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March 8, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Becoming a regular takes training. They have insider status cultivated by years of hard work, flawless attendance and money in the till. The other diners look at the regulars and think they know the food, get the perks and sit in the prime locations. In the words of Napoleon Dynamite, “Luck-eey!”
There’s no place like home, but for many loyal diners, their favorite local establishments come close. Their booths and tables are never empty, and the ingredients to make their usual orders are always on hand. These familiar faces share what keeps them coming back for seconds — and then some.
So, you’re a creature of habit. It’s nothing to be ashamed about. But how do you really know if you’re a regular? Answer yes to any of the following, and you might want to consider regulars’ rehab.
You know you’re a regular if …
You wear a disguise when you try out another restaurant so you don’t get caught cheating.
Your butt indent is still on the stool from the night before.
Your friends stage an intervention.
You get a concerned phone call from the owner if you miss a day.
They name an appetizer after you.
You knew the head cook when he was a wee busboy.
You forward your mail to your table at the restaurant.
You sign the employees’ time sheets.
You have a designated parking spot.
You accept a job based on its proximity to your restaurant.
Everybody knows your name … and your dog’s name, your mother’s birthplace, the date of your last haircut, the street you grew up on and your shoe size.
Your “usual” isn’t even on the menu.
Your food is prepared before you walk in the door.
You plan your daily agenda around the hours of operation.
Your holiday card mailing list consists primarily of the wait staff.
Your weekly grocery bill can’t even touch your nightly tab.
You dump your significant other if he or she bashes your restaurant.
— Monica Watrous
The routine: Rick, 53, arrives every morning between 7:15 and 8:30, eats and shoots the breeze with friends. “It’s a way of making the world a little bit smaller and understandable,” Rick says of the morning talks.
Back story: Rick first walked into the Bull Pen Café for lunch eight years ago because it was close to his old store. “I was accepted by the regulars, and I just kept going,” he says.
The perks: “I don’t ask for any or expect any,” he says. “But if I do anything for Jackie, she might offer me a free meal.” In the past, Rick has teamed up with Jackie Cockell, Bull Pen’s owner, to help a server get her cracked windshield fixed and to give a Wal-Mart gift certificate to Debbie McFarland, the assistant manager, for Christmas.
The addiction factor: If Rick could, he would make the Bull Pen Café a national historic site for the home-cooked atmosphere not because the waitresses have grown hard of hearing. The restaurant’s no-nonsense approach is epitomized in a sign that hangs on the wall in the restaurant’s back room: “This is not Burger King you do not get it your way. You take it my way, or you don’t get a damn thing.” It was posted in response to a cowbell that Rick and his friends installed in the room a few years ago.
The usual: Two eggs over-medium, “limp bacon” (a running joke with the waitresses) and whole-wheat toast (lightly toasted, lightly buttered).
Back story: Because the 63 Diner is just down the street from Cummins Midsouth, where Lance works as a diesel technician, it’s easy for him to make lunch every day.
The perks: “Sometimes, if the counter was full when I came in, they would set me up in the kitchen, and I would eat back there,” Lance says. And if he wants something not on the menu, such as a chicken quesadilla or Pam’s chicken noodle teriyaki creation, the cooks will whip it up for him.
The addiction factor: He says it’s the food, but when he gets talking, it’s evident that the 63 Diner’s counter conversation adds to the appeal. “We’re all friends,” Lance says. “The kind of friends that eat off his plate and share food,” adds Tammy Atkins, a server.
The usual: The lasagna special.
The routine: Every evening around 4, EJ, 60, goes to the Heidelberg, usually until close. He lives nearby and walks on nice nights. EJ tried the other bars around town, but nothing suited him quite like the Heidelberg. “I’ve gone to other bars, but most of the others seem like just college kids and married people,” EJ says. “I like the people that work here, and I like the different people: business people, professors, scientists and students.”
Back story: EJ spent plenty of time at the ’Berg back in the ’70s but took a sabbatical when he married Sue, who he says was the love of his life. After her death in 1999, EJ decided to sell his vending and wholesale business and returned to his favorite Columbia bar for a nightly beer.
