A Courthouse Fixture Fights to Stay Afloat

Dec 12, 2014

Blind vendor Randy Henson runs the Snack Shop at the Salinas Court Complex.
Credit Julie Reynolds

Randy Henson has been a fixture in Monterey County courts for 32 years. Henson runs the courthouse snack bar. Like scores of other vendors in courthouses and government buildings around the state, he is legally blind.

“The central vision loss was instantaneous,” he said. It happened in fifth grade. “I came back in after recess and the teacher asked me to read something from the history book and I was like plunking along.”

He discovered he had something Stanford scientists call Wolfram’s Syndrome, which he says mimic diabetes in addition to causing blindness.

“It’s a very rare hereditary disease that affects the second male of every other generation,” he said.

Always a hard worker, he got a job in his early 20s at Rico’s Pizza parlor in his hometown of Oroville. A co-worker told him the state had a program to help blind people set up small businesses. Henson jumped at the chance.

“I figured it was going to be a career,” he said. “It’s something I learned from my father — commitment to whatever you’re doing.”

Since 1936, the government’s blind vendor program — also known as the Randolph-Sheppard Act — has trained the sight-impaired to run concession stands in state and federal buildings. The Monterey County courthouse snack bar was the 9th blind vendor stand to be established in California.

Henson spent months in training and learned that the county would provide the space for his snack bar if he provided the service and paid the state a percentage of his monthly profits.
 

The vendors pay fees to purchase new equipment and maintain existing fixtures. That can include specialized machinery, like scanners that read the denominations of currency.

Henson said the state gave him a bill scanner that didn’t work properly, so he relies on old-fashioned trust. His customers tell him what they’re buying and whether they’re handing him a twenty-dollar bill or a five.

He does, however does have a talking cash register that helps him make change.

According to the state’s Department of Rehabilitation, which oversees the program in California, program vendors “earn a median net monthly income of approximately $2,700.”

Around 122 vendors in California operate businesses at more than 400 sites. They can also get health and life insurance, and there is a national organization, the Randolph-Sheppard Vendors of America.

A PAINFUL MOVE

Business was brisk back when Randy’s café occupied the top floor of the old West Wing of the  Salinas courthouse complex. The view was great, and the place jumped with attorneys, jurors and courthouse staff. Black-robed judges would pop in for a quick snack, and with an overhead walkway connecting the North and West wings, the café was easily accessible from the two busiest courthouse buildings.

But one day in 2006, Henson was told he’d have to move to a temporary trailer while the West Wing was renovated for asbestos and lead paint removal.

He’s now a block away from the courthouse, tucked into a trailer next to similar temporary buildings that house the District Attorney’s offices.

These days, tight security at the courthouse’s North Wing entrance means fewer customers are willing to pop outside and make the trek during a recess.

Earlier this year, officials told Henson he couldn’t move back to the courthouse until at least 2018. Now even that date is in question. The county recently purchased the former Schilling/Capital One building south of Salinas, and that unexpected expense has put the courthouse East and West wing renovation on indefinite hold, according to Bob Murdoch, the county’s public works director.

“Now we have to take a step back on how we can use the east-west buildings,” Murdoch said. “Where does Randy’s Snack Shop go? It’s still up in the air.”

Keeping his shop open gets harder every day. But Randy is determined to stay in business, because so many in our justice system depend on him.

“A lot of people come in, whether it’s office workers or even people going to court or jurors and a lot of them have a bit of nerves going. …I try to be friendly but also create a little bit of humor, and that always tends to break the ice,” he says. “And let them know that we’re all human.”

You can find Randy’s Snack Shop at the corner of Gabilan and Church streets in Salinas. 

Julie Reynolds is a reporter with the Monterey Herald.  You can read more of Randy's story in this Sunday's edition of the Herald.