Bitburg Commissary closure ends era

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Joe W. McFadden
  • 52nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
In 1989, the then-36th Fighter-Bomber Wing welcomed the latest addition to Bitburg Air Base: a new commissary.

The building -- both with its combined American and German staff and store's expanded capabilities - would support Airmen and their families through crucial military operations around the world as well as at home for multitudes of family dinners and spirited gatherings to watch "the big game."

But as the once-bustling base population continued to decline and services shifted to nearby Spangdahlem Air Base, the commissary and its employees would eventually mark another milestone in Bitburg's history: the store's ultimate closing.

After a nearly uninterrupted presence on the air base annex since 1952, the Defense Commissary Agency's Bitburg commissary ceased operations Oct. 31.

Remaining Bitburg families will have to utilize Spangdahlem's commissary during their regular commutes to the base for groceries and other services no longer provided at the annex.

"We tried to take care of what we needed to the best we could, and that was to serve our customers," said Ron Trimble, Bitburg store director since 2009, and Odessa, Texas, native. "I believe most of the community loved our service here. There's so many people who tell me who have been shopping here for years, some as long as 40 years."

The closure, in line with the Air Force's plan to return the annex to the German community in 2016, resulted after the DeCA Board of Directors and the Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness approved the 52nd Fighter Wing's shut-down request.

However, the approval process provides only the procedural explanation for what happened that day; a dwindling population naturally translated into lower receipts and a diminishing of store services that could not justify maintaining the store in the long run.

"When you lose that customer base, we work harder to make sure we're pleasing our customers while not losing inventory," Trimble said. "But we're always based on the need -- that's the nature of our business."

Trimble, who supervised seven previous store closures during his more than 25 years with DeCA, said the closing down of other base services like the chapel in 2009 and Exchange in 2011 presented further turning points for the store.

"It's been very intriguing," he said. "Each time one of those events happened, the commissary lost a great deal of sales. When that happens, we'd go through our ordering procedures and have to change all that, but we already had a pipeline of products going through. You may not see a change and know how much you will lose until after it happens."

Additionally, a booming population at Spangdahlem coupled with a bolstering of that base's services accelerated the Bitburg store's eventual closure, Trimble said.

Despite the closure, Trimble and his team of more than 20 employees remarked on the journey they and the store had taken during the building's near quarter of a century run.

As Germany endured reunification and a transition from the Deutsche Mark to the Euro currency, the commissary dealt with similar seismic shifts as consumer's tastes changed from invisible soda and cheese-stuffed pizza crusts to buying organic food and counting the calories in their diets.

Waltraud Willems, the store's accounting and support clerk and Bitburg native, worked there for seven years. She started as a food service worker and rose up to deli/bakery manager.

The same place where she oversaw wedding cakes that would serve as backdrops for couples to exchange vows as well as lunch rushes for sandwiches and delectable trays is now empty.

"It is hard, especially when you start emptying the store," she said. "We put all the stuff from the deli bakery on a truck, and now it's gone. I worked there for years, and I was like 'Oh my goodness, my kitchen is gone!' But the job needs to be done -- we need to close the commissary."

And just as scores of maintenance crews keeps an F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter aircraft flying, so do dozens of employees working day and night to ensure products sold around the world make it from their factories to just within a customer's reach.

"I think it's sad -- I spent all my working life here at this commissary," said Arthur Haase, another Bitburg native, who worked at the commissary as a part of the nighttime stocking crew for 41 years. "I had fun here, and the co-workers and job kept me coming back."

Employees like Werner Steffen, night crew manager and 30-year employee, said the duration of their time in the store equaled something much more than getting a paycheck.

"I met my wife here at work," Steffen said. "She's American and was my boss on night shift here. Now we've been married 20 years."

In addition to employees functioning like a family, Trimble said the Bitburg store's regular outreach to the community was intended to make customers feel like they were at home.

Each winter, employees transformed the store's warehouse into an annual Christmas market complete with a large tree and even a visit from Santa Claus.

The commissary's end-cap and aisle displays also achieved DeCA recognition for competitions, including being named DeCA's Best Grocery Merchandising award for a small overseas store in 2010 and garnering a score of 96.3 percent on their latest inspector general inspection.

But perhaps most poignant, Trimble said a 10th anniversary memorial display for the victims of 9/11--when employees inscribed every victim's on a wall, complete with a running water fountain - underscored the connection the store had with its customers.

"We had a lot of sentiment with that," he said. "We had one lady just totally break down and start crying. She was an Airman and said the main reason she joined the Air Force was because of 9/11 to ensure that never happened again."

As solemn as that memorial was and as the markets were filled with holiday cheer, the emotion and sense of finality emanated through many employees as well as in their final customers.

Elizabeth Rowe, a teacher at Bitburg elementary school, also attended the store's grand opening in 1989. She came for the last day bearing testimonials for the employees: dozens of thank you cards made by her school children for the employees in appreciation of their years of service.

"I had to come here today," Rowe said. "I've been coming here for so long. I'm excited, scared and happy, all the above, to see it go, but it's been drawing down and we've known this day would be coming. I'm just glad and hope that my good friends at work here get to have a job at Spangdahlem so I can see them again."

And as the clocks read 18:00, the store entered its new function of being defunct.

Employees of the store's past and present reunited for a celebratory potluck. Regarding the future, a majority of its employees will work similar assignments at Spangdahlem or will be transferred to other DeCA stores. Management will remain for a few weeks as crews remove the shelves and computer network.

But, in due time, the building will be completely vacant.

As for why the employees and customers kept coming back to Bitburg over the decades, Trimble cited the commissary's commitment to superior customer service.

"I think it's the spirit of DeCA, the commissary business and being involved with the customers," Trimble said. "For me, it's been one of the most gratifying assignments I've had. These are good people here, and so are our customers."