The People Pleasers

Miss Mae Dee Dee Goodman Gloria Smith Vera Fuller Andy Blake

By JoAnn Guidry • Photos By John Jernigan

They greet you with a smile. They make sure everything is just the way you like it. Usher you to your favorite table. Make small talk, wait patiently.

Ice water, extra ice and extra lemon. No problem. Dressing on the side. Sure. Eggs sunny side up. You got it. Another refill of coffee. Coming right up.

If you eat out at all, this is familiar chatter. And if you’re a regular at some of the established eateries in Ocala, then you’ve likely got a favorite cook, hostess, server, cashier. Someone who knows what you like, don’t like. Someone you might see every day, same place and same time. Someone who has become a part of your daily routine, maybe even a small part of your life.

You likely know them by name. Tip them well. After all, they take care of you. But who are these people and why do they do what they do? And what do they do when they’re not catering to your every whim?

Ocala Style recently visited with some of these more well-known people pleasers at several of the area’s favorite restaurants.

Dee Dee Goodman
Cook/Waitress, Richard’s Place

Even at the end of a shift that began at 4:15am and is ending at 2pm, Dee Dee Goodman is smiling her great big smile. Set off by a head full of tumbling black curls, her dark eyes sparkle as she talks about working at Richard’s Place for 15 years.

“It’s a great place to work,” she says. “Everyone here is like family — the people who work here and the regular customers. When I come in to work, it’s like coming home.”

And much like home, Dee Dee knows just what her customers like. She first put in 13 years as a cook and now does double-duty as cook/waitress at Richard’s. There’s the older customer who has to have everything “cooked soft because he doesn’t have any teeth.” And there’s the “one-of-everything customer: one egg scrambled, one slice of toast.” Another customer has to have grilled toast and Dee Dee is the only one who’ll do that for him. But there is one particular dish that Dee Dee is known for.

“Everyone loves my grits,” she admits, but won’t give away any secret ingredients. “My regular customers say they can tell just by looking at a serving of grits if I’m in the kitchen or not.”

Despite being only 47, Dee Dee has been working in kitchens for some 36 years. Born Delores into a Silver Springs family of 14, her first kitchen job was as an 11-year-old in the Fort King Middle School cafeteria.

“We had a work program, and my first job was as a dish washer,” she recalls. “I grew up working with my mother, Daisy, in the kitchen, so it was a natural thing for me. When I got to high school, I had a job washing dishes at the Munroe Regional Hospital cafeteria. Then my sister Katherine and I both worked at the old Spur Truck Stop. She cooked eggs and I washed dishes.”

Crediting her mother and sister with teaching her how to cook, Dee Dee landed a job as a short-order breakfast cook at Shane’s Restaurant and stayed there for nine years. After Shane’s closed, there was a brief, one-year stay at The Coffee Kettle and then eight years at Plantation Pancake Inn.

“When I heard that Richard’s had an opening for a cook, I applied right away. I’ve been here now for 15 years,” says Dee Dee. “I knew this was the last place I was going to work.”

With daughters Lawanda, 28, and Latavia, 18, now out of the house, Dee Dee is thinking more of retiring soon. There are four grandchildren to spoil. And she’d like to travel more with husband Curtis, who drives an 18-wheeler. And she has an Arabian mare named CoCo, a pony named Scooter, and several pet pigs on her five-acre farm. An all-sport athlete in high school, Dee Dee has participated in league bowling for 25 years.

Daughter Latavia, who was the 2004 Florida High School Athletic Association weightlifting champion in the unlimited class, is a freshman at Bethune Cookman College in Daytona.

“I’d like to keep working until she graduates,” says Dee Dee. “Then maybe I’ll retire and just cook for me and my family.”

Vera Fuller
Cashier/Hostess, IHOP

If you’re going to try to keep up with Vera Fuller, you’d better put on a pair of comfortable shoes.

The 82-year-old grandmother spends seven hours a day on her feet as the cashier/hostess at IHOP on Pine Avenue. When she’s not working, she’s running errands or off on family vacations. Okay, she does occasionally put her feet up to read a good Danielle Steele or Nora Roberts novel. Other than that, she’s usually on the go.

“I’ve worked all my life,” says Vera, who hails from the Midwest. “I don’t see any reason to stop now.”

Back in Chicago, her late husband, Harvey, was a roofing contractor and Vera worked in the accounts payable department for Chicago Aerial Survey.

