Blind vendor's death imperils cafe


Last Thursday, Betty Hanes lost her husband of 33 years to a heart attack. The next day she learned that she and her daughter may lose their livelihood.

This is happening because her husband,Lou Hanes, was blind, but she isn't. That means she doesn't qualify to manage Graceland Cafeteria, which she and her husband ran in the basement of Towson's old courthouse.

The day after Mr. Hanes died, the state rehabilitation program told Mrs. Hanes that it would have to replace her with a blind manager. With only $10,000 in insurance and little savings, she has asked Baltimore County officials for help.

"My father was not a good businessman," said their daughter, Grace Zellner, who works in the cafeteria. "He took care of his customers. He didn't leave anything for my mother. What she's got is that cafeteria."

Now, the Maryland Vending Program for the Blind wants it back. Officials at the agency said they are sympathetic, but state law requires that its concessionaires be visually impaired.

"Lou and Betty have done an absolutely wonderful job," said Scott A. Dennis, who administers the program for the Division of Rehabilitative Services of the state Department of Education. "Their place is a showcase."

But at a meeting Wednesday with the family and county officials, Mr. Dennis said he has no choice. "By law I'm required to replace that manager," he said.

The cafe, decorated as a shrine to Elvis Presley, Lou Hanes' idol, is one of the program's 85 commercial operations. Government buildings provide space and utilities at no charge, while the program provides equipment, inventory and training for the blind managers who run the businesses.

Those on both sides say the program is vital to blind people, 70 percent of whom are unemployed. But with Lou Hanes' death, Graceland Cafeteria must pass to a new blind vendor within 60 days,

To Betty Hanes, 52, and Mrs. Zellner, 30, the prospect of losing the business is almost as crushing as was Lou Hanes' sudden death at 54.

"That cafe is my father; that's all we have left," Mrs. Zellner said tearfully after she and her mother emerged from the meeting with state and county officials.

The Elvis decorations remind them of Lou, but the renovated cafeteria is the symbol of their success after years of struggling, both on their own and for the last 20 years at several locations in the blind vendors program.

The cafeteria walls are covered with gold records, photos of the King of Rock 'n' Roll and one shot of a Lou Hanes, then 21, sporting an Elvis pompadour. Along one wall stands a water fountain-bust of Elvis, flanked by two suits of armor, artificial trees and flowers.

While working in the cafeteria, Mr. Hanes dressed in Elvis-style. He collected Elvis Presley memorabilia and records and several times a year visited Graceland, the singer's home in Memphis.

"My husband and I ran the stand for 20 years," Mrs. Hanes said at the Wednesday meeting. "My 20 years could never be paid for, for what I have put in the business."

She told Mr. Dennis that she is grateful for what the blind vendors' program has done for the family.

"For the first 13 years of our marriage, Lou would work somewhere, and as soon as they found out he couldn't see well, they would let him go," she said.

Mrs. Hanes said her husband slowly lost his vision from a congenital eye defect.

Once in the blind vendors' program, the couple managed other concessions in the Towson area before taking over the old courthouse cafeteria four years ago.

Mrs. Hanes said they worked hard to build up the business, which became a success when it moved into larger quarters in 1993.

While she understands the law, she said she worked side by side with her husband for 20 years.

"The state really don't realize my part of it," Mrs. Hanes said.

Her workday starts before dawn to clean and prepare food. She then runs the cash register while the cafeteria is open. Besides Mrs. Zellner, another of her three daughters works there part time.

Unfortunately, she and her daughter said, the family had nothing put aside for emergencies.

Most of Mr. Hanes $10,000 in life insurance went to pay for his funeral. She lives in a rented home in Joppatowne.

Mrs. Hanes said she has arranged to return a new car the couple had just bought, and she still owes money on their old car. In addition, she said, the couple had been helping their children through hard financial times.

The Haneses paid monthly portions of their profits back to the program for 20 years to help finance its operations and pay for equipment repairs, she said.

But Mr. Dennis said his options to help them are limited. He said he could not force a new manager to hire Mrs. Hanes, her daughters or any of the other four workers, although he is sure that most would be retained.

While the county could terminate the lease with 90 days' notice and turn the cafe over to Mrs. Hanes, he said the agency would not agree to sell the kitchen equipment to the county and would remove it.

The program operates on a "shoestring budget" and would have to use the kitchen equipment elsewhere, the administrator said. Selling it at used-equipment prices would not raise enough money to buy the new equipment that could generate revenue at other sites.

"I have to look at what is most beneficial to the program overall," he said.

Don Morris, another blind vendor and former program official who attended the meeting, sympathized with the Hanes family but said his wife, Shirley, would be in the same position if he died suddenly. He operates a T-shirt shop at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg.

"Some of the questions you ask make me feel heartless," he said. "But that's just the way things are."

County officials said yesterday they have several options.

They could remove the blind vendors program from the courthouse, give the concession to Mrs. Hanes and finance new equipment. Or, they could try negotiate a deal to guarantee Mrs. Hanes an income once a new blind vendor is chosen. Or, the county could do nothing.

No decisions are expected before next week, when Mr. Dennis said he would begin advertising the cafeteria opening among 100 blind people who are qualified to operate it.

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