Controversy brewing over coffee vendor bids at Greens Farms depot
Published 1:09 pm, Thursday, December 13, 2012
As town officials seek bids for new leases at Westport's two Metro-North train stations, a new coffee vendor could soon be serving brews at the Greens Farms depot. But scores of commuters at that station say they want to stick with their current concessionaire.
By Thursday at 9 a.m., 171 people had signed a petition started this week that urges the Board of Selectmen to approve a new contract for George Russo, who runs the Greens Farms C&P coffee concession in the stationhouse at the Greens Farms depot. The town last week issued a "request-for-proposals" for a new coffee concession at each of the two stations, as well as a new service business at the Saugatuck station.
Russo plans to submit a bid to stay at the Greens Farms station. But he has expressed dissatisfaction with a number of the RFP's conditions, including the rent sought by the town for the 150-square-foot space in the stationhouse.
"With the increases, it would be tough to survive," Russo said Thursday in an interview with the Westport News. "I'm not in here to get rich."
Town officials ask in the RFP for bids of at least $500 monthly for a Greens Farms coffee concession and at least $1,400 per month for a Saugatuck station coffee establishment. Russo currently pays $204 per month to run his concession. Greens Farms C&P has operated on a month-to-month sublease at the station since 2006, according to Deputy Police Chief Foti Koskinas, who also serves as the town's director of railroad operations. Koskinas describes the current Greens Farms C&P rent as "below-market-rate."
The new RFP is a step in an ongoing revitalization and overhaul of Westport's two train stations. During the last year, the eastbound terminal at the Saugatuck station has undergone a major renovation. The improvements included refurbishment of the building's interior and exterior, as well as installation of solar panels on the station's roof. That solar array will power a new electric-vehicle charging facility at the station, which is set to open next week. A renovation of the Greens Farms station is planned for next year, according to Koskinas.
The town leases the two train stations from the state, according to a 2002 lease agreement. The Police Department manages the stations for the state Department of Transportation.
"The idea is to get fair market value for the town and to get tenants that will enhance the spaces," Koskinas said of the RFP. "Our goal is to provide the best service and the best product going out there and to enhance the commuter experience. He [Russo] will get a fair shot like everyone else."
Richard Kotchko, the town's purchasing officer, and Town Attorney Ira Bloom drafted the RFP, with guidance from the Police Department.
If Russo is not awarded a new lease, many signers of the petition say they worry that a new vendor would founder, possibly leaving them without a coffee shop at the station.
"I think there's been an upwelling of support for George," said Dan Partlow. "We want the town to know how much we like him. This is a tiny station. Greens Farms does not have a lot of traffic. Nobody will have any greater success with it than George."
Other Greens Farms commuters also praise Russo for his business' quality of service.
"We want all George to stay here," Debbie Meissner said Thursday as she sipped a coffee at the C&P counter. "Everybody who comes in here looks forward to seeing George in the morning. In a world that can be so cold, George brings a lot of warmth."
Russo, 56, has worked at Greens Farms C&P since 2003. He took over the operation in September, after his former boss decided he did not want to manage the operation anymore. When he assumed control of the business, Russo said he formed a limited liability company for the enterprise and paid off six months of back rent worth about $1,200 that Green's Farms C&P owed to the town.
He sells coffee, an assortment of other drinks and a range of newspapers including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and the New York Post. But the concession's newspaper sales have sharply declined in recent years. In 2009, Russo sold each day an average of about 120 copies of the New York Times and 100 copies of The Wall Street Journal. This year, he has sold a daily average of about 35 copies of the Times and 30 print editions of the Journal.
"Everybody's getting it on their Kindles and iPads," Russo said. "The only way I'm surviving is on the coffee and water."
Russo declined to disclose Green's Farms C&P's revenue.
Green's Farms C&P is the sole concession at the Green's Farms station. It operates Monday through Friday, from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. Russo, a Stamford resident, gets to the station by car by 4:15 a.m. to prepare for the morning rush. The concession draws about 125 customers per day, according to Russo.
In his nine-year tenure, Russo said he has never missed a day of work at the station.
"I want to stay here," he added. "People want me to stay here."
New coffee tenants will operate, at a minimum, Monday through Friday, from 5:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., at the Saugatuck station and Monday through Friday, from 5:30 a.m. to 10 a.m, at the Greens Farms station, according to the RFP.
Coffee concessionaires will also have to take out worker's compensation, general liability, commercial automobile and umbrella liability insurance policies. Russo does not currently have insurance for Greens Farms C&P, although he says he would insure the operation if he were awarded the station's sublease.
In addition, employees of the stations' tenant businesses will have to pay $325 a year to park at the rail depots. That fee is identical to the cost of annual railroad station parking permits for town residents.
The new coffee shop tenants will lease the spaces at the two stations for five years, with an option to renew for another five years.
Bids for coffee concessions at the two stations are due Dec. 20. Kotchko, Bloom, Koskinas, the Board of Finance and the Board of Selectmen will review the bids, according to Koskinas. The selectmen must vote to approve any new leases at the Saugatuck and Greens Farms stations.
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