The ending of hot food service at the Prince William County/Manassas Judicial Center has left a bad taste in the mouths of some court officials and employees.

The stainless-steel counters and other kitchen fixtures that were the centerpiece of the cafeteria since shortly after the courthouse opened in 1984 have been replaced by vending machines offering prepackaged sandwiches, soft drinks and snacks where once made-to-order hamburgers and roast beef were the fare. About 500 people enter the courthouse each day, including lawyers, witnesses, jurors, and those needing to pay fines, file documents or research land records, officials said.

Only one fast-food restaurant, a deli, is within a five-minute walk. A range of restaurants can be found in the Old Town Manassas area, but that requires a walk of at least 10 minutes and possible delays in service because most are not fast-food operations.

"This really ticks me off," said one court employee, grudgingly dropping quarters in a machine and selecting potato chips. "I tried one of the sandwiches and it was pretty bad, so now I make do with chips, candy and a soda. Real nutritious, huh?"

Hot food cafeteria service was discontinued in mid-September when the catering service operated by the Virginia Department of the Visually Handicapped terminated its contract.

According to officials in the Prince William General Services Department, the caterers said they closed the operation because the business was not making enough money.

County general services management analyst Wallace King said he made a determination that the courthouse would not support a full-scale hot food cafeteria.

The vending machines were installed about a week after the hot-food operation closed.

William M. Ryland, chief deputy of the Circuit Court, said closing the cafeteria has inconvenienced jurors, witnesses subpoenaed to testify and court employees.

If they want hot food, they now must go outside the building for their midday meals.

"People miss the opportunity to have a sandwich made up fresh or certain other things like a steak sandwich, as opposed to pulling it out of a vending machine," Ryland said. "It was a very appropriate service to have at a courthouse our size."

Perhaps the most inconvenienced group has been jurors, who have limited time to find nourishment before court is reconvened.

As one court official said: "It doesn't inconvenience the judges because court doesn't begin until they get there. But the jurors have to scurry around to get something and get back in time, usually only in an hour."

"Most of the judges feel that some kind of deli or eating establishment provides a very valuable service to the courthouse, not only to jurors but to others on business," said Judge Percy Thornton Jr.

Thornton has extended his lunch breaks from an hour to up to 1 1/2 hours to allow jurors time to have their midday meals.

"I have to take into consideration that jurors have to go outside the building for lunch," Thornton said. "If they want something hot now they have to go to other places . . . . For good management of {court time}, we should have a service to allow people to get something to eat and get back as soon as we can."

With a scarcity of parking places, leaving by car would require additional time to find parking upon returning, court authorities said.

The Alexandria Courthouse has vending machines for employees, but no food service for the public, although there are several restaurants within a few blocks of the courthouse.

Arlington's courthouse has limited hot food service but a number of restaurants are very nearby. Fairfax County's courthouse has a full-service cafeteria.

Thornton said court authorities hope to begin soliciting bids next month for a private company to reopen the cafeteria. If everything goes smoothly, hot meals could be served again as soon as February or March, officials said.