IHOP: Encouragement on a plate

IHOP: Encouragement on a plate October 10, 2012

He didn’t know that we had spent an additional two hours waiting for the doctor, who was sidetracked by another patient at another hospital, likely another crisis.

He didn’t know that prior to the doctor’s appointment, I’d sat in a wheelchair, a warm blanket covering me, yellow plugs in my ears, as I held onto my mother’s ankle and shouted over the reverberating drum of the MRI that she was doing great, that she’d be just fine, that she needed to hang on just a little while longer.

She couldn’t hear me, holed up in the hallow of that magnetic field, eyes covered with Zoro’s black mask, yellow foam pushed up inside her ears, but I yelled it out anyway.

He didn’t know that the doctor had told us the radiation only minimally shrunk the tumors. That there was, thankfully, no additional bleeding, but that there was significant swelling around the lesions. Lesions. Six weeks ago they were brain tumors. Cancer spread from the lung to the brain. Now they are lesions. It sounds so much less threatening. Lesions are what you get when you fall and scrape your knees, your elbows. When does cancer quit being cancer and becomes instead a really ugly owie?

He didn’t know all that.

The waiter only knew that the bald woman sitting before him must be really hungry. “You want four slices of ham and two sausages or three slices of ham and three sausages?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said.

He looked at me. I smiled.

“If you want to trade out the pancakes on that dish I can substitute the gravy and biscuits for that,” he said.

“No,” Mama protested. “I want the pancakes and the biscuits.”

He looked at me. I smiled.

“So you want two eggs, three slices of ham, three sausages, two pancakes and a side order of biscuits and gravy?” he asked.

“Yes,” Mama answered.

He looked at me. I smiled.

“Super!” he said. “I got it. I got it. You’re a rock star.”

We hadn’t finished our first cup of IHOP coffee when he came back, plates stacked up to his biceps, laden with all the things Mama ordered.

“And I brought you some hot maple syrup,” he said, as he placed a warm pitcher of darkened nectar before her.

“Thank you,” she said.

I knew Mama wouldn’t eat a fifth of what she ordered. The biscuits and gravy wouldn’t suit her. Nobody makes better biscuits and gravy than Mama. She wanted her own but was willing to settle for whatever was available.

The waiter didn’t know how the steroids make her hungry or how the cancer suppresses the pleasure of eating. If he noticed her bald head and surely he must have, he didn’t let it faze him. He treated Mama like another hungry person in need of attention, in need of encouragement served on a plate.

“You need anything?”

“A glass of water,” she said and he rushed off to get it.

Fussing. That’s what he did. He fussed over Mama. In a good way. In that way of people who love their jobs and love the people they serve. In that way of people who always have a kind word to speak to others. In that way of people who live to serve. In that way that makes others leave a table not only full from the food but full of goodness, too.

He paid attention to all the details.

“Either of you want some Tabasco?” he said, stopping by the table, yet again, in an effort to please.

“No,” I said.

Mama’s mouth was full but she managed a “Thank you.”

He stopped by the table behind us to talk to a young father about parenting. He helped seat a family of five, switching spots when they decided a booth would work better than the table they were first offered.

He never rolled his eyes, or sighed audibly.

He just went about waiting on hungry people, cheerfully.

So cheerfully that I told the manger upon our leaving that I travel a lot, have been waited on by dozens and dozens but that that fellow, the waiter at IHOP,  had the best attitude I’ve ever come across.

I told the waiter that, too, of course. Told him that I thought he was one of the best in his field, the way he was so attentive to people, jovial and kind. It’s hard to encourage people, especially when they are hungry as horses, the way Mama was when we sat down. It was obvious that he cared about more than being a waiter. He cared about the people he was serving.

What about you? What are the ways you serve others that leaves you feeling the fullness of life?


Karen Spears Zacharias is author of A SILENCE OF MOCKINGBIRDS: The Memoir of a Murder.









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  • Thanks, Karen! Like so much of what I read here, you once again touched my heart, reminding me that there are always blessings.

    I have the privilege and responsibility of looking after my elderly parents and disabled brother. Even though it has its frustrations, it gives my life a deep sense of purpose.

  • That’s great! That’s the kind of server I am. I serve my customers the way I like to be served. I know that when I go to a table I don’t have any idea what those folks are going through, or what kind of a day they’ve had. I have even had some of the grumpiest of regular customers laugh, or compliment me. Thanks for sharing this 🙂

    • I know it’s true that you are that kind of waiter, Gary. What I can’t figure out is how you manage to work two difficult jobs — as a reporter and as a waiter.

