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It's the end of an era.

A decades-long tradition will terminate this fall as the landmark ZCMI store downtown eliminates the stand-up lunch counters where thousands of shoppers and office workers have grabbed a quick hot dog or sandwich over the years.But don't feel too bad. ZCMI President Lowell M. Durham Jr. assured stockholders at the company's annual meeting Wednesday that they'll still be able to get lunch in the store's basement. The difference is the food will be better and they'll be able to eat it sitting down.

"Salt Lake Downstairs" is the theme of the total renovation planned for the 50,000-square-foot lower level. Shareholders were told that the redesigned lower level will include a food court with chairs and tables replacing the stand-up counters, luggage, toys and value shoes, art needlework and more.

In addition, ZCMI Center will offer valet parking for up to 100 cars for "shoppers in a hurry," the first shopping mall in this area to provide the service.

Earlier in the meeting, Keith C. Saunders, executive vice president and chief financial officer, reported on the company's financials for the 1988 fiscal year ended Jan. 31 - information published on these pages May 12. Basically, the figures showed the department store chain with net sales of $189 million for 1988, up from $184.15 million for the previous year. Net income for '88 was $2.24 million ($1.04 per share), up from a $163,458 loss reported a year earlier.

In his remarks to shareholders, Durham pointed out that, "ZCMI is a company whose owners, employees and management have been visionary enough to see the long-term benefits of staying power. They have accepted the vision of sustained growth and stability rather than the quick profit."

But at least one shareholder didn't agree with that vision. During the time set aside for comments from stockholders, the usually convivial meeting was stunned by the comments of Franz S. Amussen, a financial consultant with the Salt Lake office of Shearson Lehman Hutton.

Saying he was speaking for his father, ZCMI shareholder Francis Amussen, Amussen said ZCMI management should worry less about benefiting the community and more about benefiting stockholders.

"Return on investment is my concern," said Amussen, citing figures on inventory turnaround, price/earnings ratio of ZCMI stock, and other statistics that he said are well below industry averages. He said ZCMI's stock is selling at 50 percent above value. "The sad part is," he said, "these statistics are the same or getting worse."

He then told the gathering there were only two viable options for ZCMI: "One, fire current management and bring in new management or, two, sell or merge the company so shareholders can get a reasonable return on investment."

Finally, he criticized the service policies of ZCMI saying he prefers Nordstrom where they will alter his suits "until they're right" and "they know my name."

Asked by ZCMI Chairman Marvin J. Ashton to respond, Saunders said management "makes no excuses" for the company's return on investment to shareholders but said any critique must be viewed in light of the increased retail competition in this area and the overall flat economy and negative growth in ZCMI's market in recent years.

Saunders said he believed Amussen's figures relate to retailing overall, including discount stores, not just department stores. "When we are compared to full-line department stores, we are good," he said.

Following the meeting, Durham told the Deseret News he agrees with Saunders assessment that ZCMI's performance must be weighed only against other full-service department stores, an industry niche that has felt increasing pressure nationally from discounters and specialty stores. Also, he said, ZCMI's performance must be weighed against the local economy.

"His (Amussen's) figures are true if you compare us to companies out of this market. But we give all of the (local) stores a tough go of it. This is a very tough economy here."

Durham said Amussen is not the first stockholder to criticize ZCMI for the performance of its stock, but he said those critics are in a very small minority.

"He says the long view doesn't matter, but it matters to most of us here. Companies that worry too much about short-term profits tend to disappear when they do what he wants."