Royal Zeno Shoe Shine, a longtime Black-owned business that almost lost its spot at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport 24 years ago before public pressure prompted officials to keep it going, is again at risk of being bounced from the airport.
As a result of a bidding process, the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) is considering a committee proposal to reduce its two shoeshine businesses to one company and award the contract to DG Express, which has operated at the airport since 2017 and is also Black-owned.
Royal Zeno died in 2008 after shining shoes at the airport since 1962 and running his own business there for nearly 40 years. His daughter, Rosemary Zeno, took over the family's three airport stands after his death. At 53 years, it may be the airport's longest-running local business.
"I'm heartbroken," she said last week. "This has been my livelihood, something that was passed onto me by my father. I have 11 [airport employees] who depend on me. What are they going to do?"
MAC officials have decided to reduce the airport's five shoeshine stands to three because "fewer customers are using the service at [MSP] as well as at airports nationally," said Jeff Lea, a MAC spokesman.
He said the commission feels it's important to continue to offer the service for travelers even though many airports don't, but based on demand "and the desire to keep the concession sustainable" it decided to go with three stands operated by a single vendor.
Using a point system for the three applicants, MAC staffers scored DG Express first, national firm Classic Shoe Shine second and Royal Zeno third, according to MAC Chair Rick King. Airport officials said that under state law the applications and scoring are not public information until a vendor is selected.
The MAC's Operations, Finance and Administration Committee accepted the recommendation of the review committee and voted unanimously that DG Express be given the exclusive right to operate the airport's shoeshine stands. The commission is slated to make its decision at a meeting Monday.
King said he appreciated the fact that Royal Zeno had been at the airport for a long time and said all three applicants provided "good responses" but that he supported the review committee's recommendation to award the sole contract to DG Express.
Commissioner Rich Ginsberg declined to say how he will vote on Monday but said he trusts the selection process, which he called "transparent."
"I don't see anything tawdry," he said.
Zeno supporters are speaking out.
"This is very concerning to me," said St. Paul City Council Member Jane Prince, an attorney who worked with the late Alan Weinblatt, an attorney who represented Zeno in 1998. "It is a St. Paul business owner whose livelihood is being taken away. This is a really sad turn for the Airports Commission to take, reducing the number of locations and taking away a legacy business that's been there since 1962."
"Our records indicate that Royal Zeno Shoe Shine has been operating at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport for approximately 40 years, but the company may have a longer operational history in the community," Lea said in an e-mail.
Lea said the commission applied "evaluation criteria" to foster fair competition and select a shoeshine firm to "best serve the MSP community and the flying public."
He added: "As a government entity, the MAC does not award contracts based solely on length of tenure."
MSP in recent years has had six shoeshine stands, three run by Zeno and three by another firm. When Minnesota Shines pulled out in 2017, the airport brought in DG Express, owned locally by Danny Givens Sr. — who had come in third in bidding in 2015, behind Zeno and Minnesota Shines. One of Givens' three stands has since closed because of airport construction, he said.
Givens has received a number of commendations from MAC officials based on customer comments. He offers free shoeshines on Saturday mornings at his main terminal stand to airport employees; Zeno said she also offers free and discounted services to MSP workers.
Support for Royal Zeno
Seven years after Royal Zeno began shining shoes at MSP in 1962, he bought the shoeshine company owned by Elwood Johnson, and the family has been in the business ever since.
In 1998, the MAC planned to award its shoeshine business to a new woman-owned vendor from another state. The move produced an outcry from local civil rights groups and others sympathetic to Zeno, who was then 80.Local and national news outlets did stories, including NBC's "Today" show and People magazine.
The commission relented, voting to allow Zeno to keep several stands, along with another vendor which has since left the airport. Commissioner John Dowdle, who had opposed Zeno's renewal, in the end recommended that Zeno be kept on and noted the commission was responding to "overwhelming" support for him.
Standing next to her booth at the top of the F concourse last week, Rosemary Zeno said the MAC should keep six shoe stands in the terminal — hers and Givens' — and cited the particularly strong need for shoeshine stands during winter in the Twin Cities, when ice and snow can be tough on shoes. She opened another shoeshine stand at Union Depot in downtown St. Paul about three years ago.
Her airport employees include a Hispanic woman and 10 Black men. One of them is Johnny Murphy, 77, who said he has been shining shoes for Rosemary Zeno since 2009 and thinks the airport should keep her business.
"She should have it automatically after 60-some years," he said as he waited for his next shoeshine customer. "It isn't right. This is BS."
Givens said he empathized with Zeno over the possibility of losing her franchise after all these years.
"I have the compassion," he said, adding that he might hire some of her employees. Referring to the contract, he said: "We were in it to win it."