It was a scene straight out of the sitcom Cheers, repeated weekly from September 1982 to May 1993.
Many of you will be able to add the soundtrack to the image above. In case you haven’t yet discovered this classic series of 80’s comedy, it’s “Norm” – the one-word greeting given to the supporting character of Norm Peterson, played brilliantly by George Wendt. Norm is a Cheers bar regular and occasionally-employed accountant. A recurrent joke on the show, especially in the earlier seasons, was that the character was such a popular and constant fixture at the bar that anytime he entered through the front door everyone present would yell out his name (“NORM!”) in greeting.
Except this time, and in a different place, it was me.
For years I have been a regular, weekly customer of Big Bite’z Grill in Cornelius, NC. I call it my “Lunch and Learn” and it usually occurs on Tuesdays (sometimes Wednesdays). The first stop is at my library to drop off and pick up books. Then, it’s a short drive to the restaurant. I try to arrive early, both to avoid the lunch rush and to claim my table – it’s the two-top all the way in the back, next to the kitchen door. While there, I not only have a great lunch, but make connections with the staff and a chance to skim a new book just picked up.
My food order on these visits is always the same: buffalo chicken pita, onion rings, and until recently, a Mountain Dew. Everyone, from the owner John, counter servers Carolyn or Demetri, to the cooks in the kitchen know my order. Most days, the cooks have already started the order when they see me walking across the parking lot. When I walk in the front door, it’s already being rung up. If John is busy, he will bring me the food when it’s ready and I’ll pay before leaving.
I’m one of the hundreds of “regulars” that frequent Big Bite’Z throughout the week. On my regular day, I can pretty much count that “Coach” will be coming in as I am leaving. One or two of the regular vendors are finishing up John’s orders for the week. There’s the construction crews that rotate in and out to the patio seating. Over there are Cornelius policemen, regular customers like me. Nowadays, there is a constant stream of nearby workers who come in to pick up a carryout, along with various food delivery orders.
If it’s not too busy, I will always have an ongoing conversation with John about the current state of the world. Carolyn keeps me up to date on her family, as well as keeping my drink filled. Even when it is busy, one or both of them makes it a point to stop by my table, just to chat even if just for a short while.
I’ve been writing about this phenomena for some time. It’s a little different application, but it’s also true at Big Bite’z. In the words of author Melody Warnick:
It’s a symbiotic relationship. Restaurant staff make customers feel like they’ve wandered into the proverbial Cheersian establishment where everybody (or at least somebody) knows their name. Customers, in turn, treat their favorite restaurants as hangout spots that are neither home nor work but something in between – what sociologist Ray Oldenburg, terms a “third place.” “At the risk of sounding mystical,” says Oldenburg, “I will contend that nothing contributes as much to one’s sense of belong to a community as much as ‘membership’ in a third place.”Melody Warnick, This is Where You Belong
During the early weeks of our local distancing restrictions in the spring of 2020, I made it a Saturday lunch practice to take orders from four-five of our neighbors, call in the order, and drive over to pick the orders up and drop them off on our neighbor’s front porch. I also continued my weekly Lunch and Learn visits, but with take out. Later in the summer, when the restrictions were eased to allow 50% seating, I returned to my weekly visit to the restaurant.
All that changed the last week of October 2020 upon learning that I had been unknowingly exposed to COVID-19 the weekend before. I immediately quarantined in our house. The next day I tested negative, and after experiencing symptoms, I tested negative again twice more over the few days later (eventually I tested positive). For the next five weeks, my world was our house. Without going into details, I exhibited literally all the CDC list of symptoms during the first two weeks, and following that, had two virtual visits with my PCP, which culminated in a day spent in the ER. While I recovered from the initial symptoms, earlier this year after another hospital stay, I became an official “long-hauler,” and am participating in our local hospital’s Long Term COVID Clinic studies. I have returned to an outside, though restricted, life. Fatigue and other symptoms are a regular part of my life.
Back to mid-December of 2020: It was with much anticipation, and maybe a little trepidation, that I pulled into the parking lot at Big Bite’z for my first visit in over five weeks.
When I walked in the door, I saw two big smiles, heard “Bob,” and immediately my order was called out to the kitchen, the cooks acknowledging me with big smiles.
Everybody wanted to know why I had been absent, and what happened, and was everything ok. It was a genuine, heartfelt connection, not just as a customer, but more – a friend.
After the initial conversations, it was as if the five weeks had not occurred. John stopped by my table two or three times with his latest opinion on what was going on. Carolyn was so kind as usual, and the kitchen conversations in Greek and Spanish just behind me were as reassuring as they were humorous.
I was back, and to my friends at Big Bite’z, I was missed, and welcomed back as if I had never been gone.
This has been a long and personal story, with only one question for you to consider: