SUMTER, SC — Officers and enlistees alike come to the Carolina Skies Club to relax and have a bit to eat. Today, the club's food services fall under the on-base 20th Force Support Squadron, which oversees much of Shaw Air Force Base's recreational activities. But by the end of the year, airmen and soldiers will be eating in the only base eatery in the country outsourced to a private business.
Shaw is currently taking bids for any interested restaurateur to take over food services at the club and catering functions for any events held there, essentially providing the space and equipment for someone to expand their business.
"It's a good opportunity to make money, even though the clientele might be smaller than you would get at a place downtown," said Sandra Heredia, chief of sustainment services flight with the 20th Force Support Squadron, who oversees Carolina Skies. "If someone wants to be an entrepreneur and has a culinary background, you've got a targeted audience here."
Bids will be accepted by the 20th Contracting Squadron until July 31, with plans to have a new food service provider in place by the start of the federal government's new fiscal year on Oct. 1.
Once the contract is taken up, Carolina Skies' new operator will be the only person running what is essentially an on-base restaurant.
"From our research, we'll be the first ones to do it," said Maj. John W. Kendall, commander of the contracting squadron.
Other bases have attempted to outsource their food services, Kendall said, but either failed to find a capable provider or later went back to managing the eatery on base.
Delores Green with Serendipity Catering and Café is one local businesswoman interested in the bid. She toured the facility Wednesday along with a group of other prospective bidders to get some idea of what she would be taking on.
Green, who said she's catered events at Shaw before, sees the contract as a chance for her business to grow.
"This is an opportunity to cater to the military and get my name established," she said.
She said the equipment at Carolina Skies is more advanced than some of the items she currently works with and said the process so far is similar to other contracts Serendipity has pursued, although since this is a government contract for working on a military base, "there are more stipulations and restrictions on what you can and cannot do."
Currently, Carolina Skies is staffed by about 25 civilian employees and operates on its earnings from 3,500 club members, other base personnel and visitors, Heredia said. When the outside contract is awarded, those employees may have "right of first refusal" before a new operator brings in new employees, and the club itself will remain under its base management.
"The customers coming in will not know anything's changed. It will have the same services," Heredia said. "It's going to be a smooth transition."
"They'll pay a percentage to the government, and we'll pay the utilities and provide access to the clientele," Kendall said. The Air Force will also provide and replace all equipment used on base, which will remain government-owned.
Contractors will also be asked to keep in place the club's current menu of "pub food" hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, nachos at least initially, with a chance for providers to introduce their own specialty dishes later on.
Carolina Skies is open daily from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., and the operator can also cater special events that rent out the clubhouse.
"We've done weddings, retirements, balls, family reunions and business meetings," Heredia said.
At the same time, bidders will have the option to take over a counter inside the base fitness center, which is currently vacant. From there, they can serve off-duty airmen and soldiers coming in for a workout and earn additional money.
"I thought it was very informative," Green said of this week's tour. "Because the ultimate goal is to make money, and we need to know that this is an environment where we can do that."
Base officials said the contract could be awarded to any Sumter-area restaurant or catering service that can show it's capable of operating the club. Even a start-up could take the contract, Kendall said, although the government is requesting references for previous food-services experience as part of the bid submission.
"We're open to any large or small business," he said. "We're not excluding using an out-of-state contractor, but this would be a great opportunity for a local restaurant to expand their business."