Unique trio of servers serve up good food at Dean's Haywood Cafe for more than 20 years each
While Viola Ferguson, a long-time server at Dean’s Haywood Café in Crabtree which is often simply dubbed the “truck stop” by locals, interviewed for this article, she cut lemons at the counter and easily chatted with regular customers.
“Ask her how old she is,” shouted customer Gifford Farmer from two tables away.
“I’ll tell you how old I am – I’m old enough to eat cornbread without getting choked,” retorted Ferguson, as she chopped lemons without missing a beat.
It’s that kind of back-and-forth friendly restaurant banter that has kept Ferguson serving at the café for 24 years, along with fellow server Summer Smart who has worked there 28 years and Teresa Rathbone who is celebrating year number 20.
Total, this unique trio of servers has served up good food at this hometown truck stop local café for a tremendous 72 years between the three of them.
Hands down, they agreed their favorite part of the work is the people – people like the Hostess truck driver who stopped every day for 30 years on his route from Knoxville to South Carolina and was recently laid off, phone company employees, policemen, utility workers, farmers, deer and bear hunters, plus all the locals from Crabtree, Ironduff, Fines Creek and White Oak in between.
It’s the faithful group of men who gather in their unofficial “assigned seats” every morning – men like 88-year-old Jack James who looks forward to his grape jelly biscuit and gravy breakfast and customer Jimmy Smith who can’t live without his morning omelet.
“We put their butter and jelly on their biscuits and milk in their coffee and just spoil them rotten,” said Smart.
Jack Ross, an AT&T employee, looks forward to his pitcher of Diet Coke he doesn’t even have to ask for while Gifford Farmer says he comes for the meatloaf on Tuesdays and fish and shrimp on Fridays. “This is the place to be for all the gossip,” joked Farmer.
All three servers pour a glass of water with just a tad of lemon when they see UPS employee Grady White’s truck pull up. And, if it’s Wednesday, they know he wants the lasagna special.
“I think these are three of the best waitresses in Haywood County, but then again I don’t want to say anything bad about the people who work with my food,” joked White.
“No, seriously, we just tease each other but the service is excellent here and I’ve never had a bad meal here in 10 years,” White added.
These ladies are sad when they pass by the bar stool where Jim O’Hare used to sit and eat oatmeal each morning before he passed away several months ago, and they memorialize the life of local farmer Corky Boyd with a picture on the wall. Boyd enjoyed a daily cup of coffee at the café for three decades.
“We get real attached to these customers and it’s hard to let them go,” said Smart.
Over the years, this trio has seen all kinds of interesting happenings at the café like wrecks, fights and even parking lot arrests. One of the most unusual things happened after a child sitting close to the men’s restroom asked Rathbone, “Uhhh, do you have a cow in the bathroom?”
“After a few more minutes of hearing this awful noise, I finally asked a couple of male customers to go in the bathroom and check on this man and, when they did, they found a man in there sprawled out trying to pass a kidney stone so we had to call the ambulance,” recalled Rathbone, noting that some men at the bar commented, “Oh, he’s eaten the gravy and it’s killed him.”
“He must have stopped from the interstate because he said it was the closest place he could find and we never saw that man again,” she added.
They agreed the most challenging part of the job is trying to satisfy grumpy customers. “One man claimed he found a grasshopper in his food after he had eaten over half of it, and then he came in here a year later trying to pull the same prank again,” recalled Smart, adding he must have assumed the same servers wouldn’t work there a year later.
The extra nice customers, however, make up for the few grumpy ones, they said, especially when a male stranger left Smart a $100 bill for Christmas one year and a truck driver left Rathbone a $50 tip with a napkin note that read, “I heard you were a single mom.”
“A man named Tom from Georgia used to always aggravate me and leave me a penny tip, and then one day he left me a jewelry box with a $50 bill in it,” said Ferguson.
Dean and Trudy Kirkpatrick, who have owned the restaurant for 10 years, say these ladies have been a tremendous help. “It would be impossible to find help like these gals,” said Dean Kirkpatrick.
Looking back over two decades, all three ladies said their hard work has been well worth it because it helped raise their children – Smart’s son Hunter, Rathbone’s children Patrick and Brooke and Ferguson’s children Patricia, Libby, Bill and Jeff.
The one thing they said they would change, though, is the blue polyester uniforms they used to wear. “The uniform was blue with a big stripe on it and you pulled it up like a jumpsuit and it was horrible,” remembered Smart with a laugh.
“We’ve come a long way since then,” added Rathbone.
So, what’s this trio’s secret for serving up delicious breakfasts and daily specials in the future? “Our philosophy is we don’t see anything, hear anything or repeat anything,” joked Smart.
“What happens at the Haywood Café stays at the Haywood Café,” she added with a laugh.