FORT LEE, Va. – A multimillion-dollar expansion of the Main Exchange’s food court and mall area tops a long list of projects either in process or planned for the near future, said the Army and Air Force Exchange Service general manager here.
Eric W. Desveaux, who retired this week from federal service, has overseen the AAFES retail facilities and restaurants at Fort Lee, Fort Pickett and Charlottesville. He said many of the efforts are part of a strategy to enhance the customer shopping experience.
“The exchange, just like any enterprise, is constantly changing and evolving to create value for patrons,” he said.
In addition to the food court renovation, plans are in the works to makeover two Main Exchange restaurants, expand its mall area and add self-checkout registers to all convenience stores.
Now out for bid, the food court renovation will be by far the most extensive and expensive of AAFES projects. Prior to the pandemic, it was described as a major renovation to the entire facility but was put on the backburner in 2020 due to inflated construction costs and delays. It has since been separated into phases starting with the most expensive.
“We’re pushing for an expansion for the food court that will take its seating capacity from 140 to 350,” Desveaux said. “That’s going to double the amount of space in the food court. The project in its entirety is estimated to cost $10-11 million.”
Desveaux said construction is likely to start in late summer and will take about a year to complete. Customers should expect some inconveniences during the project.
AAFES is still considering how to proceed with the other main store renovation projects.
“We’re not sure we’re going to break them into two more segments,” said Desveaux, “one focusing on the mall area, which is supposed expand the space, adding a little bit more depth to the shops, and the other, which will renovate the main store.”
The main shopping area, which was set for major renovation pre-pandemic, will likely get only a refreshening that includes changing the “finishes, paint, décor and overall layout,” Desveaux said. He did not provide cost estimates or when the projects might start.
The Subway and Charley’s restaurants – located in the main store food court – are also scheduled for makeovers. Funds for the projects have been appropriated but start and completion times have not been established.
In another restaurant project, Burger King, located on Mahone Avenue next to the post theater, is slated for an external improvement. It is due to receive a shortened drive-thru lane to supplement the existing one, said Desveaux.
“It will begin at the point of sale and extend to Mahone Avenue,” he said, adding that cost and completion dates have not been determined.
AAFES convenience stores – four located at Fort Lee and two others at Fort Pickett and the Judge Advocate General School in Charlotteville, respectively – will all receive self-checkout registers over the next six months to offset reductions in manned checkouts at all stores.
Eight self-checkouts – attended by two employees – have already been installed in the Main Exchange, replacing four manned registers.
In addition to the self-checkout rollout, the Express convenience store, located adjacent to the Main Exchange on Sisisky Boulevard, is in the process of revamping its layout. The work includes the addition of kiosks for pizza and Southwestern foods.
In the backdrop of renovations and store enhancements are wage increases implemented to make up for employee losses during the pandemic. The move forced the retailer to make major adjustments to continue fulfilling its mandate to provide services while producing dividends for recreation and other programs.
“The responsibility of the exchange mission is twofold,’ said Desveaux. “One is to provide quality goods and services to our authorized patrons. The second part of that mission – and one not so frequently understood – is that the earnings from the sale of those goods and services come back to the installation in the form of dividends for MWR.
“Anytime we make an adjustment like that where we have an increased cost,” he continued, “it’s obviously going to have an impact on our ability to provide the second part of our mission. So, our focus is on curbing expenses and making sure we’re only utilizing wages where we absolutely must.”
The addition of self-checkouts is one of the adjustments that could offset wage increases and mitigate employee shortages, Desveaux said. So far, the new checkouts are seeing much traffic.
“Overall, it’s working well,” he said. “The data supports it strongly. We’re seeing that 96 percent of all transactions are going through the unmanned registers. Customer feedback is mixed.”
It is likely some customers have not warmed to the checkouts due to the inability to accept cash transactions, Desveaux concluded. The problem is a software issue AAFES is working to rectify, he added.
Addressing the eating establishments at Heiser Hall on the campus of the Army Logistics University, Desveaux said the Einstein Bagels shop will remain open, but the shuttered Subway restaurant will remain closed. Its doors were shut during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Reopening it would result in losses for both restaurants, he said.