A design implementation graphic of what is planned for the Starbucks facility in the food court. (Photo Credit: Courtesy photo illustration) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- A project bringing big improvements to the Army and Air Force Exchange Service shopping experience at Fort Rucker is under way in the building housing the main store, the food court, the Four Seasons and other vendors.

The highlights of the improvements include adding a Qdoba Mexican Eats restaurant, a Starbucks, more shopping room in the Four Seasons and a customer bathroom in the main store, according to Brenda Hyland, Maxwell/Fort Rucker/Gunter Exchange general manager.

Other improvements include new polished concrete flooring, replacing the current tiled flooring, improved lighting and other infrastructure improvements, including an overhaul of the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, she said, adding that work on the project began Nov. 18.

“This project will give the entire facility an upgraded look and make some significant improvements to the AAFES shopping experience at Fort Rucker,” Hyland said. “Qdoba is what they term a fast-casual Mexican restaurant. They have a lot of healthy food options, as well. They’ve really taken off at every other installation where they’re operating.”

Qdoba is expected to start operations in the food court around the end of May, while Starbucks is expected to be operating the end of June, she added.

Fort Rucker’s is one of the few AAFES improvement projects to be executed across the military this year, according to Johnathon D. Cole, Directorate of Public Works, and Col. Whitney B. Gardner, Fort Rucker garrison commander, is happy the local team was able to pull it off.

“It’s great that we’re getting to do this,” Gardner said. “We’re really excited to see these plans come to fruition – it’s long overdue. We have a great team here, and these improvements will help us make Fort Rucker an even better place for our Soldiers and families to call home.”

But to get to that improved shopping experience, customers will have to deal with some service disruptions here and there, including the barber shop now operating out of a trailer located on the Four Seasons side of the building, Hyland said.

“We expect the barber shop to be operating out of the trailer until late January,” she said. “Also, with the face covering and social distancing directives still in place, the shop can only handle two people at a time, so people should take that into account.”

People can line up outside for service, according to the general manager, who added that the barber shop in the Express Mini-Mall across from Military Clothing Sales is still open for business.

While the barber shop is the only service disrupted at this time, there may be some further disruptions with food court businesses in the future while improvements are made to the infrastructure to better accommodate the additional load the new Qdoba and Starbucks will bring, Hyland said.

She said she doesn’t expect any other disruptions to services in the building, although customers may run into some crowding in the stores while things are moved around to get the new flooring installed.

“Please bear with us – sometimes construction schedules might vary a little,” Hyland said. “We ask for people’s patience and understanding as we get these improvements made – we’re going to do everything we can to ensure we disrupt people’s shopping experience as little as possible.”

Making all of these improvements in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is a challenge, she said, but added that hasn’t dampened the spirits of the AAFES staff at Fort Rucker.

“I’m excited about it – I really am,” she said. “Getting everything started is always a little crazy. Our employees are doing really well – they’re troopers and they’re excited, too. We’re all eagerly anticipating having an improved facility. It’s a pretty nice store right now, but when this is all done, it will be even better. Our team does a really good job of keeping it maintained, cleaned and merchandised – they’re really doing an awesome job.”

If all this change isn’t enough excitement for the AAFES staff, Black Friday is also closing in, Hyland added.

“In the past, we always opened up really early, but this year we’re going to open at 8 a.m. on Black Friday, and have normal hours on Saturday and Sunday,” she said. “We’ll still be giving out Take-A-Tickets for the items that we expect to be in high demand. Right now, it looks like the weather will be nice, so we’re asking people to line up outside, keeping to the social distancing guidelines, and we’ll let everyone in shortly before that.”

She reminded people they can also order online, and get in-store or at-home delivery, and the store also continues its curbside pickup program.

“Additionally, one of the things is we’ve been running is our 12 Weeks of Savings since Labor Day, which features Black Friday-type deals every week, so I really hope people are taking advantage of those,” she said, adding that AAFES will match prices of local competitors. “Just bring in an ad and we will price match – you can also price match online.”

People can also take advantage of AAFES’ extended return policy during the holidays, Hyland said. “We have our extended return policy in effect every year during the holidays. Anything that is purchased now through Christmas Eve you can still return or exchange until Jan. 31.”

Hyland added that people should check out the Fort Rucker Exchange Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/RuckerExchange/, for special events, such as its current ugly sweater and tree decorating competitions, for chances to have fun and win gift cards.