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When cabbies started complaining at Denver International Airport this summer, it was strictly from hunger. Something was rotten at DIA's ground-transportation area, they said, and all too often it was the food in the vending machines--not to mention the contract that had awarded the concession.
"You have to understand--this is the main food supply for us during the long waits for a fare at DIA," says Dave Drake, a driver for Freedom Cab Company. "We pull our cabs up to wait, and it's sometimes three or four hours before we get a fare. But we can't leave our cabs for more than a few seconds, and it's really inconvenient to store fresh food in our cabs, so the vending machines are our main source."
This summer, though, those machines were only a source of frustration, and cabbies grumbled to anyone who would listen. There was no ice in the fountain-style soft-drink machine, perishable items such as sandwiches and microwave burritos were stuck in machines that weren't even turned on, and the machines that were turned on delivered the wrong food--or no food at all--and no change.
"We'd been complaining to the company that was servicing these machines," Drake says. "There were so many problems, but the main one was that there was never enough food to go around. I mean, these machines were empty most of the time. And the guys who came to restock them kept saying it wasn't their problem and giving us a number to call."
The number led to Crown Food Services, the company that got the contract in August 1996 to provide vending machines for DIA spaces controlled by the city: the airport office building, the maintenance center, the parking plaza and the ground-transportation holding lot.
For nearly a year Crown reigned over that territory, pulling in "anywhere from $4,500 to $7,000 a month," says Pete Gingras, the airport's property officer. But in July the city told Crown to remove its machines--an eviction made possible by a contract clause that says the city can cancel at any time, for any reason. And the reason, according to city councilman Ted Hackworth, was that the city was getting complaints from all the sections Crown was servicing, but especially from cab drivers.
Drake says there was trouble from the start. "It's like they didn't even know what they were doing," he says of Crown. "We would watch them trying to fix the machines, and they didn't even know how to start them. It got better for a while, but then it got much, much worse. We started getting upset when we'd push a button for black coffee and it would come out with cream and sugar in it. Screwy things like that started happening more often than not."
And for five weeks this summer the vending machines weren't operational at all. That's when cab drivers started hitching rides with other cabbies to go to Burger King or other airport restaurants, according to a Yellow Cab employee. "Some of the drivers were so hungry, they left their cabs in the holding area, which prompted security to start ticketing them," the Yellow Cab driver says. "That led to a bit of a scuffle between drivers and security. Then one guy's cab was going to be towed, and that started a big riot."
The cabbies were hungry, they were mad, and they wondered what had happened to the old vending operation, Canteen Vending Services, which had been doing "a great job before Crown came in," Drake says. "Really, they knew what they're doing, and we had no complaints at all when they were here."
Canteen, which is owned by Compass USA out of Charlotte, North Carolina, has been doing business in Denver for 35 years and has been on the approved list of DIA vendors--along with twenty others--since the airport opened in early 1995. Western Pacific, Continental and Delta all use Canteen for their employee snack rooms, as does the UPS facility. And at first, so did the city.
Canteen was happy to help the city out, says Ken Kania, Canteen's district general manager. "They hadn't found any minority companies to run those areas, and they asked if we would step in and take care of it until they found a minority company," he says. "We went into it knowing that we were there temporarily, that it was a minority set-aside and that we would have to bow out when they found a qualified company."
The company the city found was Crown Food Services, owned by Willie and John Watts since 1991. (The brothers also run Kal'line's Cafe, at 2736 Welton Street, for which they received a $43,000 loan in May 1996 from the Mayor's Office of Economic Development.) Although Willie Watts filed for personal bankruptcy in 1992, Crown has been a successful business, grossing an estimated $210,000 last year, according to Dun & Bradstreet. (Willie Watts refuses to speak with Westword on the advice of his attorney, Penfield Tate, who says a hearing is being scheduled for his client and the city to determine "if there are any problems here.")
Willie Watts's bankruptcy initially was a sticking point for the panel--primarily made up of city personnel--reviewing the five proposals for the vending contract. "Small companies face these kinds of difficulties, and we didn't want to punish Crown for problems they had in the late Eighties or early Nineties," says Gingras, who serves as the liaison between the vending companies and the airport property-management office. "Crown came in and convinced the panel that they could handle this job. I think that the problem was, the areas that are controlled by the city at DIA are so spread out. There's such an incredible volume of business being done from the vending machines in places like the cabbies' area, which has drivers going through nearly 24 hours a day, that Crown just wasn't equipped or experienced enough with this kind of job. But it was our understanding initially that they were right for it."
Whether Crown was chosen based primarily on its minority ownership depends on who's talking. A woman-owned company was among the five that submitted proposals, Gingras says, but "independent scoring by the panel makes it difficult for minority ownership to even be an issue." Hackworth concurs. "We're always encouraged to choose minorities. But I don't remember this contract being exclusively for minorities," he says.
But airport concessions manager Barbara Butler says the contract required a 25 percent minority participation in order to fit in with the city's Disadvantaged Business Enterprise goals. "For instance, if Canteen had wanted the contract, they could have owned 75 percent, and a minority company could have been in for the 25 percent," she explains.
Kania, however, says his Canteen was never given the chance to apply. "As far as I recall, we weren't even sent an RFP [request for proposals] package that first time around," he adds. "We definitely would have submitted a proposal. Now, I don't want it to look like I'm calling the city a liar on this, but it was made very clear to us that it would have to be a minority-owned deal."
And he had no problem with that. "I knew it from the beginning, so that was fine," he says. Canteen returned to the city-controlled areas on a temporary basis a few weeks ago, after what was "clearly an urgent request for proposals from the city," Kania adds. "Now I'm just happy to be back in there, and the customers are happy, too. Our guys keep hearing from all these cabbies about how happy they were to see us back."
Drake is one of them. "We don't care what company is doing it, as long as it's a professional company that keeps the machines stocked, treats us decently and honors our complaints," he says. "Food is kind of important, you know?