Blind vendors find independence at state Capitol and military bases

By: - December 30, 2019 8:45 am

Dale King readies his “King of Snacks” cafe before lunch rush on a Tuesday in December. Beau Evans/Georgia Recorder

The drop in sales that comes with the holiday season is always tough for Dale King, the blind cafe manager of the James H. “Sloppy” Floyd Building across from the Georgia Capitol. But it’s far better than the days when no one would hire him due to his blindness, so he relied on odd jobs to supplement his $750-a-month Social Security check.

Now, King makes enough in sales from his “King of Snacks” cafe in Atlanta to employ two people, has won vendor-of-the-year awards twice and recently sent his son to college.

“I know we’re blessed,” said the 60-year-old King, who lost his sight to the disease macular degeneration. “If I look back so many years, I could never imagine being in this position right now.”

King is one of 62 blind vendors working in cafes, snack bars, rest stops, welcome centers and military bases in Georgia. They participate in a national program set up in 1936 that gives blind persons exclusive rights to bid for vendor contracts on state and federal properties.

Blind workers in the program in Georgia often keep working beyond retirement age until they die, said Teresa Eggleston, director of the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency’s Business Enterprise Program. It helps them overcome economic barriers and social misconception, Eggleston said, shaping them into seasoned entrepreneurs with permanent jobs and steady income.

“This is a great opportunity for them to work and earn a living,” Eggleston said. “It’s a chance for them to go as far as they can.”

Overseen in Georgia by Eggleston’s department, the federal program trains and certifies blind vendors so they can compete for contracts. It does not provide subsidies. Vendors make their own wages and set aside some earnings for health insurance and a shared rainy-day fund.

And they might soon enter the fast-food business. Eggleston said the state wants to collaborate with big fast food companies to let blind vendors open local restaurant franchises.

“We’re going to start looking at that in 2020,” Eggleston said. “(We’re) just trying to figure out how to make that work.”

Most vendors earn around $45,000 a year, Eggleston said. But the lucky few with contracts to run cafeterias on Georgia military bases can make well over six figures.

Franklin Hulsey, 76, manages Fort Gordon’s cafeteria.

Among them is Franklin Hulsey, a 76-year-old Atlanta native who has managed the cafeteria at Fort Gordon near Augusta for 12 years. He got his start in the late 1960s working in the basement snack bar of the Georgia Capitol, where he used to bump into former Gov. Lester Maddox and then-state Sen. Jimmy Carter. At Fort Gordon, Hulsey supervises 385 employees spread over five dining halls that feed 10,000 soldiers daily.

“I’ve got three kids, I’ve got eight grandkids and I’m still moving,” said Hulsey, who was born with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare genetic disorder. “I enjoy it every day.”

Nationwide, thousands of blind people like Hulsey and King have built stable service-industry careers through the vendor program, said Nicky Gacos, president of the nonprofit National Association of Blind Merchants. That’s remarkable given how many blind people are unemployed, he said. The U.S. blind population’s employment rate is 37%, according to a 2015 study. Other research estimates more than 70% of the country’s blind people either can’t find work or have stopped searching.

“By far this is the greatest employment program in history for people who are blind,” said Gacos, who lives in New Jersey and is blind. “And it’s probably one of the best-kept secrets around.”

The vendor program faces some challenges, such as its lack of health benefits. Some Georgia vendors including King struggle to afford insurance that will cover their medical needs, even though they set aside part of their earnings to purchase plans. High costs have kept the state from sponsoring coverage in the past, Eggleston said.

“It’s so expensive but we’re going to approach it again,” she said. “The vendors have to agree that this is something they want to do, and it has to be cost-effective.”

It’s not unusual for King to pay out of his own pocket for a routine doctor’s visit, he said. But the bills don’t bury him, he said, because business is humming.

On a regular day, King will ring up 450 sales or more from hundreds of customers working in the 20-floor “Sloppy” Floyd building, where employees from around two dozen state agencies work. He knows many of them by the sound of their voices, which adds a personal touch to his business that he says helps him compete with the larger food court on the building’s first floor.

“It’s not an easy job,” King said on a recent morning just before the lunch rush. “But if you’re familiar with your store and your customers, you can get an edge.”

So how much money does the “King of Snacks” proprietor make these days? When asked, the blind foster-child-turned-entrepreneur keeps coy.

“All I can tell you,” King said with a smile, “is I do pretty good.”

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Beau Evans
Beau Evans

Beau Evans has covered local and state government and breaking news in New Orleans and California. He’s reported on immigration issues, the threat of rising seas to coastal areas, public safety and hurricanes. At The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Evans detailed the critical role government plays to ensure that people in a community have access to clean water and other public needs. In 2018, his investigative reporting revealed top officials at New Orleans’ cash-poor water utility dealt themselves huge raises, prompting several to resign. Evans’ prior reporting was in West Marin north of San Francisco for The Point Reyes Light. Evans is an Atlanta native who graduated with honors from The Lovett School and is an honors graduate of North Carolina’s Davidson College. Beau was with the Georgia Recorder until January 4th, 2020.