Once I realized I could go back to what I was doing, I was really into it!

Trevena and Robert Alves at the register in the FDA Wiley Building food facility.
 August 2019 - Robert Alves: “After I decided to get up off the couch, the woe is me was over, so I decided I was going to need some help...and someone told me about DORS.” 

In April of 2016, Robert Alves began working with DORS' Office for Blindness & Vision Services (OBVS), Waldorf, Rehabilitation Supervisor, Amy Wustner. “Before I lost my sight, I was a chef, for over twenty years…and Amy said ‘Look at all this background! Have you tried BEP?’ So, I decided to take some tests and that’s how I was introduced to BEP. Once I realized I could go back to what I was doing, I was really into it.”

The Maryland Business Enterprise for the Blind (MDBEP/BEP), which is administered by OBVS, provides opportunities for individuals who are legally blind to operate retail concession, gift, or food service businesses in public facilities.

BEP participants take part in a variety of activities that are designed to test their ability to run a business and to prepare them for possible BEP opportunities. Robert says “The training was monotonous,” it includes five weeks in a classroom, four weeks in the DORS’ Workforce & Technology Center​ (WTC) cafeteria, ServSafe® training, and testing “but my test score was the third highest in my class!” After the formal training, BEP participants move on to training in a variety of BEP environments, and again, Robert excelled. OBVS BEP Staff Specialist, Mans Persaud: “Robert was one of the fastest. [Most participants] train for over a year. Robert, with his background, was ready in three months!”

On August 1, 2017, less than a year and a half after he started working with OBVS, Robert took over as the manager of the FDA Wiley Building food facility in College Park. “I came here and hung out for three weeks before I ever took over – without pay!” His dedication has paid off and the facility is doing very well; profits are up between sixty and one hundred percent and his food costs are the lowest in the entire program.

Much of this success is due to the quality of products and services at the Wiley Building facility. One of the customers, Maggie S., a Budget Analyst at the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition​, was so impressed that she said the following in an email to Mans: “I wanted to pass along my appreciation on how great the cafeteria is at the Wiley Building now. The daily specials are always fabulous, the additions of items such as pre-made sandwiches on the days we have Public Meetings, a salad bar that is actually salad items … make your own omelets, sushi, ice cream, hotdogs/pizza, etc. really makes grabbing breakfast or lunch downstairs both easy and also fabulous. A HUGE thank you to Tia and the entire team. Everyone is super friendly, goes out of their way to remember what you like on your sandwich, learns people’s names, etc. It really makes you feel a part of a community with little things like that added into your day.”

Running the FDA Wiley Building food facility is a team effort, and one of Robert’s employees is his wife, Trevena. There are just two other staff members and Robert describes himself as the “quarterback” who calls the plays “and everyone plays their part.” Robert spends a lot of his work time costing out the food and planning the menus “it’s a fifty hour week” which includes shopping and stocking on Saturdays.

Trevena’s “part” includes handling most of the food ordering and helping out with the register. She says that working in a food services business has been challenging, but she enjoys having more time with her husband and she is thankful for BEP. “[This program] has helped [Robert] become a better person. There’s no more doom and gloom on his face. He has something to look forward to. It feels good that there are people out there who care… Mans and BEP are very supportive.” 

For his part, Mans gives credit for Robert’s success to Robert. “After three months, we do an inspection, and Robert got a score of ninety-nine [out of a possible one hundred], so in just three months, he got his permanent license! I tell people in [BEP], we have their backs, we’re advocates for the blind…but you’re not entitled, you have to prove that you can do the work.”  The success of the FDA Wiley Building food facility is a model for the BEP program; Mans now brings new BEP trainees there on field trips. 

Robert has only words of encouragement for the new BEP trainees. “I say go for it. It’s a lot of hard work, but you’ll be a manager, you’ll have your own spot…I didn’t believe it until I saw it happening for me!”

COVID-19 UPDATE - SEPTEMBER 2020 - Like many small food service businesses, Robert Alves' Wiley Building cafe was shut down in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. And, since the facility is in a Federal government building, it will not be able to reopen until the government reopens. Most BEPs are operated as retail concession, gift, or food service businesses in government facilities, so most are shuttered during the pandemic, with the exception of those in Department of Defense facilities.

We checked in with Mans Persaud to see how Robert is managing since he had to close his doors. Mans reported that OBVS BEP staff have been assisting Robert, and all BEP vendors, with applying for unemployment insurance and Paycheck Protection Program grants and loans, to help bridge the income gap during the crisis. Additionally, most BEP vendors receive commissions from vending machines​ in government buildings, and since a small number of employees are still working at his College Park location, Robert has that income as well. Of Robert's outlook, Mans said: "Mr. Alves is doing great, he understands the need to follow the CDC guidelines, and his morale is up...and he really looks forward to reopening, once it is safe."

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