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Saturday, January 19, 2013

Second Chance Cafe



Life in the half-fast lane


Life as I see it from the middle lane, where we no longer scream along like a runaway rocket, nor are we looking to exit.



Second Chance Cafe

It should be noted that life continues to march regardless of who we are, what we have done, or how much money we have.

In most towns you can find a dining establishment that serves a good meal for a decent price. The often repeated advice given by experienced travelers is to, "Find the spot frequented by the locals, and follow them in." As a kid I had heard the want-to-be wise men spouting, "Eat where the truckers eat, they always know the best spots." Although I have found that last one had a bit more to do with where a driver could park his rig, than the quality of the food.

Our town has many fast food establishments as well as what we refer to as “sit down restaurants” where wait staff take your order and bring your food to you. The former is perhaps cheaper, but to me the second choice is far more satisfying.

As people get older and have less demand on them to provide for others, (which might be referred to as the “empty nest years”) they find that spending time slaving over a hot stove for two people no longer seems reasonable. It does still happen occasionally, just not often.

Some people become full time “nibblers” and snack themselves out of wanting meals. Others eat fewer meals and exist on coffee or tea.Then there are those of us who combine all of that with a daily trip, (sometimes two) to a local eatery for both food and a certain amount of socialization.

Many empty nesters say that something is missing since the house got so quiet. The simple fact is that two older adults do not make as much noise as even one child and most of the time there is quiet.

What seems to drive many of the retired folks that we know to restaurants is not just freedom from cooking and cleaning up afterwards, but the chance to interact with other people.

Our diner of choice I will call “The Second Chance Café,” which is not its real name, but it is safer that way.

If you frequent the same establishment repeatedly over a period of time you get to be known as “regulars” and achieve a reputation with the staff as either good customers or “PITA” types with the first word of the acronym being “pain.” I’m sure that you can figure out the rest of it.

Those who are students of human behavior or just good observers can have a lot of fun watching the antics of both customers and staff on any given day. There truly is a plethora of free entertainment to be had while you dine.

People in the food industry have hard, physically demanding jobs. Add to that the aggravation of dealing with the public and the stress score climbs pretty high. There is a trait common to all of the restaurant workers that I have observed doing well in their jobs, and that is a good sense of humor. From manager to dishwasher and especially the servers (as waitresses and waiters are now called), it is a vital quality if you are to make it longer than one week.

Anyone who has ever worked with the public can tell you that interacting with customers is far harder than being isolated with just co-workers or solo jobs.

When you throw in the attitude of many customers who have never had to deal with demanding individuals (like themselves) into the mix, it just gets crazy.

Say what?

The following examples were just a few of the things overheard in our local diner.

“I am paying for this so whatever I want, it is your duty to provide it.”

“Do you have vegan fish sticks instead of the all you can eat fish special? Oh, I don’t want them; I just wanted to know what kind of establishment you were running.”

“Can you take 50% off of my bill, because I only ate half of my  hamburger?”

“Why can’t you send the bus girl across the street to get me a beer? They have a liquor license.”

“Can I have three large go-boxes and fill them up with more of the all-you-can-eat spaghetti? Well I can’t eat it now, but I can eat more, later. No, you can’t charge me for four meals, it is just one order.”

“Why did you butter my toast? I wanted to butter it. No, I don’t want more butter, you have ruined my toast. I want you to take my entire meal off of the bill. You have wrecked my dining experience.”

“What kinds of tomatoes were used in the making of this soup? You don’t know what kind of tomatoes Campbell’s uses in their soup? I should call the health inspector. What kind of joint are you running here?”

I am really surprised that more bowls of soup aren’t dumped on people’s heads.

We are evidently on the “good” list as we are greeted like family and hugged by waitresses and bus girls both upon arrival and departure. We were also the only non-employees (or their families) invited to the closed door Christmas party held at the restaurant. The staff all knows us by name and treat us like family all of the time.

If I were being cynical I could say that it is because we probably spend more money there than any other customers and they like the financial support. But the truth is that the place is one big family.

Many of the employees are related and those who aren’t have known each other for years. I have known many of them for years myself, having met them delivering their mail. Some of them knew Anna at the high school. For whatever small town reason, there is familiarity and closeness.

The work environment is a happy one, with laughter being a near constant sound and very, very rarely is an angry sound heard from anyone. On the odd times that discord erupts, it is nearly always a customer fussing with someone that they came in with.

The current manager was the lead waitress for several years and when the existing manager got fed up with her corporate bosses and the commute to work and quit, she stepped in without a hiccup in the operation as far as the general public could see.

Within the first few days I could see the mood improving and the quality of the entire operation stepping up to a new level. A person with “from the ground up” knowledge was at the helm and respect was now a two-way street in the building. People tend to react positively to being shown respect.

This restaurant is a special kind of place where everyone is made to feel welcome, the service is good, and the food is worth the money you pay for it. That combination is not as easily found as one might hope.

So why do I call it the Second Chance Café?

