These blind vendors did brisk business across NY. Then COVID brought sales to a standstill
Yvonne Bachmore's footsteps echoed in the empty lobby of a state government building in New York City as she approached her shuttered convenience stand.
The spot had served packaged snacks and caffeinated beverages to employees of the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance inside a once-bustling Brooklyn high-rise. Bachmore, 52, sorted through unpurchased chips and cookies, gum and bottled soda, searching for expired goods that she’d now have to discard.
It was June 2020, and outside, the COVID-19 pandemic was ravaging Manhattan. Three months earlier, employees all over the city had been sent home from their offices en masse as sirens whizzed past the windows.
But Bachmore, who is visually impaired, couldn’t work from home. She owned her shop through the state’s Business Enterprise Program, which trains members of the blind and visually impaired community to own and operate convenience stands or shops in government and private buildings throughout New York.
"It was scary and devastating," she said. "I knew at that moment that things would never be the same again."
After 14 months of closure, Bachmore returned to her shop again when the building reopened in May 2021, but most of her customers didn’t. Some employees retired, some had started working remotely permanently. Court hearings went virtual, so there wasn’t nearly as much foot traffic through the building’s lobby.
On top of that, her stand is slated to be turned into vending machines, which will become her primary income, as well as a string of vending machines in another state building.
“We’re not a regular small business where we could put stuff on the sidewalk down here. Other stores could switch to curbside pickup or delivery,” Bachmore said. “We’re different then other small businesses in that we’re depending on those government workers. If they’re not in the building, there’s nobody to sell to.”
A statewide business network
Bachmore is one of about 1,800 blind and visually impaired people throughout the nation who own their own convenience shops, food stands or gift shops under the Randolph-Sheppard Act, a federal law enacted in 1936 to provide gainful employment to that population.
Following the passage of the legislation, New York launched the Business Enterprise Program under the state Commission for the Blind, which carried out the practical training side of the Randolph-Sheppard laws in New York. The program employs about 65 blind or visually impaired vendors working in state or federal buildings, rest areas on the New York state Thruway or other state-run roadways, and some private buildings such as hospitals.
The commission runs the program in conjunction with the New York Committee of Blind Vendors, a group consisting of licensed vendors who participate in policy and program development and serve as advocates for licensees with grievances.
Those vendors were the ones selling Cokes and bags of chips to judges and state representatives, reporters and jurors as they hurried through state buildings and courthouses.
But when COVID-19 hit, the whole network ground to a halt as Gov. Andrew Cuomo, under emergency orders, shuttered state buildings and private businesses. Without customers bustling through the halls, and without a process to market their wares to the outside world, the vendors were left without employment options.
“The experience throughout the state was confusion, and then quickly into panic, because facilities like mine, and across the state, cater to a captive audience,” said Virgilio Amaral, 52, who runs several food service facilities in state government buildings in Albany, plus a number of vending machines and ATMs.
With buildings sitting empty, he had no choice but to shut down, Amaral said. His shops remained closed until Aug. 9, when he reopened one of the two he owns. His vending machines and ATMs kept him afloat over his 16-month shop closure, in addition to some funds he’d saved before the pandemic, he said.
Richie DeGaetano, who runs a vending machine route in the Capital district, said he lost about 75% to 80% of his business during the worst of COVID-19. He started with the program 32 years ago in New York City, doing everything from running a snack bar in Times Square to a cafeteria in the Brooklyn Criminal Courthouse.
Some of the buildings he serves were populated by essential workers throughout the pandemic, but only at about 25% capacity.
DeGaetano thought of walking away, he said; it was almost too difficult to navigate the business and public health hurdles building up against him. But then he thought of those workers still summoned to their jobs every day.
“They needed us, and I wanted to represent this program in the way I always had,” he said. “The only thing is I had to figure out how to do it at 25% capacity. That was a challenge.”
During the pandemic, DeGaetano kept his operation afloat by utilizing the Paycheck Protection Program twice, plus loans from the bank and the Commission for the Blind.
“We just muddled through it one day at a time,” he said, adding that he had “a profound loss” of inventory related to the loss in customers. He tried calling his suppliers, such as Pepsi Co, to ask if they’d take any of their shipments back, but they’d only accept items with a certain amount of weeks of sellable time left before they expired, he said.
Thanks to the continued workplace reopening and an increase in travel, DeGaetano said his business is now operating at about 60% of its original capacity.
