It’s been more than 40 years since Carolyn Bell took a job washing dishes at a snack bar with Army & Air Force Exchange Service, but she said she still has fun at work.
Now a store manager on post, Bell started out at a snack bar with a grill in 1973 when she was 18. Her uniform was a white dress with a brown top, she recalled with a smile.
“I just needed a job and came on post,” she said during an interview in the Blimpie sandwich shop she manages at III Corps Headquarters. The store serves breakfast and lunch and fills several “grab-n-go” refrigerated cases at express stores.
Bell said her teenage self would be surprised to know she made a career of food service with AAFES — spending 41 years moving from dishwasher to cashier to cook and eventually to supervisor and manager.
“I don’t believe I’m here myself,” Bell said.
Ted Pennington, food business manager and Bell’s supervisor, said it’s clear how much pride Bell has for her work.
“It’s the stability she brings to the facility and, year after year, the way she treats her customers. I wish I could clone her,” he said.
For the past three years, Bell has managed the Blimpie in Fort Hood’s highest headquarters, serving many general officers, colonels and majors, as well as young enlisted soldiers. She arrives before 5 a.m. every day to start baking bread. One general, she said, used to come get coffee every morning and jokingly complained he could smell the bread baking from the gym, making it difficult to work out.
Another colonel gave her a coin before he moved from the Phantom Corps to thank Bell for her service to soldiers.
“It’s like a family. We’re like a family here,” Bell said. “I’m talking to people every day, joking with them, running them out of here.”
One soldier comes in and calls her “Momma Blimpie,” but most know her as “Ms. Carolyn.” Bell said her staff sees the regular customers arriving and get started on their favorite meals before they can order.
“I’ve had soldiers come back from (deployment) and I’ll say, ‘You want your sandwich?’ and they’ll say, ‘Ms. Carolyn, how’d you remember that?’ I say ‘I sure do,’” Bell said.
Over the years, the brands of food have changed along with the customers.
“There are different kinds of people,” she said. “Different varieties of people and you just try to understand the people.”
Customer service counts
Regardless of how busy she is, customer service and quality are Bell’s top priorities, along with how fast the food is prepared.
“Now we have food courts. Now it’s faster,” she said.
Bell is looking to retire by the end of May. When she does, Pennington said she will truly be missed.
“I’ve worked with Ms. Bell about 14 years now. She’s one-of-a-kind,” he said. “She treats every customer and soldier as a family.”
While Bell said she’s ready to relax, she’ll miss seeing her customers after she retires.
“You meet friends. Some people you’ve known for years,” she said. “After the first month I’ll probably have to find something else to do.”