For roughly five years during my high school/college career, I was a Table Maintenance Specialist at The Barn Steakhouse in Kinston.
The term “table maintenance specialist” is an updated version of the antiquated “busboy”. I was also schooled in food prep, which means everything on the salad bar was either sliced, ripped, smashed or poured by moi.
Napkin folding was also under my purview, and not that lame old square to rectangle jive. We were taught to fold a napkin in a way that was a cross between a pirate hat and one of those paper pop guns that were popular in middle school. At Thanksgiving, we’d fold the napkins into the shape of turkey; at Christmas, we’d fold them to resemble Santa; during presidential elections, they were folded to look like empty shirts.
In later years it was known as The Barn, but in my day it was known as The Beef Barn, which gave my friends/acquaintances plenty of ammunition. In the harsh, cold light of 2022, a restaurant named The Beef Barn would probably trigger protests from militant vegans dressed in fine leather.
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My Table Maintenance Specialist uniform consisted of $5 black pants, black shoes purchased from a hardware store, and a white shirt that came free in a box of cornflakes. It wasn’t a revolt against being fabulous, but adherence to practicality. I was there to clean up after messy adults, hyperactive children, and the occasional Hells Angels Reunion.
In all honesty, it made no sense to get my GQ on for a job that involved cleaning up the food remnants that escaped the mouths of total strangers. Sometimes a table could be cleaned and set back up in less than a minute, while other times it took days and assistance from FEMA.
Ironically, the people who came in dressed as if they’d just come from a taping of Jerry Springer’s show were the best customers and the easiest to clean up after. The absolute worst customers were always dressed to the nines.
The sloppiest customer I ever dealt with was reportedly a man of the cloth, but to be honest he was probably a pretender who had a show on local TV for a while and ended up selling refrigerators to Eskimos. He’d usually come in with his two sons who’d not been fed in several days based on the massacre they instigated on the salad bar.
These culinary commandos would plop at least a pound of oysters onto their salads, which, by the way, was the first time I’d ever seen a ceramic plate buckle. Then they’d complain that the salad bar was out of oysters.
“Sir, you and your sons have piles of oysters on your plates that are getting caught in the ceiling fan,” I said. “The ocean can only do so much.”
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This was the same customer who routinely asked to be seated at the one table in the entire restaurant that wasn’t ready. We could have five tables and two booths ready to go, but he’d always want the only one that hadn’t been cleaned yet.
“Are y’all gonna clean that table tonight?” he’d ask as if I owed him a share of my check.
“No sir, that’s your booth from last week,” I said. “We’ve been chipping away at it for a few hours a day since you were here last.”
Usually, a fully stocked salad bar would have been enough to sustain 10 to 12 customers, but when these three went through it made what Sherman did to Atlanta look like a pillow fight. If a rabid, vegetarian grizzly bear had busted through the front door and commandeered the salad bar, he would have made less mess and left more food behind than this gluttonous trio.
My other favorite was the guy who always demanded fresh lettuce.
“Excuse me, but could you put out some fresh lettuce, please?” he’d say.
“Sir, this was put out just a few minutes ago. I believe the tray of ice it’s sitting on has managed to keep it from wilting in a mere three minutes,” is what I wanted to tell the guy, but my boss — Charles Andersen — adhered to the old “customer is always right” policy, so I did my best to make Tim Zagat Jr. happy.
At first, this meant going into the back and adding more lettuce to the perfectly fine lettuce that was already in the pan. With time I learned that all I had to do was walk around the corner with the pan and stand in the kitchen for 30 seconds. I’d then walk back out with the same pan.
“Oh that looks much better,” he’d say.
I mentioned Charles Andersen earlier, and I have to say that he’s earned his spot in the Hall of Great Bosses. Upon his arrival at the helm, he noticed my rate of pay was out of phase with my level of work, and without prodding gave me a raise. With time we became friends; and, no, it wasn’t because of the raise.
We share a mutual love for the band Rush and even saw them in concert together on the “Counterparts” tour. If a waitress had a sick child or someone had a family emergency, Charles was understanding and never cross. Everybody — following Charles’ example — just cranked it up a little more to make it through.
My favorite part of our routine was the weekly Saturday night trip to Greenville. For his first few years at the restaurant, Charles was still working for the original owner. At the end of each week (Saturday night), we’d jump in his car and motor the receipts/paperwork over to the owner in Greenville. It probably doesn’t seem like much to you, but it was (and is) incredibly cool to shoot down N.C. 11 in the dark of night with the windows down while listening to a Neal Peart drum solo.
As luck would have it, Charles was finally able to take over The Barn the very week two national chain restaurants opened within spit-ball distance of his parking lot. For many years Charles’ work ethic, business acumen and dedication to putting out a high-quality product kept The Barn in the game. It wasn’t uncommon for Charles to do his managerial gig, prep all the food and be the chef all on the same day.
Along with Charles, there was Lois — who to my knowledge was the longest-tenured Barn employee in its history. Becky and Donna, you guys were always fun to work with, as was Ray and his sweet sister who passed away about a year after I left.
Nowadays when I drive by the old Beef Barn location, I remember the good times I had working there. I also think about that guy and his three sons who ate as if they were going to the chair the next morning. You may think the local buffets were shut down due to Covid, but I assure you these three had something to do with it.
Jon Dawson never left Kinston or swore to never come back. His books are available at http://www.JonDawson.com.