith Park from the third floor of the Public Services building in the civic center. But she, too, has become a critic.

"Only hamburgers are served hot," she said. "Everything else is cold. Sometimes, I'm the only one there."

Bremberg and other city officials said patronage fell off dramatically after the cafeteria began charging for hot water, cups and ice cubes. "People are angry," Bremberg said. "They left in droves."

Zohrab Bedekian, the cafeteria's operator since May, 1988, said he is being unfairly blamed for the operation's woes. He said it was struggling long before he took it over because it is in a poor location at the top of a building away from the public, serves a relatively small number of people and has to compete with a growing number of restaurants and speciality cafes in the downtown area.

He said he levied the fees for cups and ice cubes (the fees have since been dropped) because many city workers use the cafeteria as a lounge, a fact Butler verifies.

"They come here with their brown bags and tea bags from home and use the cups and hot water and sugar and stirrers and napkins and leave a mess at the table. Then they leave, paying nothing," Bedekian said. "How can anyone make a living on that?"

The city's current contract is with the Business Enterprise Program of the state Department of Rehabilitation. The program was started in 1945 to aid blind persons in operating food and vending services in government buildings. The state provides some of the equipment and maintenance.

The program was inspired by federal legislation--the Randolph-Sheppard Act of 1936--designed to give decent working conditions to the blind people.

California is a leader in the enterprise program for the blind, said Don Edmon, interim program administrator. Blind vendors in the state grossed about $45 million last year, up from $38 million in 1985. Nationwide, more than 3,300 government-licensed blind vendors bring in sales of almost $400 million.

But the number of state-contracted vending locations for the blind has declined recently in California--from about 275 three years ago to 255 today. Edmon said the decline is due largely to the inability of blind vendors to earn enough to support themselves in cities with a high cost of living. In those areas, he said, vendors have been encouraged to merge or fold their operations.

The average income earned by blind vendors in the state last year was $27,000, said Edmon.

Profits from the Glendale cafeteria, in contrast, have been "at a marginal level," although Edmon said Bedekian never complained about his income. Edmon also said city officials had not notified the state of problems.

Bedekian, 29, lives in Van Nuys. He said his annual income from running the Glendale cafeteria is less than $18,000, even though he works 11 hours or more a day and faces a daily bus ride to work of more than two hours each way.

Bedekian said he operated his own automotive body repair shop in Hollywood for four years before doctors advised him to give up the business because of his failing eyesight. He finished at the top of his class in the state rehabilitation program, he said.

Although Bedekian is legally blind and unable to drive, he said he still has enough peripheral vision to run the cafeteria operation and staff the cash register. He hasn't missed a day of work since he was hired, he said.

"It's not possible to make a living here," said the dejected Bedekian. "I did the best I could."

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