The perks: As soon as he walks through the door, there’s a pitcher of Bud Light waiting at his spot. EJ and his pitchers anchor the corner right-hand side of the Heidelberg’s bar. “The days that he’s not here, you feel like somebody is missing,” says Catherine Buchols, Heidelberg server. “When you walk in for your shift at 4:30, you expect to see him at the bar talking to someone.”
The addiction factor: “Some people can sit by themselves; not me. I need to be around people,” EJ says. With the best seat in the house, EJ has plenty of stories, but for him what happens at the bar, stays at the bar. Also, EJ knows the staff at Heidelberg care about him. They used to have his telephone number taped to the phone so they could check on him if he didn’t show.
The usual: The smothered steak.
The routine: Every Saturday at noon for about seven years, Bill, 56, and Pam, 47, have met for lunch. This is when they get to be together, relax and catch up on each other’s weeks.
Back story: Saturday lunch started in the summertime when the Tillotsons would sit and have a bottle of wine outside. “People would walk by, and friends would stop by, and it became a way to socialize,” Bill says. They wanted to support the downtown restaurants and consider themselves blessed that they can eat out frequently.
The perks: They have a favorite spot. “It’s table 12; the one that sits in the window,” says Bill. “They try and keep it clear if it is getting near noon, but we probably get it our fair share of the time.” They are now close friends with the owners, and if they have a special need while entertaining at home, they can always count on catering help.
The addiction factor: “There has become a group of about five couples, and we have labeled ourselves ‘The Village People,’” Bill says. “We come here because we like the atmosphere, the owners, the ambiance and the location.”
The usual: Bill gets the fish & chips, and Pamela orders the southwestern sandwich. “The waiter just writes Bill and Pam on the ticket, and the chefs know what it means,” says Bill.
The experience is not all about her, though. “She’s one of the friendliest people I know,” says Anthony Jackson, the assistant manager at It’s A Grind. “She always comes in with a smile.”
Back story: The sole coffee drinker in her household, Becky didn’t want to brew alone. For the past year and a half, she’s frequented It’s A Grind. With her grown children moved out, she’s interested in what the young employees are doing with their lives.
The perks: Her drink starts brewing whenever she walks through the door.
The addiction factor: “It feels like going to my neighbors’ for coffee,” she says.
The usual: “It’s the vanilla latte, skim, sugar free,” she says.
The routine: Bill, 54, goes twice a day for lunch and dinner. In the evening Bill comes in at 5 and stays until 7:30 p.m. “I’m a creature of habit,” he says. “If anyone ever wanted to find me, they would know where to find me. I like it that way; I’ve made a lot of friends.”
Back story: Gus’ closed on Feb. 23 and is relocating to Rangeline, North of Interstate 70. It won’t be 100 yards from Bill’s house or two buildings down from his work like he has been used to for the past two years.
The perks: He has made good friends. On the last Friday at the former location, he sat with Aaron and Lauren Franklin and their 2-year-old daughter, Kailey. “We first met here when she started flirting with me over the top of the railing,” Bill says jokingly of first encounter with the 2-year-old. He also scored a 31-inch television. “Gus gave it to me when they moved,” Bill says. “Mine wasn’t doing too good.”
The addiction factor: “When I walk in, I know they’re glad to see me,” he says. Bill worries that he won’t make it to the new location as often, but he will still go.
The usual: The Philly cheese steak sandwich.
Back story: Serendipity (with a little help from an Everett’s bartender) brought together Shannon and her sweetheart, Roy Keitel, another longtime restaurant regular. Both had a 10-year tradition of dining at Everett’s, but it wasn’t until a little over six months ago that they requested a table for two. “He makes my heart smile; it feels great,” she says.
The perks: Everett’s sent Shannon a salmon dinner while she was in the hospital for stomach surgery, and the cooks cut up her food for her when she had a broken arm. “They just do things like that, and it is not just for me; they would do it for anybody else,” she says. Yeah right. No one else gets escorted through the kitchen into the private parking lot when it’s raining.
The addiction factor: Now that she’s been around longer than most of the staff, Shannon considers the servers and bartenders to be her kids. She jokingly tells her favorite servers to watch their mouths around their mom whenever she hears a bad word or racy joke. “I feel that close to them,” she says. “I feel like we are all family.”
The usual: “Prime rib, and the baked potatoes are from heaven,” Shannon says. “They are so wonderful.”