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PROFILE: Service with a smile

It’s 11:15 on a Thursday morning when the wind chill makes it feel like 7 degrees outside. But no amount of cold can keep the die-hard patrons of Peddler’s Home Cooking restaurant on South Third Street in Ironton away for lunch as they grab menus and seat themselves.

The restaurant is more than half full. Some couples. A family or two and a few just on their own. A burly man with gray hair sporting a black “I Love Jesus” cap nurses a Coke while across the way another man quizzes the manager on what goes into the restaurant’s famous sausage gravy.

Over at a table against the far wall sit four women who religiously take off from work at lunchtime each Thursday to head for Peddler’s. They take the same table each week because they know what waitress they want to see: Jonda Kennedy.

Kennedy sees them and waves hello. But before she goes to their table, the wall phone by the cash register rings. Kennedy reaches up for it.

“It’s baked pork chops today,” Kennedy says to the caller who wants to know what’s on the buffet table.

Then she goes to a side table, picks up four napkin-wrapped places of silverware and heads to her regulars.

“What are we having to drink,” she asks the women.

Soon she’s back with a tray of glasses and ice and hands them all around.

“This is a true root beer. It was too full to put a lid on,” Kennedy jokes. “A true root beer has a head on it.”

Going back to the kitchen with the order, she waves to another regular.

“It got too cold for him to get on the golf course,” she calls out to his wife.

And it’s that ability to offer easy, friendly banter that makes Kennedy the waitress everyone wants to see when they look up from their menus.

“She has a wonderful memory,” Judy Frische, a weekly Peddler’s customer, said. “She knows what you like to drink. Your order is always right. She always has a smile, always pleasant.”

As Kennedy’s boss Cindy Barnes, Peddler’s manager, sees that those are the ingredients that go into the recipe for a perfect waitress.

“I look for cleanliness and friendliness,” Barnes said when she takes on a new hire.

But it’s how well they get the orders right and their gift for gabbing with the customer while going back and forth from kitchen to dining room that lets them keep the job. In three days Barnes will know if a waitress can cut it.

“I watch how they mingle with the customers,” Barnes said. “You work the register, listen for the phone. It’s a constant bustle.”

Yet it’s a bustle that Kennedy thrives on, even though it means staying on her feet — literally — from 8 in the morning until 2, hefting heavy trays, carting pots of hot coffee and keeping her cool no matter what.

Barnes knows how important Kennedy’s customers are to her and that the familial feeling is reciprocated.

“We have a lot of elderly customers, who have lost their spouses,” Barnes said. “Maybe about the only conversation they get is here. … She’ll send flowers if they’re in the hospital.”

Kennedy came to Peddler’s almost 12 year ago looking for a job after the closing of Ironton’s only hospital. There she had worked for six years in housekeeping.

For the first year and half, Kennedy exclusively handled the cash register, making change and filing away check receipts. But when it was decided that waitresses take care of their own checks, it was a question of learning how to wait tables or hit the door.

What she learned is it takes “broad shoulders, a smile on your face and a positive attitude” to make it as a waitress.

Barnes remembers Kennedy’s first day waiting tables and said for a first-timer she made it through all right.

“She’d cry some if she thought she’d messed up an order,” Barnes said. That emotional attachment to her job is still with Kennedy after a decade of doing it. It’s a running joke with the staff to remind Kennedy of the time she was serving an Ironton High reunion party of 18 and handing a diner a garden salad.

“The cherry tomato fell off the plate and hit him in the head,” Barnes said. “She cried.”

Part of waitressing is keeping tabs on the customers throughout their meals so Kennedy likes to check back five to 10 minutes after she brings them their food to see how it’s going.

“I make sure they have a refill or if their glass is half empty I bring them another, in case I get busy and can’t get back to them,” she said.

As the lunching foursome finish up their ham and cheese and hamburger platters, Kennedy pops up to see if there is any dessert to be had. She spies a half-filled bowl of vegetable soup.

“Didn’t you like your soup,” she asks.

“Yes, but I didn’t have room for it and pie,” the customer says.

“Keep your priorities straight,” Kennedy tells the woman.

Unfortunately, into every life must fall a drop of rain and for a waitress it is from time to time the crab. And not the kind found in a bowl of gumbo.

Usually Kennedy can fend for herself, but sometimes she calls in reinforcements in the guise of her manager.

“Sometimes I have had them call me names like ‘stupid.’ Sometimes I go in the back and cry,” she said. “Just because you are a waitress, you are far from stupid.”

A fact Kennedy exhibited when she recently completed an associate degree in applied sciences from Ohio University. She went after the degree because she was toying with a career change, possibly seguing into social work because of a desire to help people.

“But I help people here,” she said. “I love it here. I have so many friends, who are like family. My Peddler’s family.”