CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Wanted: Frugal gourmet to take charge of $3.7 million eatery in a market with up to 7,000 visitors daily. We'll pay rent, do maintenance and provide cleaning service; you just have to turn a profit.
It's an ad the state Department of Administration has put out two years in a row.
For over five years now, state officials have been dealing with the continual headache of finding the right suitor for the Capitol Food Court.
The Capitol's basement cafeteria was shut down in 2006 after the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department cited it for numerous critical violations - which included a severe cockroach infestation. The state then spent $3.7 million to renovate the space into the current 300-seat eatery.
The renovated facility opened in 2007 under the management of Virginia-based Guest Services Inc.
But Guest Services found it hard to make a profit in the revamped facility, mostly due to the setup of the facility. In 2009, the company lost $180,000 operating the food court. Unwilling to lose more money, Guest Services turned the facility back over to the state Department of Administration last summer.
Officials flirted with the idea of operating the food court on their own, using work release inmates as staff, but state workers balked at that idea. The department then closed the food court until a new vendor could be found.
Earlier this year, the food court opened up once again, this time under the management of Charleston-based Pittman Group.
But even though the state let them operate rent-free and paid all utilities, Pittman still found it hard to do good business. Last month, they told the state they were opting out of the contract.
"As a small business, I took pride in servicing the state Capitol," Pittman Group owner Eddie Pittman said. "But the current situation is just not conducive to our business."
Like Guest Services officials, he said the renovated facility didn't seem to be designed to make a profit.
"One of the major challenges is the way that the cafeteria is laid out," Pittman said.
There are several stations in the food preparation area designed to offer customers variety.
Just to the right of the entrance is a station with a grill, pizza oven and deep fryers.
A second separated area to the left of that station has hot plates. Pittman provides breakfast and the lunch-of-the-day option at that station.
At the rear is a salad bar and on the left is a drink station. Behind the salad bar are two checkout lines.
Having all those different areas is both good and bad, Pittman said.
"During the legislative session it's great with all the different sections," he said. "However, when the business is not ... it's very difficult to have one person man two stations."
Therein lies the problem.
When lawmakers are in town for the legislative session, they bring with them up to 2,500 additional visitors to the Capitol each day. The number includes lobbyists, temporary staff and the various guests and school tour groups.
It's easy to turn a profit then. But when lawmakers leave, the main Capitol building can sometimes feel like a ghost town.
About 4,000 people work every day in the other buildings on the Capitol campus. Pittman tried to use carts to take food out to those customers, but the company soon hit a roadblock.