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Keeping a Rest Stop in Motion

By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 29, 2006

One of the few things Vern Bingham is not sure of concerning Memorial Day weekend is what people actually do on Memorial Day weekend. But he has some suspicions: The beach is popular; so are roller coasters and backyard barbecues.

Of this he is sure: Many travelers hit the road around 9 a.m. on Friday. By noon, they have lined up for toilets, particularly if they are rolling with kids in the backseat. Then they eat. How much? In the case of Cinnabons, roughly 30 percent more are consumed than the weekend before. Roy Rogers' daily chicken sales swell 50 percent, to 1,000 pounds.

Bingham, 56, is the general manager of the Maryland House, the five-decades-old rest stop in Aberdeen, along Interstate 95, at mile marker 82, on the way to summer. While everyone heads somewhere else, Bingham has spent the past 12 Memorial Day weekends inside this rest stop, honing his knack for predicting the ebb and flow of cinnamon-slathered dough -- a vital calculation to the lore and bottom line of summer vacations. On Friday alone, his operation had met his predictions dead on, selling 3,000 slices of pizza, 3,000 pieces of chicken, and 1,300 cups of Starbucks. But he was still girding for today's onslaught of travelers racing home.

"If we're wrong," he said, "we're in big trouble with a lot of people."

Without enough buns and the roughly 300 employees it takes to lace them with icing, make the pizza, fry the chicken, refill the soda machines, restock the toilet paper, clean the sidewalks, the parking lot and the bathrooms -- not for 24 hours or 48 hours but for 72 straight hours -- without correctly orchestrating this delicate dance of anarchy, the 85,000 people who pass through the Maryland House this weekend won't have kicked off the summer correctly, nostalgically or affordably, and Bingham's operation won't have raked in enough of its own dough.

"This is the beginning of what we call the Hundred Days of Summer," Bingham said shortly before noon on Friday, when the Roy Rogers line quickly swelled from a few to a few dozen and then nearly out the lobby door. From now to Labor Day, the Maryland House will take in 40 percent of its yearly revenue, as will many of the more than 100 rest stops operated by Bingham's employer, Bethesda-based HMSHost Corp., the largest U.S.-based company serving food to travelers on highways and airports. The rest-stop business accounts for $500 million of the more than $2 billion in revenue HMSHost generates every year.

"This weekend is like taking a three-masted ship through a storm," said Les Cappetta, executive vice president for HMSHost. "It's a nuthouse, but that's the business we are in."

Dave Kohlbus, who manages the Starbucks at the rest stop, prefers to call it "the beginning of the 100-Day War," and in preparation for battle, he doubled his order of coffee cases from a typical weekend of 18 to 36. His Frappuccino mix order nearly tripled, to 38 cases. "I just hope it's enough," he said. "This is when you cross your fingers and pray."

Jim Keller, head of maintenance at Maryland House, was in charge of replacing the hundreds of light bulbs in the 39,000-square-foot building, filling the CO2 for the soda machines and ordering 720 rolls of toilet paper -- double a normal request -- because, as Bingham said, "Ultimately we are in the bathroom business."

Last week, Keller made sure the automatic flush sensors in the bathrooms were in working order. If any of the sensors fail, Keller said, "It can be a challenge."

It is a challenge Debbie White prefers to avoid. She checks the women's bathroom every 15 minutes. "You would be amazed what go could wrong in 15 minutes in a bathroom," she said, not smiling.

Of course, all the preparation and work to keep the Maryland House and the nation's other rest stops from spinning out of control is nearly invisible to the more than 30 million people who hit the roads across the country this weekend, and who use these places for 20 minutes to, as Bingham puts it, "fuel their car and their person."

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