The New York State Commission for the Blind sent out more than $800,000 in payments to Business Enterprise Program vendors throughout the pandemic to offset their income losses, and made available loans and grants with deferred payments to make up for lost inventory, according to a Commission statement to the USA Today Network in August. Eighty-two percent of members indicated that they’d take advantage of a loan or a grant for lost inventory, the statement noted.
Throughout the pandemic, the commission offered online trainings, supplied personal protection equipment and plexiglass barriers to vendors and paused collection of liability insurance payments through the end of this year to bolster cash flow.
A livelihood reimagined
On the other side of the state in Buffalo, Paul Kornowski, 29, spent the summer of 2020 waiting on the state to reopen the court system. His food stand at the Erie County Courthouse catered to jurors, court clerks and judges, and business was going better than ever in the early spring.
“Then all of a sudden everything just stopped. It just stopped,” Kornowski said. “Then a month goes by and then another month ... How long can we stay closed? I figured two weeks, tops, and we’d be back in business, but that wasn’t the case. Just the unknowing was really tough.”
Six months went by, during which he cleaned and serviced his machines at the courthouse and served the few customers who trickled through the doors as they handled essential business. He tried reopening twice last summer, but each time, he didn’t have enough business to make it worthwhile.
Then an opening came up at Roswell Park Cancer Institute last October, and Kornowski decided it was time to go.
Now, he runs a snack and coffee shop tucked away near an entrance of an administrative services building on the sprawling Buffalo hospital campus, selling Snapples and granola bars to healthcare workers.
Vestiges of the pandemic still affect his day-to-day operations. An aluminum shortage meant he couldn’t get soda cans into the shop for a while, and he couldn’t buy a specific Ohio-based brand of pretzel rods that he knew certain doctors enjoyed, he said.
Despite these hurdles, he’s gone out of his way to try to make things normal for his customers — even making a trip to a retail store to buy Peanut Butter Nature’s Valley Crunchy granola bars (a favorite at the shop) when he knew he couldn’t get them from his supplier, he said.
The money’s not as good at Roswell as it was at the courthouse stand, but Kornowski said he was able to cover his losses without a heavy financial strain, and he doesn’t regret the location change.
“I love it here; I’m comfortable where I am,” he said.
Advocating for their future
The vendors are cautiously forging ahead with reopening their shops despite the pandemic’s resurgence in recent weeks due to the delta variant.
Amaral, who recently reopened his shop in an Albany state government building, said he’s looking to “recapture” his audience by offering some different food and beverage items.
“I would like everything to get back to normal, and I know we will at some point,” he said.
Amid ongoing pandemic concerns, the Committee of Blind Vendors continues to manage other pressing issues, including the question of whether they’ll own and operate food and beverage vending machines at newly renovated New York State Thruway rest areas, the first of which will open in March 2022.
Blind and visually impaired vendors historically owned and operated a variety of vending machines, food stands and gift shops at the Thruway rest areas under the state’s Randolph-Sheppard laws.
The state just launched a $450 million rest area renovation project this summer, and in communicating to the Commission for the Blind about business opportunities for blind vendors as part of the project, the State Thruway Authority in April omitted food and beverage machines, offering only ATMs for their use, plus coin-operated laundry areas and E-Z Pass transponder machine at some sites.
In July, a group of 12 blind vendors filed a complaint with the state Commission for the Blind seeking to force the Thruway Authority to include more vending opportunities at its new rest areas, which will be built and operated by Irish convenience-store company Applegreen.
More on the complaint:Blind vendors battling New York Thruway over plans for overhauled rest stops
They argued that the Thruway Authority and Commission for the Blind should be required to establish at least one vending facility — such as a gift shop, convenience store, mini-mart, or food service facility — to be operated by a licensed blind vendor at each service area, as well as an adequate number of vending machines to meet travelers’ needs.
The decision on whether to have food and beverage vending machines at the new rest areas hasn't been made yet, Thruway Authority spokesperson Jennifer Givner said in July. It will be worked out as part of ongoing discussions between Applegreen and the Commission for the Blind, which has been heavily involved with the project planning process, Givner said.
Sarah Taddeo is an enterprise reporter for USA Today Network's New York State Team. Got a story tip or comment? Contact Sarah at STADDEO@Gannett.com or (585) 258-2774. Follow her on Twitter @Sjtaddeo. This coverage is only possible with support from our readers. Please consider becoming a digital subscriber.