Like so many people working in low paying, demanding jobs, most of the staff have had rough spots in their lives and didn’t have the opportunity or good fortune to make it to (or through) college. Some have seen the inside of the “barred hotel” and others have burned up eight of their nine lives with personal problems that that would have killed a weaker person. No one spends their youth dreaming of being a waitress in a small town café. At this establishment everyone is respected and equal. They are judged solely upon the effort they put in and how they conduct themselves now. The past is over.

Another reason for the name would be the giving and supportive attitude of the entire group. When misfortune strikes, whether it be death, or house fire, or any number of calamities that can and do happen, whatever needs to be done, will be done. Money is raised, comfort is given, hours are covered, and places to live are found. They exhibit the finest qualities of humanity without hesitation.

All waitresses are not (thankfully) created equal

There are endearing qualities present in all of the servers and staff -- some of it just won’t stay inside of them.

The staff plays jokes on each other and keeps up a running banter of jibes and faux insults that you would have to be blind to not see through. To those of us who know them well it is easy to see that they love each other more than most blood-related families.

One star of the floor show is empowered with an over abundance of awesomeness. She knows it, and we all know it. I have known this woman for more than twenty years and I can truly appreciate the difference between her former aggressive, obnoxious self and who she has become in the last few years. There is no one who can handle a full house like she does, and make you like it while you wait for your order to hit the window. Your meal comes out right, the food is hot, the drinks get refilled and she keeps you laughing the entire time you are there. It is no wonder that she is the top tip earner and the most requested server in the house.

Another of the wait-staff warriors is a woman who is generous and giving to the extreme, often turning over her daily tips to a family member or a bus person who mentioned a need for something without a moment’s hesitation. She knows what it is like to have nothing and be hungry and I have seen her pay for a stranger’s meal out of her own pocket. She laughs so much that if she stops, we look to see what’s wrong. To say that she is a character is like saying that the Pope is a Catholic.

One of the veteran servers is an accomplished horsewoman who not only can handle cranky horses, but can put an unruly customer into the back of a booth with a single glare. I am fortunate that she likes me and uses her powers for good and braids my beard for me. Nothing can get the plaits to lay flat and tight like her experienced hands. She also makes the cook fix my /quesadilla/ the right way and finds jalapenos for me when they have some.

Another long time hash slinger is closer to our age and is raising a grandson which means that retirement is not an option and like it or not, she has to roll out early in the a.m. to put on the coffee for a few hundred folks. I have seen her in the place on her day off, popping up out of her booth to get coffee or tea for customers in her civilian clothes. She is always ready with a laugh and smile.

Cooks are a tough crew

Cooks at most restaurants are scary people. Many are given to angry outbursts and mood swings that make you think that they are all bipolar. Wait staff and managers alike have cautioned me against upsetting a chef or cook when I needed something out of the ordinary. I consciously look for the location of all knives and the available exits whenever I enter a professional kitchen, just as a habit.

The Second Chance Café cooks labor for long hours trying to make every meal come out right and quickly, facing constant pressure to perform.They get oddball requests and last minute changes tossed at them by servers who are trying to give their customers what they want. To their credit I have not seen a meat cleaver thrown into a wall or a steak burned to a lump of charcoal in this restaurant like I did at another eatery in this very town. It is a rare occasion that they even get upset to where the customers notice. I must lead a charmed life because I have never had an order request turned down in this restaurant. These cooks care about what they produce and it shows.

Young people get into the profession for different reasons. Sometimes it is purely a lack of experience at any job and getting hired to wash dishes or bus tables is a doable entry level job.

The latest hire into the floor staff tells me frequently that she is so happy to work at this restaurant and even though it is hard work and long hours she can’t wait to get there each day to see her coworkers. She has friends and a life, but knows the value of employment and feels fortunate that she has such a good work environment.

One young shining star of the local eatery has lived far too fast and hard for her years and nearly ended before she began. Today she is living, learning, earning, and gaining respect for herself and from others who gave her the chance to act like the adult that she can be. Life is still one day at a time for her, but I have every confidence that the woman she is becoming will make her proud. She has an infectious laugh and a smile that melts bad moods on contact. She has gone from a bus girl who spilled everything that she touched, to handling (as the waitress) a full-on lunch rush solo with a prep cook chasing refills for her.

There are young people who work at the diner because they have family members already there and it did give them a chance to get a foot in the door. Those folks have to perform twice as hard to meet the scrutiny of both boss and the relative who spoke up for them. It is not a cake walk for them as they soon learn.

I am very pleased to be a part of a learning environment where we get to practice Spanish while helping others perfect their grasp on their second language at the same time. Several of the employees speak Spanish as their native tongue but must speak English to the customers and fellow staff members who do not know their language. Their progress is an inspiration and their patience with me as I mangle their language is a great lesson in how to behave.

