If you made it into Lisa McGuire’s book, you know you are part of a special club forever.
Longtime waiter and food enthusiast has worked in the hospitality industry for 45 years in more than a dozen restaurants across Indianapolis. But behind these numbers, every customer is still something special in her eyes – she records every single one and writes down the names of the people she has met over the years. Her current book from 2004 accompanies her during her shifts at the Provision restaurant in the north of the city.
“I wrote down people’s names, what they drank, something about them,” said McGuire, 66. “And then if I forgot when they walked in, I had something to relate to.”
Her life in the industry is a special story that she and her husband Rob McGuire have been writing for decades. They’re the “hospitality couple,” says Rob McGuire, 64, a seasoned bartender at Ruth’s Chris Northside, owned by the family-owned Prime Hospitality Group. He also happens to work across the street from Lisa’s restaurant.
The two of them wear many hats beyond their job description: Lisa takes the dinner guests on a personal culinary journey. Rob tells jokes when someone tries to laugh; he listens when someone needs to talk.
That’s the kindness and Hoosier hospitality that many Indianapolis diners lost when the coronavirus pandemic forced restaurants to close or operate with limited capacity. They missed Rob’s jokes about “prescribing medication” at the bar and Lisa’s innate “service gene” that helps guests feel relaxed and welcome. Or maybe you have your own Lisa or Rob in another restaurant that has a similar level of attention to detail, buildinga relationship with you that goes beyond a “order food, eat food, pay for food” transaction. They almost feel like family because you break bread with them almost every week.
We also missed the 20% of Indiana restaurants that had to close permanently due to the pandemic, according to the National Restaurant Association. Those who survived often offered roadside delivery and collection, a cold contrast to the warm human interactions that local servers are known and loved for.
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Chris Hopkins, the general manager of Oakleys Bistro, recalled personal dining being closed from March to June 2020, but she and the chef shared a focus on keeping things personable through roadside pickups.
“Lots of (customers) made it, so we saw them by the car and said ‘hello’,” said Hopkins, 55. “Not long conversations, but ‘I’m happy to see you’re still fine’ and ‘ Thanks for doing this for us, you know, this will get us through. ‘ ”
The pandemic was devastating to the industry, but with more fully vaccinated people and increased indoor capacity, regular customers were able to return to their favorite eateries for long-awaited reunions with their families and friends – and their beloved restaurant owners.
“Everyone is so happy to come back here especially,” said Hopkins, hearing the excitement of people making reservations on the phone, some who haven’t left their home in a year. “We only have happy people in the room, and that’s really great … it makes me happy (too).”
Change times for restaurants in Indianapolis
The pandemic has put the industry under further pressure, not because customers are not coming back, but because labor is scarce. It’s just a drastic change that they’ve seen, says Hopkins. The restaurant currently only has five waiters, so she lends a hand to help with serving in the evenings.
“Over the years, you get through these things,” said Hopkins. “Comes and goes every five years or so, for example where you are in a crisis, where you cannot find any people. And then it comes back and you’re good. “
Thirty years ago, she says, the more career-focused people came into the hospitality industry, while today’s workers are more volatile and more likely to switch jobs and industries. Indianapolis used to be home to more upscale restaurants as well. Meanwhile, many formal norms have become casual and comfortable.
“You could make your career out of it,” said Hopkins. “You took great pride in the type of service presented to you, like white tablecloths, filleting things at the table, decanting wine at the table, with candles. You know, none of this is done anymore … it was really an experience when you went out. People have dressed up for going out, which they don’t do so much anymore. “
Serving is “more of an art,” she says, but it was also intimidating to achieve this level of perfection at every table and with every guest. The work culture has also evolved to treat employees better, says Lisa, who previously worked with Hopkins.
“There were a lot of us out there for the jobs, so it was more competitive to work in good places,” Lisa said. “It was more of a culture where cooks were tougher on you and managers tougher on you.”
Hopkins didn’t have big dreams of working in the restaurant business, but thanks to her first job as a waitress in 1990, she quickly realized that she loved taking care of people.
“It’s like having a party in your house,” said Hopkins. “They want everyone to be happy.”
