Suzanne Hale has spent the last 45 years of her life in the service industry (she was a waitress at much-missed greasy spoon Quality Pie), but for the the last 18 years, she's been known to regulars as the owner and mother hen of downtown's late-night haven the Roxy Diner, one of Portland's few true 24-hour diners.
As the queen bee of greasy spoons (and onetime Empress of the Imperial Court, as seen in the photo at right), Hale — who describes herself as "on my fourth and last husband, the mother of one, grandmother of two, and 'Mama' to many" — graciously recounted a "day in the life" of the Roxy. The representative day starts on Tuesday morning, where things pick up quickly after the Roxy's one day of rest on Monday.
In this first installment, which kicks off with Hale's shift starting at 6:30a.m., Hale — with an assist from her daughter and Roxy server "Miss April" — talks about those early-morning pots of coffee, the afternoon tourist crowd, and having the freedom to dismiss customers being "assholes."
6:30a.m.: I drive by and pick up [kitchen manager] Jenifur to open for the week. On the way downtown, we look at the people on the street, and play "Worker/Not A Worker." The people with sleeping bags or briefcases are the easy ones. Both are Roxy customers. We start firing up the kitchen equipment... Of course, the first thing we get going is the coffee. We have amazing coffee. Every pot is fresh ground to order. The staff goes through at least one pot before the doors are even open. The rest of the weekdays start by the changing of the guard. For us, nights are crazy so the day usually begins by picking up the pieces. Cleaning, shopping, prepping. The bank is counted and turned over to the next shift. The breakfast special signs are up to get our loyal vampire crowd out into the daylight. We sweep the cigarette butts off the sidewalk where the bar crowd lingered to dish the latest dirt. Daytime is a whole different vibe at The Roxy. There's room to relax at your table without a horde of hungry drunk people looking at you like you aren't eating fast enough.
8a.m.: Our game faces are on! Dru puts on his apron and smiles, optimistically hoping for breakfast business. Jenifur and [general manager] Jason figure out the shopping list, print it out and head out to replenish supplies. It usually fills up the van, and upon return, it takes hours to unload and put away, always making sure to rotate the inventory. That's a good time to discuss any staff issues. We have very little turnover, but once in a while we have to do some juggling to make a vacation work... when someone really needs some time off for something important, like a nervous breakdown, a concert, or a gay wedding, we all pull together and happily work double shifts to cover each other. This may be why most of our staff has been here 10 or 15 years.
9a.m.: The checks for the vendors are written and pretty soon they start coming in to deliver bread, coffee, clean towels, etc. The phone is ringing already...
10am: Probably on the third cup of coffee, and it's time to start the paperwork. All of the servers have dropped their money into the safe, and now it's time to count it, record it, and put the visa slips in their spot for scheduled shredding. Who knew that counting money could be so tedious, but at least for an hour or two, I feel rich. Until I realize this money is already spent.
11am: Hmmm...which bills are the most urgent? Depending on how business was and how close it is to payday (which is the number one bill priority), we send out the payments. The bank deposit is prepared. After a good weekend, we rejoice in the opportunity to finally pay for that expensive repair we've been putting off. But more often, we realize that after paying the urgent bills, we have to put it off again.
Noon: Look jealously down the street at our competitors, who seem to have much more business than we do during the day, and plot how to steal their customers. Offering liquor at lunchtime seems to be a surprising draw, and one of these days, we might have to go for it. But it is nice to be open 24 hours, and not be subject to the rigid controls of the Liquor Commission. Some of our most loyal regulars are under 21, and they need a safe place to go. Some things are just more important than money.
1pm: Time for lunch, and the opportunity to get away from the desk. Doesn't matter, the phone keeps ringing anyway. Some guy has a complaint. I know all about it. Staff and regulars gave me a heads-up about a single guy who kept trying to move to a table for six last night because he didn't want to sit next to a gay man at the counter. When it was made clear to him that he was not going to get his way, he promised that he was going to have that server fired. ... So, this morning, the guy on the phone has calmed down, and is using his business voice with me. He tells his side of the story, which is sanitized to the point of BS, but continues the business tone and I let him continue, with the occasional, "I see." When he finally twigs that I'm not outraged, nor apologizing profusely for the way he was treated, his businesslike manner cracks a little. He asks me if all of my servers are that rude. I calmly reply, "Only to assholes." I think I hear him gasp. He then asks me if I'm always this rude to customers, and my reply remains, "Only to assholes." The call concludes pretty quickly after that, and I smile, wishing that in my younger years as a waitress I had had that kind of freedom.
Of course, these sorts of scenes are few and far between these days, so I guess people have figured out that we are not some corporate structure that expects the staff to be abused by a customer. I know that my people work hard to give good service, and make people feel welcomed. I know from experience that you can't get that kind of loyalty and work ethic from someone who is required to swallow. This is more than a business decision, it's about dignity in a job that often has none.
2p.m.: Tourists wander in from one of the many neighboring hotels. Chortles can be heard as they peruse the menu items with names like our famous "Big Fat Heart Attack Special" (chicken fried steak with homemade country gravy), or the "GBLT Sandwich" (a nice gay bacon lettuce and tomato), and their accompanying witticisms. The giggling continues when their coffee is served with a baby bottle full of cream. They don't seem to mind the F word in the menu any more than they mind our signature tee shirts "Portland F@#king Oregon." They invariably ask about the neon crucifix above the jukebox. We explain with a wink that it keeps the vampires out. Seems legit. If they are really cool, we tell them about the hidden picture of Marilyn Chambers. Yep, full on XXX Marilyn Chambers.
3p.m.: Shift change again. Swing shift starts slow and ends up busy. We deliver downtown, and that's about when our night people are waking up and want some big fat food, but can't risk turning to dust in the harsh sunlight. I really should spend more time marketing delivery. It's nice to have a Soylent Green Omelette ("we put a little of ourselves in every one") delivered instead of pizza for a change.
In Part Two of a day in the life of the Roxy, Hale talks about the infamous late-night crowd, where at 3a.m., "90 percent of the room is likely schnockered." Look for it later this week.
· The Roxy [Official site]
· All Greasy Spoons Week Coverage [Eater PDX]
Image of Suzanne Hale courtesy Facebook