Air Force’s Best

by Jan Jonas

Braille Monitor

July, 2005

From the Editor: The following article is reprinted from the May 4, 2005, edition of the Albuquerque Tribune . The subject of the article, Robert Vick, is an active Federationist who lives in Albuquerque and is a successful businessman who manages Vick’s Vittles, the contract food provider for an air force dining facility. Robert has overcome great odds to get to where he is, and he now has a trophy to prove it. His story is a great example of how perseverance and determination can bring success; it also illustrates the importance of the NFB’s continuing struggle to protect the Randolph-Sheppard priority in military troop dining. The Albuquerque man whose culinary team serves up the best chow in the air force is on his third career and still moving. He’s also blind. It’s a journey that began when Robert Vick stepped onto an Albuquerque loading dock in 1983. That dim job site was the last thing he ever saw. A metal pipe slammed onto the back of Vick’s head. As he fell, it smacked his forehead. He put his hands up to fend off the next blow. A knife slashed across his arm. Blood dripped. He dropped onto the concrete. Vick, then a nineteen-year-old student of architecture and engineering at the University of New Mexico, had to put the promise of that career behind him. Since then, excellence has come in another area, one that has gained Vick the gratitude of thousands of airmen. He and his staff at Vick’s Vittles, contract food provider for the Thunderbird Dining Facility at Kirtland Air Force [Base], this year were awarded the national Hennessy Trophy, given annually to the best food service program in the air force. Vick got to the Thunderbird and achieved the award using tenacity and creativity.

The 1983 assault left him blind, partly deaf in one ear, and partly paralyzed on one side. After months of rehabilitation he entered the School of Natural Therapeutics in Albuquerque to train as a massage therapist. “It was like I went to my own little day care,” he said. “Students volunteered to read books for me.” Administering massage was therapeutic, building up muscle and giving him back most of the use of his left arm. Vick opened his own business, Stress Management Specialists. Four years later he was a passenger in a car that was T-boned by another vehicle. His right shoulder was crushed. Thus ended another career. The New Mexico Commission for the Blind had programs available for him since the assault, but Vick thought there was some sort of catch. Now he was ready to turn to them. “He reluctantly agreed to let us put him in the Business Enterprise program,” said Art Schreiber, chairman of the commission and president of the National Federation of the Blind of New Mexico. The first business the commission put Vick into was a small vending stand in Los Alamos, Schreiber said. When Vick first got there, the business was bringing in about $75 a day, he said. “I walked in, and they had newspapers on the floor because it was so greasy. Then I was really depressed,” Vick said. “I couldn’t believe it. I kind of got over the initial stress. I thought, ‘I can turn that around. I can prove myself.’”

His family helped clean the space and build it to his specifications so he could function well. Within three months Vick was doing about $1,200 a day, he said. He trained someone to take over and started a series of other food-service operations, each time making them successful, then turning them over to someone else. He moved back to Albuquerque, took culinary classes at TVI, and began teaching there. The contract at Kirtland, which specifies employment of people with disabilities, came for Vick and his staff of fifty-two through the Commission for the Blind in 2002. Thirty-two of his workers have a disability. The air force inspection team that judged the cuisine got a sample of the same treats the Kirtland airmen get every day: Mongolian barbecue, fresh-baked pies and cakes, espresso, a salad bar, and the staple hamburgers and fries.

The prime rib served three Wednesday nights a month is a favorite and brings in lots of hungry young airmen. At a recent meal half a dozen airmen having pizza, roast beef, and spaghetti didn't speak until the first several bites were gone. For them, it’s all-you-can-eat dining excellence, and they chow down. That morning Vick asked Second Lieutenant Rose Richeson, a spokeswoman for Kirtland, if she'd like to stay for lunch. Richeson hesitated. She said she’d like to but had a busy day. Then Richeson asked if she could come back and bring the staff of the public information office with her. After inhaling the food’s aroma, she wanted a real taste test. The road to the Hennessy award began almost as soon as Vick's got the contract.

The Hennessy inspection team, in addition to checking out the chow, looked at kitchen operations for cleanliness, staff training and knowledge, maintenance, and bookkeeping. Antoinette Griego, head baker and supervisor at the Thunderbird Dining Facility, has worked there for five years. She said she likes working for Vick because “he asks you to go above and beyond everything we do.” Vick is proud of his staff, and they're proud to work for him, Griego said. They’re most proud to be named the air force’s best. And neither Vick nor Vick’s Vittles is finished with trying and achieving. “When you reach perfection,” Vick said, “the next day you’re already thinking of stuff to do.”