I’m A Regular at an Unknown Cafe


Tuesday is my day of rest. Before you start wondering whether I’ve joined some sort of religious sect where the divine creator declared the second day instead of the seventh day of the week to be holy, fear not, I’m still Methodist. Tuesday is just the day that comes after Monday (ordering day), which follows the weekend (two days of baking before the sun comes up and making coffee until the sun is on the homestretch of going down), which follows Wednesday, Thursday and Friday (more of the same).

Every Tuesday around 2 pm, before I go to the library to read a week’s worth of New York Times’, I drive to a small diner in a different town. Upon entering the front door, a no-nonsense, thin, tall waitress who banters proficiently with the regulars at the counter, takes one look at me and starts making my chocolate malt. Usually, before I’m even settled into the corner booth, a chef’s salad sans mushrooms has appeared before me with an extra cup of ranch dressing: my standard order.

I am both a regular and an unknown at this diner. I’m fairly certain they have no idea I own my own cafe a few miles away, but that may not be the case, as today when I sat down at the counter and ordered coffee, Ms. No-Nonsense came to a full stop. Full. Stop.  I am pretty sure this is not the kind of woman who ever stops moving. And anyone who’s ever been to a busy diner knows waitresses are usually overwhelmed and underpaid. The more tables they can turn in an hour, the greater the chance their kids get new shoes in time for the start of school.

“Coffee??” she said incredulously. “Well that is just absurd.” She walked away. I started wondering if my anonymous gig was up. But she reappeared with my coffee, and asked if I was changing my regular order, too. “Nope,” I said. “Still the same salad, no mushrooms, extra ranch.” Moments later, my salad appeared, along with a refill. We both went back to our normal routine of rolling our eyes at the portly, elderly male customers walking behind the counter. I used to figure these guys had to be the owners, because who else goes behind the counter of a diner? But after a few visits, I figured out these men were just too fat, too old, and too stiff to navigate the chairs and tables of the dining room, and the space behind the counter was wider for them to get through to go to the bathroom. Which they frequented, often.

After my salad, I decided to order a piece of pie. I figured I’d already upset the usual pattern, and I’d been sitting across from the pie cabinet for 30 minutes, with nothing to do but try and decipher what flavors were underneath which home-made crusts. I caught Ms. No-Nonsense’s eye, and asked her which pie I should order. She blinked at me twice. I took this as an invitation to ask her which one she might recommend. “I don’t eat pie,” she responded. Helpful. So I ordered the one with most fanciful name, where I’m pretty sure none of the fruits were actually from the forest, but the crust alone was worth it. Flaky, buttery and super fattening. Oh yeah, baby.

One of the reasons I enjoy frequenting this diner, is that by 3 pm, the only people left are the regulars who have nowhere else to be. So they talk with the waitresses, who talk with the cooks, and by the time you leave, you’re pretty much caught up on all the week’s gossip. The waitresses are all Democrats. The regulars are all Republicans. The regulars like to tease the waitresses and the waitresses tell them to shut up. They all talk about Sharon, who lives just outside of town and her no-good juvenile delinquent kids. I wouldn’t know Sharon if I met her on the street, but I probably know more about her living situation than her relatives. That’s the beauty of being both a regular but an unknown: I listen to the conversations, follow along, and just pretend I’m reading my magazine.

At about 3:15 pm, I give up on ever getting a check and wander to the check-out station, where I tell the cashier what I ordered and pay in cash. Today, when I announced I’d had coffee and pie instead of a chocolate malt, the cashier looked at me in confusion. I literally had to talk her into taking my money for these different items and reassure her it would be alright. “See you next week!” she said with a smile. I looked back, only to see Ms. No-Nonsense waiting for a portly, elderly man to get out of her way behind the counter so she could deliver a plate of steaming mashed potatoes and gravy to a table by the door. We rolled our eyes in unison and smiled.

Coffee: It Does A Body Good

A cup of coffee is the great social equalizer of the world. Two people can be from completely different places in the stratosphere of life, but when you sit down and share a cup of coffee, life becomes a little simpler.

I didn’t start drinking coffee until age 32. Growing up, my parents both drank coffee, black and strong, pouring the first cup before the break of dawn from an old electric percolator with a glass top, which as far as I can tell, basically boiled the shit out of it until it was done. That was 30 years ago. Back then, there were exactly two kinds of coffee in the grocery aisle: Folgers in the red can and Maxwell House in the blue can. My parents bought whichever one was on sale.

When I was younger, old people drank coffee. Young people drank Pepsi. It wasn’t until I was hired at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture that I became a coffee drinker, and it wasn’t by choice.

Six months after being hired to oversee local food programs, the Wisconsin Department of Ag received federal funding to help Wisconsin cheese factories transition from low-profit commodity cheese to higher profit specialty cheese, and to help dairy farmers build on-farm “value-added” dairy plants. I was re-assigned from local foods to a three-person dairy team and charged with visiting cheese plants and dairy farmers to help spread the word that we had grant money and expertise to help interested cheesemakers and dairy farmers start crafting value-added products.

Here’s how it worked: Jim Cisler drove, Norm Monsen navigated, and I threw up out the window because I kept getting carsick.

It turns out that visiting cheese plants as a representative of a government agency – that, by the way – also regulates and inspects these same cheese plants – is not particularly easy. Whenever we walked in the door, we were usually greeted with a look of disdain, a sigh of frustration and a sarcastic remark of “I suppose you’re from the government, and you’re here to help me.”

However, being Midwestern, we were always offered a cup of coffee and a few minutes to sit down and talk, usually in an office or break room, or if it was on a dairy farm, at the kitchen table. It was here that we would make a little small talk, share info about grant money available, leave our business cards and leave before they thought about kicking us out.

I can remember the first road trip clearly. We walked into a cheese plant to a round of heavy sighs from the owners and were politely offered coffee. Naturally, I declined because I didn’t drink coffee. We made some small talk, made our sales pitch, shook hands, and left. We then repeated this sequence at stop number two.

By cheese factory number three, something changed. Before I opened the cheese factory door, Norm gently put his hand on my shoulder and told me, this time I was going to drink the coffee. I told him I didn’t drink coffee. He said it didn’t matter. We were entering these folks’ place of business, taking up their time, and we had the extra strike against us that we were from the government. “Just drink the coffee,” he said.

So at the third factory, when offered a cup of coffee, I smiled, said thank you, accepted the coffee and then stared at it until the cheesemaker asked whether I took cream and sugar. After an emphatic yes, I then poured in as much cream and sugar as humanly possible and pretended to like it. Norm smiled. The meeting went more smoothly than the last two. I began to understand that the simple act of accepting a cup of coffee, sitting down, and sharing a conversation, put everyone a little more at ease. Sheer genius.

Fifty cheese factories later, I was down to just cream. Ten years later, I can drink it black if I have to, but I prefer a little cream, and I drink at least two cups every day. I’ve even become somewhat of a coffee snob, buying coffee from local roasters when I can and treating myself to a latte now and then.

More importantly, I’ve learned that if you have a request of someone – whether it be knowledge, an introduction, or business – asking someone out for a cup of coffee is a pretty hard invitation to which to say no. Once you’re drinking coffee, sitting across from each other and having a conversation, the playing field tends to flatten.  I’ve done a lot of business over a cup of coffee. I’ve made a lot of friends over a cup of coffee. I’ve had a lot of good ideas over a cup of coffee. It seems to do both a body and soul good. Thanks, Norm.