After 14 years of dishing up homemade raspberry pie at their mom-and-pop Fairfax County Courthouse cafeteria, Scotty and Shirley Heller are being put out of business by the county in favor of a new and probably more corporate owner.
"We were heartbroken . . . ," said Shirley Heller. "It's rough at our age to go out and look for a new position."
Loyal patrons of the Hellers', both 58, have collected 1,300 signatures opposing the closing of the cafeteria, located in the basement of the courthouse at Rte. 236 and Chain Bridge Road in Fairfax City.
"I think this is a case of the bureaucracy dumping on the little guy," said Fairfax Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Judge Michael J. Valentine. "My fear is that they are going to put some big operator in there -- or worse, vending machines."
Last week, the county purchasing office rejected without explanation the Hellers' offer to continue running the cafeteria. The office had advertised a two-step bid process for firms interested in running any or all of the three cafeterias in Fairfax County buildings. In the first step, firms submitted proposed menus, staff size estimates and management and accounting procedures. The second step is formal bids, but the Hellers, who wanted to run only the single cafeteria, never got that far.
"Dear Bidder," read the brief rejection letter from Larry N. Wellman, county purchasing director, "Please be advised that . . . your firm has not been selected to participate in the second step." Wellman refused comment on how his office picked the firms asked to bid. They include Marriott Corp., Macke Co. and several other big names in the food industry.
William D. Cremins, a Fairfax lawyer who volunteered to help the Hellers keep their cafeteria, said the county rejected the Hellers' bid because big firms would not bid unless they could operate all three county cafeterias.
"The decision was made on who had the best qualifications for providing cafeteria service," said James E. Hoofnagle, clerk of Fairfax Circuit Court and a member of the cafeteria selection committee. "I don't have any disagreement with the decision."
That decision, however, will not sit well with lunch-goers who have grown accustomed to the Hellers' special service. The six-member cafeteria staff often cashes court employes' checks, serves judges and employes at their desks and at times would mend the torn pants of a harried courthouse lawyer.
What's more, prices -- which range from 95-cent half smokes to 25-cent ice cream -- are moderate, and the Hellers' famous raspberry pie is home cooked upon request. Loyalists marvel at the spotless white linoleum floor and ashtrays that seem to never sit long enough to accumulate any ash.
"It's the cleanest place I've seen, and I've eaten in more than a few cafeterias," said Vince Hawkins, a land title searcher who often does his work on the white cafeteria tables decorated with yellow flowers.
"When I took over this place, the previous owner told me I'd never make it," said Scotty Heller. "Now we do about $900 to $1,000 worth of business each day. Our specialty is satisfied customers. I'm going to fight down to the last minute to keep this place going."