Blind snack bar proprietor retires

By Irene Smith DLA Energy Public Affairs

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It’s 4 a.m. and the silver urn coffee pots are percolating with hot coffee. Christmas music plays in the background. The Defense Logistics Agency police force eagerly fill their coffee cups and hail the snack shop’s 80-year-old proprietor Clellan Vandevander, affectionately known as “Mac.”

Later in the morning, the van pools arrive bringing bleary-eyed commuters seeking their first cup of coffee from Mac’s Snack Bar. At a steady pace, customers stream in and out all day, purchasing coffee and snacks. By the time the shop closes at 3:30 p.m., Mac’s Snack Bar will have served more than 500 customers.

“Mac has been a permanent fixture at DLA since I took command in 2007,” said DLA Installation Support Operations Officer Police Maj. Thomas Mills. “He is always open when our (police) officers arrive, both for the morning and evening shifts.”

For 42 years, Vandevander has operated snack bars in Crystal City and at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, as part of the Randolph Sheppard Vending Facility Program. Established by Congress in 1936, the Randolph-Sheppard Act is aimed at helping blind people get jobs in a variety of settings including vending machine routes, snack bars or cafeterias.

Despite being blind, Vandevander works five days a week, sometimes 14 to 15 hours a day, ensuring DLA employees have fresh coffee, snacks and sandwiches. He is assisted by his wife, Naomi Vandevander, a retired DLA Energy employee, and Walter Woods who has been his right-hand assistant for more than 20 years.

“It’s like clockwork, everyone wants their coffee first thing in the morning,” Naomi Vandevander said. “We brew five different types of coffee. We close the doors at 3:30 p.m. and sometimes people will knock on the door wanting to purchase food. Sometimes we work seven days a week, picking up supplies and restocking on weekends. We try and stock the shelves every day. There is no vacation or time off.”

A DLA fixture since 1995 when the McNamara building opened, Vandevander said he knows he’s providing a valuable service to a hardworking DLA workforce. 

“I like the work I do,” he said. “My sight isn’t good, so I rely on voices.”

Perennially cheerful, Vandevander loves to sing and will sometimes dance.

“I love the music whether it’s gospel, pop, hillbilly or country,” he said. “When I get in the mood, I sing with the music.”

Vandevander was born blind. The youngest of a family of eight children in Franklin, West Virginia, he attended the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind in Staunton, Virginia. At 5 years old, he had surgery and gained some sight.

“I am really amazed at what he can do,” Naomi Vandevander said. “No one ever thought he could run a snack bar, and he has proven them all wrong.”

Vandevander came from a very poor, but loving family, his wife said. As a young man, he began working in a factory that made brooms in Charlottesville, Virginia, but the dust from the brooms irritated his eyes, and he moved on to another factory making mattresses.

“He’s very good at math,” Naomi Vandevander said. “He has a gift for numbers, subtracting and adding quickly.”

The couple, married for 16 years, met at DLA and together they keep the family business running. She does the driving, handles the paperwork and bookkeeping, orders supplies, inputs prices into the computer and does the cash reconciliation.

Preparing for Retirement

Despite his dedication to the business, Mac’s Snack Bar will close on Dec. 28 as the couple gets ready to relocate to central Florida where they have family.

Their snack bar assistant, Woods, is also retiring.

“I am 75 years old,” Woods said. “Mac has treated me nice, but it’s time for me to go.”

To the relief of morning coffee drinkers, the McNamara snack bar will reopen under new management Jan. 2. Operating under the Randolph Sheppard vending facility program, another blind individual will take over the operation.

“We’ll spend a few days showing the new person the operation,” Naomi Vandevander said.

Many DLA Energy employees will miss Mac’s Snack Bar, not only for the coffee but also for his friendly persona.

“He’s fantastic,” said Cindy Smith, deputy director for the Strategic Policy and Programs directorate. “He’s always happy to see you. I will be very sad to see him leave, he’s kept things going at headquarters.”

Vandevander is not looking forward to retirement, his wife said.

“He will miss everyone, he has been a constant face for so many people in the headquarters building,” she said.