The work ethics shown by the least well paid employees at this restaurant is another lesson in how people should behave. They never do as little as possible to get by, which I have seen in many higher paid vocations. From the dishwashers to the food prep crews they bust their butts supporting the staff out front. They are willing (to the last person), to come out of the back and do whatever is necessary to make the operation work. On many occasions we have seen dishwashers acting as hosts, seating customers, taking their drink orders, carrying plates of food to tables, and then cleaning tables on the run so more people could be seated. They know that their tasks are still waiting and no one will be washing the dishes while they are doing the extra work, but they never hesitate. We should all be that willing to step up when needed.

There are families that have three generations employed at this diner and it is a joy to be around them. The work ethic and enthusiasm is consistent from grandmother to granddaughter. They are a joy to be around and always earning their wages.

It is both amazing and amusing to realize that I have known some of the people waiting on me since they were little children.

One of the waitresses, who was a little girl when I delivered her grandmother and mother’s mail, now has kids of her own and takes care of me. A hostess/bus girl used to drive her mother crazy at work asking questions until she got parked in a corner with a coloring book. Now she hugs me when I walk in the door of the restaurant and before I leave. That doesn’t happen at Mickey D’s.

Customers

The customers who frequent our chosen oasis are even more varied than the staff and span the age range from newborn to over one hundred years young. The place has been open since 1966 and some of the original customers still get their morning coffee there.

Some diners I have been in have a particular clientele made up of locals with the same opinions who seem to run off anyone who doesn’t agree with them. Since one of the commonly heard nicknames for our town is  “Fal-abama” you can probably guess how conservative and redneck things might be here.

I am happy to report that while the “Good Ole White Boy” (Tea Party) contingent is still present, and still wanting things to go back to 1950, they have no control over this restaurant.

The presence of the navy base brings a delightful mixture of humanity to add to our Native American and Hispanic cultures, and the influence of Burning Man is felt in a very positive way. The clientele is as diverse as the United Nations, and are better behaved (no diplomatic immunity.)

I used to get harassed and called names because of my beard braids, and people with ink and/or piercings were rudely stared at until they left. That is no longer the case. Gay couples or mixed race couples were made to feel uncomfortable and in some cases refused service in this community as late as the late 1980’s. That is no longer openly true (you can’t fix everyone) here and most certainly not at the Second Chance Café.

There are characters that make the world unique and like them or not, they do add color to the mixture.

One such person is a very large man with a burning need to be the center of attention. Not just the focus of his captive group seated with him, but everyone within earshot of his always too-loud voice. He will often wear a top hat to the diner and sometimes rides up on his Harley and revs the motor loudly before shutting it off, to let everyone know that he has arrived. The man says whatever he can to cause the most controversy, upset the most people, and agitate the largest group. He lives for argument.

There are people who are referred to in diner language as “campers,” meaning that they “camp out” (usually in a booth) and spend hours drinking coffee or tea and don’t order anything else. This ties up the seating and cuts into the profit made from “turning” tables quickly. The real money is made from turning tables as often as possible, not from which meal customers order. This is why the most successful restaurants have bus people cleaning tables as quickly as customers get up, and frequently come by and take the “finished” dishes out of your way. It isn’t “to give you more room” as they are trained to say, but to cut down the reset time when you leave.

The Second Chance Café has its share of campers, some of whom are senior citizens who will generally take a table and hold court for several hours in the middle of the day between lunch and dinner. They are not too much of a problem and do order a meal or two among the group.

A far more problematic group comes around in the evening hours and is usually young people who will attempt to camp out in a prime corner booth where they can put their legs up and stretch out. They usually order water to drink and share large orders of French fries, making a mess all over the table with salt and ketchup and if left unchecked will get loud and rowdy. This is the group that unscrews the lids on the salt and pepper containers and spills water “accidentally” into the artificial sweetener holder. By the time they leave their tab will be five dollars or less, they leave no tip, and the booth looks like a group of toddlers had a confetti party. The cleanup efforts take forever and it adversely affects all of the tables around them. As you might guess they are very unpopular with the understaffed and overworked swing shift crew.

The toughest campers to deal with are on the midnight shift. These are frequently people who have had too much to drink and/or have nowhere to go. People under the influence of whatever, are unpredictable at best. They hang out for hours and vent their frustrations on the staff. This can make the graveyard shift a scary shift to work with only three people on duty. To make it worse sometimes if it is slow the supervisor lets one person go home early.

In recent years we have seen homeless people use their panhandling money to buy a cup of coffee (and free refills,) spending all night inside where it is warm and there is a bathroom. If they behave themselves and stay awake (no sleeping allowed) they are usually tolerated at the Second Chance Café. People who work there understand what being down on your luck is like and aren’t as quick to toss people to the curb.

We are part of the growing group of “I don’t want to cook” customers who have enough disposable income to exercise the option of paying someone else to handle the kitchen duties. We trade the grocery bill and entertainment allowance (we don’t drink or gamble) for a restaurant bill.

The Second Chance Café gives us another chance to interact with people and have a sort of second family to pick up the slack where our own busy family has departed. Life is good and every day is another adventure with old friends. I’ll drink (iced tea) to that!

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