  • AFRoger

    My first job upon returning to the US after completing my four years of USAF duty was behind the parts counter of a John Deere dealer in Nebraska. Although I’d been away from the farm for four years of college and then four of military duty, I still knew a few things about a few customers who were my childhood neighbors. Such as, what year their tractor was and the type of fuel injector nozzles for that series. They appreciated that little extra.
    Hardest thing was trying to help a customer, often a farmer’s wife, sent to town to get a new belt, bearing or hydraulic hose for the combine, machines rapidly becoming as complex as aircraft carriers. This one or that one? This serial number series or that one? Or another? Left side? Right side? Most farm wives knew their stuff as well as anyone. But there were those the farmer had met in a bar in Omaha who didn’t know the front end from the back end of the machine. You knew there would be “interesting” times at home if and when she came home with the wrong part. Of course, no cell phones in those days to ask questions. No online ordering. All face to face stuff.
    Tough times when a struggling farmer came in for parts during the urgent times of planting and harvest that the family income depended on–and you had to tell them that, no, this sale had to be cash because their account was too far behind. You might get ten crabby, cranky, frustrated customers in a row in busy seasons. They might be stacked up five deep waiting their turn, growing more impatient by the minute. You put on your smile for each anyway. Even a fake one is better than none. Your learned acting. And then, by the grace of God, a savior would come. No, not the rapturous Son of Man, just a customer who would make your day with a kind word or a thank you. I learned a few things with people in front of me and 10,000 line items of green and yellow parts behind me: 1) everyone should spend time in face to face customer service at some point in their lives; 2) a little grace and a little kindness are the cheapest investments paying the highest returns on the planet.

    • A terrific John Deere story. Can’t go wrong with that. But yes, you are right, we need more face to face interaction & a lot more grace. I can feel the frustration of trying to identify those parts. I wouldn’t have the first idea of how to help them.

      • AFRoger

        Got to know my first homeless man across that parts counter. Buster was his name. He was our best customer for cheap pliers, screwdrivers and gloves. Had his own running charge account, too. Paid his bill every 5-14 days. Took “showers” weekly in the sink of the men’s room. I’d go in to mop up after his 45-minute breaks there. Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. I mopped up after Buster washed his own–and everything above. Still mopping up after unhoused folk today. Still get to have faith chats with ’em as I did with Buster. Full disclosure: Buster gave the witness to me, not vice-versa.
        Of such is the kingdom of God.

  • john@pdx

    I remind myself every Monday. I may be the only person my friends talk to all day. I better get it right! It depresses my wife to go but it makes me happy.

    • And you, sir, have not sent me an update for Meals on Wheels in a long while. I can think of things that depress me, however, things I can’t do very well — medical stuff, for one. Meals on Wheels is a great ministry and you do a great job. Thanks for sharing.

  • Sharon O

    This just warms my heart. I think people who serve often times have no idea the impact they have or the slight ministry they have or the compassion they extend perhaps to one who never gets it.
    I do hope that man gets a good raise but even more than that, I hope HE felt your thanksgiving in a good and deep way when you left. It was a good thing to let others know how he impacted your time there.

    • I think that’s true of all of us, Sharon. We simply don’t know the impact we are having.

  • Jane

    Our oldest daughter does college recruiting for Enterprise Car Rental and from time to time, when she’s eating out, she spots a good recruit in someone like the waiter you had. Good customer service in whatever work you do may not always get thank yous but nearly always is noticed. Good post, as usual!

  • LorenHaas

    My wife and I have led divorce recovery groups for 7 years. We have both been through divorce and felt God’s love poured out to us through other people as we struggled to regain a grip on life. Many people come to our group with their life in tatters, but striving to maintain a “stiff upper lip” through it all. Frequently, tears flow as they speak bitterly of broken vows and lost dreams. I often cry along with them, but have to suppress a smile as I remember my own path to recovery and see the Spirit at work in their lives as well. A homemade brownie taken internally, a hug receiced topically, and a prayer spoken out loud on their behalf gets them through another week. The next week gets a little bit lighter. They can even offer encouragement to the person next to them. A few weeks later, they are speaking of forgiveness and looking forward to a new life with a different outlook.
    I am blessed see healing in people’s lives through every 13 week cycle of meetings.

    • Loren: One of my dearest friends ended up divorced. I know how hard that was on her, how she struggled with feelings of guilt and failure. I’m so glad there are people like you and your wife ministering to those who have made this journey. Thank you for sharing.

  • Joshua p

    That nearly made me very! I too am a waiter at ihop and have had situations like that with my customers. I had one of my tables pay for the food of my elderly customer that was eating alone on christmas day. She was so happy. With both them and the service. They even tipped me for her. When life gets you down. God and his followers are always around to still make you smile.

    • Joshua: Great story, thank you for sharing. And thank you for being the kind of waiter who blesses others.