“When winter came, work slowed down for both of us,” she recalls. “So we’d come down to The Keys for long vacations. We enjoyed the sunshine and the beach. There was this great place where we could watch the dolphins play all day long.”

Already enamored with Florida, the Fullers bought a model home and property in the Kingsland development off 200 in Ocala in the early 1970s. By 1973, they moved permanently to Ocala.

“Once we were here, I made up my mind we weren’t going back,” remembers Vera. “Even after Harvey died in 1979, I knew this was where I wanted to stay. I still live in the same house.”

Vera worked a variety of jobs over the years, including as a bookkeeper for the freight company B. C. Cartige, the unemployment office, and Mid-State Bank. It was her sister Dorothy who would lead her to her current position.

“My sister moved to Ocala in 1980 and she went to work at what was then Plantation Inn,” says Vera. “She kept telling me what a great place it was.”

Some 22 years and a restaurant name-change later, Vera is still on duty. In 1993, Plantation Inn became IHOP.

“It was kind of upsetting at first,” she says, “but soon everyone settled down. Besides me, there are quite a few of us who have been here a long time — like Beverly DeMarco and Ella May Cotton — and our loyal customers stayed, too.”

Truth is, Vera’s seen generations of customers during her years at the restaurant.

“We have the children of longtime customers coming into the place now,” she says. “This place is full of so many memories.”

When she does take time off, it’s for special family vacations. Every year for Christmas, she gathers with her son Doug’s family (including grandchildren Kelsey and Connor and her daughter Pam) in Scotsdale, Arizona. “It’s become an annual family tradition,” says Vera. “We all enjoy the southwest area and even take trips down into Mexico.”

A family cruise to the Mediterranean is coming up this summer. The itinerary includes Italy, Greece, France, and Spain.

“I’m really looking forward to this trip,” says Vera, who is no doubt packing several pairs of comfortable shoes.

Andy Blake
Day-Shift Manager, Wolfy’s

Andy Blake’s southern accent tells you a lot about who he is and why he’s good at what he does. Born in Texas and raised in Kentucky and Virginia, Blake knows about southern cooking and hospitality. And he’s put that knowledge to good use the last 10 years at Wolfy’s on East Silver Springs Boulevard.

Blake, 31, who has a degree in business management from Palm Beach Atlantic College, came to Ocala a decade ago because of a girlfriend.

“We didn’t stay together, but I fell in love with Ocala,” he says. “Wolfy’s was the first place I applied for a job, and I’ve been here ever since. It’s been a great education for me and I learn something new almost every day.”

Starting out as a night-shift server and serving a stint as a cook, Blake became the day-shift floor manager six years ago. He is quick to point out that it’s “just a title.”

Describing himself as “the guy responsible when things go wrong,” Blake enjoys the day-to-day contact with the staff and regular customers at Wolfy’s.

“In the restaurant business, you have to like people and people have to like you,” he says. “Our regular customers like being treated special; they like that we know what they want to drink, what they’ll likely order. Or they count on us to recommend something. It’s the little things that keep people coming back again and again.”

And good service and good food have kept people coming back to Wolfy’s for more than two decades. Owner John Wolf’s restaurant is well known for its pot roast, meat loaf, roasted chicken, and hearty breakfasts — all at reasonable prices.

Blake credits Wolf and a great staff for the longevity of the restaurant.

“It’s really more like a family here,” he says. “For example, the restaurant used to be open seven days a week. But then Mr. Wolf decided to take a chance and, for the sake of the staff, started closing on Sundays. It was his gift to the staff, a way to give them a chance to spend more time with their families. We all really appreciate it.”

Blake insists on naming a core group of longtime employees, including Sandy Carroll, Trish Edwards, Nettie Burns, Eulakay Green, April Jones, and Karen Whipple. “These are the people who make Wolfy’s the place that it is,” he says.

With a six-day-a-week schedule of 7:30am-2:00pm, Blake tries to make the most of his time off. Those hours are generally spent with his 8-year-old son, Noah.

“He’s into a lot of sports,” says Blake, a proud father. “I just really like spending as much time as I can with my son. That’s very important to me.”

