Capitol's cafe changing ownership

Kathy Dawson will be the new operator of the snack bar in the Kansas Capitol, taking over for Don Wistuba, who operated it for the past 39 years. Dawson will be leaving behind her job at the cafeteria in the Docking State Office Building, 901 S.W. Harrison. (CHRIS NEAL/THE CAPITAL-JOURNAL)

Capitol's cafe changing ownership

Don't fret, coffee and grub will still emerge from third-floor shop
January 3, 2016

Kathy Dawson patiently punched buttons on the cash register in the Docking State Office Building as the lunch crowd moved through the basement cafeteria.

In short order, Dawson and her colleagues will expand the reach of their dining business by taking over operation of the only snack bar in the Kansas Capitol.

Transition to a new proprietor of this integral slice of Statehouse life isn’t a routine occurrence. Don Wistuba, who owned and operated Don’s Snack Bar, stepped aside in August after 39 years at the helm. He was an institution in a building built around big personalities. He was there longer than any current legislator and was honored with House and Senate resolutions for decades spent delivering edibles and beverages, especially tall cups of hot coffee, for workers and guests.

Because of his blindness, Wistuba relied on an honor system in which customers in the third-floor snack bar listed their purchases orally and handed over the proper currency. If Wistuba was elsewhere, customers simply left payment in a pile on the counter.

Regulars were filled with dread at the thought of no one stepping forward to fill the void by the 2 p.m. Jan. 11 start of the 2016 legislative session.

Dawson, recently authorized by legislative leadership to assume management of the snack bar, urged calm for those preparing for start of the annual session.

“I want to emphasize I have a very good crew that is conscientious and very trustworthy,” Dawson said in an interview. “We’re excited to come over. We’re customer friendly.”

Her new task isn’t without challenge. In part, Wistuba called it quits because lobbyists increasingly spent big bucks to curry favor with legislators by paying for catered meals in the Capitol. It was tricky to operate profitably as dozens of House and Senate members became more comfortable eating for free, courtesy of special-interest groups.

Throughout the years, executive branch offices historically headquartered in the Capitol moved elsewhere in Topeka. That meant fewer state employees were assigned year-round in the Capitol. Offices and personnel of the secretary of state, attorney general and state Supreme Court were displaced. The primary holdouts are the governor and lieutenant governor.

The upside is that the $300 million renovation to the Capitol attracts a significant number of visitors to the five-story, dome-capped structure. Last year, nearly 80,000 people stopped by the building. That reality raises interest in establishment of a small cafeteria near the ground-floor visitor’s center. In the renovation, space was set aside for that purpose.

“That’s what our next goal is,” Dawson said.

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said she would welcome broadening of food service options with a cafeteria at the Capitol. School groups on field trips could make good use of something more than vending machines, she said.

The Legislative Coordinating Council, a committee of the Legislature’s top members, agreed last week to endorse Dawson’s assignment at the Statehouse. Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, said he was interested in eventually putting the Capitol food service contract out for competitive bid.

Eventually, the cafeteria in Docking’s basement at 901 S.W. Harrison will be closed to make way for implosion of the building.

Dawson, who has been blind since birth, was drawn to food service job opportunities in Docking and the Capitol by virtue of participation in the Business Enterprise Program within the Kansas Department for Children and Families.

Under the Randolph-Sheppard Act, blind persons are given priority in operation of vending facilities in federal and state government buildings. Wistuba and Dawson both qualified for the enterprise program.