Blind World Magazine

Woman turns around state agency cafeterias.

January 17, 2006.
Austin American-Statesman (subscription) - Austin,TX,USA.

Tami Chapman stood at the cash register in the cafeteria of a state office building, ringing up a couple of breakfast tacos and orange juice while cracking a joke with a customer.

The next minute, she dashed off to the kitchen, where she sampled the day's soup special Southwestern chicken and gave it a thumbs up.

All morning, the owner of the food bar bounced between tasks, moving seamlessly through the workday despite what could be a debilitating hurdle: Chapman is legally blind.

"I think I'm a glutton for a challenge," Chapman said during a brief stop between customers. "I don't seem to know how to take the easy route. I seem to always find the most difficult track."

Chapman acknowledges that she is a "highly functional" blind person. She can see well enough to pour coffee or dish up the daily special.

But her disability, caused by a genetic condition she's had since birth, makes keeping the books or writing orders for food supplies both necessary skills for a restaurant owner more difficult.

Customers say they were impressed when Chapman transformed the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department cafeteria, which she ran before taking over the cafe at the health department a few months ago, from a low-traffic eatery to a must-do for 650 employees.

Chapman said she raised the profits from nothing the first month to 40 percent when she left to take over the cafe at the Brown-Heatly Building a few months ago.

"I have a lot of respect for her, just in terms of what she has accomplished," said Deani Smith, who works in the purchasing department for Parks and Wildlife.

Earlier this year, Mayor Will Wynn's commission on people with disabilities honored Chapman with a small-business award for her work.

Chapman, 43, said she had not planned to work in food service.

She graduated from the Texas School for the Blind, enrolled at the University of Texas and got a job doing clerical work at the College of Engineering.

Chapman married and moved to Tennessee but came back to Texas a decade later after a divorce. She tried UT again but dropped out again after having a mini-stroke.

A little more than two years ago, Chapman learned about a state program that helps people with impaired vision own their own businesses with little money up front.

She discovered that through the program, she could take over an eatery in a state agency and that the state would furnish all major appliances. She would be responsible for the food supplies, menus and other operations.

"The idea of being self-employed has always appealed to me," Chapman said. "The idea is that you could steer your own ship."

She applied and was immediately accepted.

Chapman enrolled in a series of classes to learn how to run a restaurant. She got state-certified in food safety. Then she did eight weeks of on-the-job training at the Texas Department of Transportation cafeteria, which is operated through the program.

Chapman took over Parks and Wildlife's cafeteria on Dec. 1, 2003, and opened the next day. Her new husband, Paul, a chef, teamed up with her.

"There is just something about when they hand you the keys; there is no terror in the world like that," she said. "I'm a pretty on-the-ball girl, but I was terrified."

The first couple of days did not go well.

So, the week before Christmas, Chapman decided to do something to introduce herself to her potential customers. She baked cookies and offered free coffee to everyone who worked at the agency.

She changed the menu to meet requests. She added migas for breakfast and grilled chicken salads for lunch, and both quickly became hot items.

She also tried a few things that didn't work, including serving Indian food for lunch. But business picked up significantly.

"Tami was just really always bright and cheerful and just had an awesome customer service attitude," said Tom Harvey, Parks and Wildlife spokesman. "They made sure folks were satisfied. They listened to requests."

Chapman said she would like her cafeteria to become a training ground for other people with impaired vision who are interested in running their own restaurants.

"This has been like riding a roller coaster," she said, "only the roller coaster never ends."; 445-3605

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