Miss Mae & Gloria Smith
Cooks, Jodie’s Restaurant & Catering

Before Jodie’s Restaurant occupied the building on the corner of South Pine and East Silver Springs Boulevard, it was Al’s Diner, Woody’s, and Dixie Diner. And through all those ownership changes over 50 years, there was one constant in the kitchen: Miss Mae.

She started out washing dishes, quickly progressed to cooking, and soon everyone was coming from all parts to enjoy Miss Mae’s country soul food. Her day began in the kitchen at 4am, and that was after walking two miles from her home on SR40 to the restaurant. By the time her shift ended at 2pm, a lot of satisfied customers had feasted on Miss Mae’s grits, cornbread, and chicken and rice.

“We had our regular customers who came in every day and sat down at the same place at the counter for breakfast,” recalls Miss Mae. “When I saw them sit down, I’d start cooking their food before the order even came in. I knew just what they wanted.”

Now 75 and holding, Miss Mae is semi-retired. But when called on during busy times, she’s right back in the kitchen and cooking.

Gloria Smith began working with Miss Mae in the kitchen when the restaurant was known as the Dixie Diner. Combined with her past 13 years at Jodie’s, Gloria has logged some 15 years and counting in the kitchen.

“Miss Mae trained me and taught me a lot about restaurant cooking,” says Gloria, who is a youthful 50. “Then Jodi taught me to make desserts, and that’s become my favorite thing to do. We make all of our desserts from scratch and our customers love them. I think my favorite is coconut cream pie.”

An Ocala native, Gloria enjoys meeting the restaurant’s customers and cooking country soul food for them. “It’s good to see our regulars every day and it’s nice working with the same people for such a long time.”

Another veteran kitchen member of Jodie’s Restaurant, which recently moved from its old location to a new one several miles up East Silver Springs Boulevard, is Claretha Zeigler. For 20 years, she’s washed dishes and helped with the cooking when needed.

LeMonnie Windham
Cashier, Piccadilly Cafeteria

If you’re a long-time regular at the Piccadilly Cafeteria on East Silver Springs Boulevard, then you know LeMonnie Windham. And if you’ve looked closely at her Piccadilly nametag as you pay for your meal, you know something special about her. Beneath her name, it reads: “32 Years Of Service.” It’s not a misprint. But it may not be totally accurate, depending who’s adding up the years that LeMonnie, 86, has logged with what was originally Morrison’s before being bought out by Piccadilly some five years ago.

A native of Savannah, Georgia, LeMonnie first went to work for Morrison’s in her hometown in 1941.

“I started on the cafeteria counter,” she recalls. “I was a young girl, twenty-two then, and it was wartime. I was happy to have a job.”

LeMonnie points out that Morrison’s was just a fledgling food service company then, having only eight cafeterias under its banner. But that would change. And as the company grew to comprise, at its peak, some 360 cafeterias, LeMonnie took advantage of the many opportunities that growth offered.

By 1942, she was transferred to the company’s Orlando office and was named the production/procedure manager.

“I was in charge of training people for the new cafeterias being opened,” she says. “That led me to Jacksonville where Morrison’s fed the naval station.”

After nearly four years there, LeMonnie actually left Morrison’s and went to work for the National Security Agency in Washington, D.C. In its food services division, she was responsible for making sure some 20,000 employees were properly fed. She admits she “loved the job, but didn’t like Washington,” which is why she returned to Florida and settled in Ocala in 1958. Here, she put in nine years in charge of the Silver Springs Park cafeteria.

But LeMonnie’s ties with Morrison’s were still strong, and in 1967, she accepted a management services position with the company.

“I traveled a lot during that time,” she remembers with a smile. “The company was really growing in the southeast, southwest, and into California. I would go to whatever city a new cafeteria was setting up and get the operation going. I was with the company for twenty years that time around.”

It was also during this time that LeMonnie, who always loved to bake, created the cafeteria’s apple pie recipe, which became her claim to fame with the company.

She officially retired in 1986, but that didn’t last long. Soon she was back working as a part-time cashier at the Morrison’s on East Silver Springs. “It was not a steady thing,” LeMonnie says. “Only when they needed me. But then it became a regular part-time job in 1999 when Piccadilly took over.”

These days, LeMonnie works the 11 a.m.- 8 p.m. shifts two to three days a week. She’ll tell you that she likes the busy days best and still drives. When the great grandmother of four isn’t working, what does she do?

“Every chance I get,” she says, grinning, “I love playing bingo.”

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