For the “host couple”, although they fell into the industry by chance, they can no longer imagine doing anything else today. Lisa McGuire originally attended a journalism school while her husband Rob worked briefly in sales. The two found the true passion of their lives – and each other – fittingly in a restaurant.
“The place I do best is at the bartender,” said Rob McGuire. “One of my rules for everyone is when you show up in my bar we will start laughing because it just has to be like that.”
“It just becomes a life you like,” said Lisa McGuire. “You get to know a lot of interesting people.”
People love her too, especially at the Cork ‘N Cleaver Restaurant and Bar. She is “iconic” and “one of the stars,” says Rob McGuire. Little did Lisa know when she started that her first waiter job would turn into a lifelong career.
“I never thought I could have my own apartment, you know, just as a restaurant worker,” she said. “And so we (now) have this cute little modern mid-century house and, you know, my middle class dream life that I didn’t think I could have. It’s part of my restaurant history. “
“You have to be a friend”
While some things have changed, longtime waiters pride themselves on their passion for guests and their dedication to five-star service in all restaurants.
“You have to be a friend in this business,” said Frieda Phillips, who was photographed as a bartender at the Indianapolis Star in 1995.
These friendships can, of course, be old or new.
“I knew everyone,” said Anita Ward, 64, who worked as a waitress at Turner City’s restaurant in Kirklin, Indiana, a small town about 30 miles northwest of Indianapolis. She worked there during high school, as did her mother Martha Ward, and remembered how they were famous for “amazing homemade food” including homemade donuts and “the best breaded fillets”.
“The exciting thing was that all the boys you thought were cute came in,” Anita said, remembering the thrill of her teenage years. The only part of the job she didn’t like was getting up at 5:30 a.m. on the weekend.
“One thing about Turner was you memorized the orders, not written them down,” said Martha Ward, 94, speaking with her daughter at IndyStar as they remembered her old, beloved workplace.
She remembered once asking a family for her order and they just sat there in silence. They said, ‘But you have nothing to write your order on?’ When she explained that they weren’t taking orders, they said, “You mean you’re going to fix this?”
“I did not say that. I said I’ll try, ”Martha Ward said with a laugh. She got the order right – and a nice tip.
The mother-daughter duo worked in other industries all their lives, but they especially loved their connections and friendships from the restaurant jobs. At one point, Martha Ward also worked at Howard Johnson’s restaurant on the Speedway, where she met her favorite racing driver, AJ Foyt.
For Lisa and Rob McGuire, their colleagues and regular customers have often become quick friends. They often meet people they know, eat out in Indianapolis, and even on their travels, from Florida to France.
“She’s lovely,” said Mac McWhirter, one of Lisa’s former clients. Every Tuesday he went to the Cork ‘N Cleaver with his group of friends, the “tennis boys”. “She is more than a servant to us. She is a friend.”
Recovery from the pandemic
As the industry bounces off this summer, the people behind the bar counters and waiter’s notepads are excited to greet more customers and see restaurants come back to life.
“There’s room in the hospitality industry,” said Rob McGuire, optimistic about the future of the industry. “It’s not that hospitality is going away. More and more restaurants are opening again, more and more people are leaving … I don’t think that will change. “
And as long as he sits behind the counter, his sense of humor and generosity, as well as the all-encompassing “Hoosier Hospitality” spirit of his wife and wife, will not change. He says he learned about philosophy, ironically, on a trip to New Orleans, where Ruth’s Chris began.
“It was transformative to my idea of hospitality,” said Rob. “It was very southern hospitality down there. I felt so cared for and I want that. And Lisa is definitely like that. If she keeps you waiting, you would know what I’m talking about. “
They also learned life lessons in the dining room.
“There are a lot of people out there who are not nice and there are a lot of nice people,” said Anita. “And you just have to take it and treat them all the same.”
“You have to be willing to humble yourself and you don’t know when,” said Rob. “But the beauty of the hospitality industry is the ability to humiliate yourself. Whether you like it or not.”
For Lisa, one of the biggest lessons was saying yes and diving into a career she didn’t expect she would love.
“Stop waiting for your real life,” said Lisa. “If this is your real life, accept it. ”
Contact IndyStar reporter Rashika Jaipuriar at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @rashikajpr.