Veteran waitresses serve up heaping helping of experience

Customers at the Hen House Restaurant in Mahomet are likely to always see a familiar face.

And, it's not because they recognize other townsfolk in a nearby booth.

The waitresses at the Hen House include a veteran group of four women who have a combined 73 years experience working in the building.

When the subject is "Hen House regulars," the group of Rosana Rardin (27 years), Vonna Chaplin (19 years), Charissa Hemrich (14 years) and Sue Easter (13 years) is the starting point.

They don't go by the politically correct term "servers."

"We're old school," Easter said. "We're waitresses."

To find a restaurant with one long-time waitress is not unusual, according to Jamel Belahi, who has worked as a cook at restaurants in Mahomet, Minnesota and now Florida.

But four at the same establishment?

"That's record-setting," Belahi said.

The four women love their job and — in the case of Easter — found true love at the Hen House.

"I met my husband here," Easter said. "He came in for a while and started talking to me. He proposed here."

That event took place at booth 6, the one in the far northwest corner of the restaurant.

Sue and Guy Easter have now been married for 10 years.

Waitressing is a way of life for the women.

Chaplin had two decades of experience when she was hired at the Hen House.

She started her career at The Prime Burger in Watseka, but got married and relocated to Mahomet.

She had already worked her way up the ranks.

"I started washing dishes at 15," she said. "Then, they let me cook, but I didn't like that."

Rardin's start at the Hen House was a matter of convenience.

"I had a child in school, and the hours I could work were 7 a.m. to 2 p.m." she said.

Hemrich expected her appearance to be short-term.

"I was 22 and looking for something temporary, close to home," Hemrich said. "My plans were to go to college to be an RN."

Raising a daughter, working and taking classes were "too much," said Hemrich, who left college after three semesters.

Easter had the perfect timing when she applied.

"I worked at Chili's at the time," she said, "and I lived across the street (from the Hen House).

"I'd drive by and see all those cars here, so I came in and applied. It happened that he needed someone at that point."

Their loyalty and years of service is matched by Hen House general manager James Hudson. He has been with the company for 29 years, the last 27 in Mahomet.

Hudson, from Farmer City, became general manager 15 years ago.

"He has a lot to do with why we're all still here," Easter said. "He's our friend."

Hemrich said there's not a lot of micro-managing taking place.

"As long as we do our jobs, there's not a lot of helicoptering around us," she said.

The waitressses, who are on the job and ready to work when the Hen House opens at 6 a.m., know to be punctual.

"The men who sit at 'The Table of Truth' are always here," Chaplin said. "If you're one minute late, they look at their watch and give you a hard time."

There is even a sign above 'The Table of Truth,' which was created and contributed by the late Matt Phillippe.

"A lot of the original ones have passed away," Rardin said.

Easter said it's not unusual to see some of the same people two or three times in a day.

"They'll come for coffee and breakfast, then back for lunch and, at 3 or 4 o'clock, return for an iced tea or coffee and to visit," Easter said.

"In the spring, the farmers disappear for a while (during planting), in the summer, they're here a lot, and in the fall, they disappear again for a while (during harvest)."

The women get along well with one another and even organized a pool when Hemrich was pregnant.

"They were taking bets whether I'd have the baby here or in the hospital," Hemrich said.

For the record, she worked until the day before she delivered and gave birth in 2007 at a hospital.

The ladies are supportive of one another and try to keep the environment light-hearted.

"It does get stressful," Easter said. "You have to joke around or you'll never last."

Sometimes the jokes are courtesy of the customers.

Rardin's most vivid memory is not necessarily her fondest.

"I had a customer pin a horse tail on me, and I didn't feel it," she said. "People were laughing and I didn't know why. It was probably on for a half-hour."

One of Easter's memories is of the winter storm of 2007.

"Power was out everywhere in town," she recalled. "State troopers were picking up people (from stalled vehicles along the interstate) and dropping them off here.

"We all had our jackets and coats on, and we had a restaurant full of stranded people."

If the women are inclined to be frugal, they know from experience not to cut corners when shopping for shoes.

"Non-skid shoes," Rardin said. "Every six months I buy a pair."

Added Easter: "You get what you pay for. We spend good money on our shoes."

Being on her feet for hours at a time is better than the alternative, Rardin said.

"I can't imagine sitting at a desk all day long," she said.

Their daily duties at work include more than taking the orders and then serving the food and beverages.

"We answer the phone, wait the tables, bus the tables, run the cash register and box to-go orders," Easter said.

"We all pitch in and work as a team," Rardin added.

When the phone rings, Easter said there's one question she hears more than all others.

"People will ask if we serve breakfast all day," she said.

The answer is yes.

On occasion, the waitresses are called upon in the kitchen.

"Charissa can whip up a pie in no time and still wait tables," Easter said.

Not only do the women feel like family with each other, but some of their regular customers are viewed that way, too.

"We've watched a lot of kids be raised," Hemrich said.

"A lot of kids, we've known them since they were babies," Easter added. "Now, they're in high school and still ordering chocolate chip pancakes."

Rardin said that tradition is not going away soon.

"I had a 5-year-old tell me the other day it (chocolate chip pancakes) was the best thing he'd had in his life," she said.

Their camaraderie and friendship is strong, but there's more than that to draw them back to the Hen House year after year.

The tips, Easter said, "are very good. Our customers are so generous."

Added Hemrich: "We make enough to keep us here."

And Chaplin speculates that she might stay a while longer.

"For 40 years, it's all I've done," she said. "I'll probably be using a walker with a tray in front carrying food out."

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