Steak ’n Shake waitress walks fine line as local legend, rebellious server
By Caitlin Johnston
Peggy Richard is a late-night legend. Some call her “momma” because she looks after people, others call her “Terminator” because refuses to put up with nonsense.
As a waitress at Steak ‘n Shake on College Avenue, Peggy has worked the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. graveyard shift for the past three years. While most of the world sleeps, she serves Steakburgers and Frisco Melts to Bloomington’s police officers, families and drunken students at one of the few restaurants open all night.
It’s 1 a.m. on a Tuesday as Peggy moves about the nearly empty restaurant with a slight limp, favoring her right leg. Her doctor told her she’s injured the muscles around her left kneecap.
“I’m so sorry to hear about your leg, Peggy,” says IU junior Chris Blevins, a regular who visits about twice a week.
“It’s all your fault,” Peggy says, her face deadpan. “We shouldn’t have been making love on the trampoline.”
The two burst out laughing as Peggy sits down at the booth.
“Hey, are we having our normal?” she asks, notepad out and ready, tapping her clear acrylic nails on the tabletop.
“Exactly,” he says. “You know what it is.”
She writes down his order from memory.
E – O MAYO
Triple Steakburger with cheese. Everything except onions and mayo. Side of cheese fries.
Chris insists Peggy is the best waitress around. Peggy insists she’s just like everybody else. Nobody special, she says, just a waitress who enjoys talking with her customers.
“I don’t think I’d ever be happy doing anything else,” she says. “I’ve got to have that interaction or else I’d go nuts.”
Peggy can turn anything into a dirty joke. The 49-year-old waitress is glad she works at Steak ‘n Shake. She says her humor wouldn’t fly at a place like Cracker Barrel.
“I wouldn’t fit in. Especially when the old folks come in,” she laughs, throwing her head back. A neon sign, reading “Famous For Steakburgers,” glows over her head, the fluorescent lights bleaching out her short, white hair.
Peggy seems to know every customer who walks through the door. She’s quick to talk trash and quicker to share her opinion — whether people like it or not. She can make jokes and take them, but she’s not about to let customers walk all over her. She’s thrown students out, called the cops on unruly customers and chased people down for running out on checks.
“There’s a bunch of kids in Bloomington who don’t like me,” she says. “I just don’t take kindly to rude people.”
Peggy doesn’t like when she has to work the day shift. The customers are too serious, she says. She has to remind herself to keep smiling and bite her tongue.
Working the late-night shift means she’s the only one on the floor. A few hours in, her arms feel like they’re going to fall off. By 3 a.m., drunken students have stumbled through. Some are so inebriated, their words don’t make sense. Others throw up on the table and then pass out in the mess. The dining room slides into chaos.
Peggy loves it.
She’s still limping. She’s supposed to stay off her knee, but she says she can’t afford to take the time off.
From not wearing her uniform when she walks in to abbreviating Coca-Cola with a “C” instead of a “K,” Peggy has her own way of doing things.
“I don’t do anything the Steak ‘n Shake way,” she says.
Peggy’s a staple of the late-night scene, beloved by her customers for her sense of humor and no-nonsense attitude. The same approach that endears her to customers puts her on the edge with management. Her regulars love it when she takes time to talk and crack jokes; her managers would rather she wipe down the counters. Even legends have to follow the rules sometimes.
Peggy’s worked in the service business for nearly 36 years, normally giving a place seven years before she gets the urge to move on.
“So I’ve got another four years,” she says, “but the way this is going I dunno if I’m gonna make it.”
Working late-night shifts in a college town might seem like an end-of-the-line job for some, but Peggy thrives on it. She loves the college kids, even when they stumble in and struggle to keep from passing out in their Chili 5-Way. If it gets really bad, she’ll call them a cab. The last thing she wants is someone getting hurt.
People tend to talk when they’re drunk and hungry. They tell her about break-ups and new loves. When school is tough and they’re thinking about dropping out, they ask her what to do. In between rounds of cheese fries and Butterfinger shakes, Peggy becomes their babysitter, lawyer and priest.
“I don’t know how to hold back,” she says. “That’s my problem. I get attached and then they leave.”
As with all college towns, the students come and go. But Peggy’s a constant. For some customers, a late-night Steak ‘n Shake run isn’t a matter of whether they’re hungry but whether they’ve seen Peggy lately. Even the local police count on Peggy when they need to relax. As one patrol officer said, they come in “just because Peg works here.”
Early on another Monday night, Regina, the manager on duty, comes over and scratches Peggy’s back. Regina is one of the few managers Peggy gets along with.
Peggy doesn’t do well with authority, insisting she works with people, not for them. But Regina likes Peggy even though she knows customers have complained about her attitude.
A swing of the door interrupts the back-scratching as customers walk in.
“There’s my baby girl,” Peggy says, a wide smile replacing the stress lines on her face.
“Hey momma,” IU graduate student Kelly Santen calls out.
Peggy quickly moves behind the counter to get a cup of chili. Kelly doesn’t have to ask for it. Peggy already knows.
“She’s kind of a no-bullshit kind of person,” Kelly says. “You don’t get that from people her age … You have to respect her for that. People know she’s a sweetheart, but you don’t mess around with her.”
Peggy will be the first to tell you that she’s a hard-ass. But she also starts each shift with the goal of making a customer smile — especially the grumpy ones.
“I want them to feel like they’re at home,” she says.
Peggy can barely keep her eyes open. It’s 6:30 a.m. on a Tuesday and she’s wrapping up her shift, wiping down the tables and setting the counter for breakfast.
“I’m tired,” she says, mechanically tossing newly-rolled silverware into a bin. “My legs don’t wanna work. My knee’s not getting any better. It won’t get any better till I stay off it.”
Even after Peggy leaves work at 7:30 a.m. and rides the bus for an hour back home, she can’t fall asleep just yet. She wakes her son up for work and then looks after her husband, Danny, who has been on disability for nearly three years now.
She usually gets about four hours of sleep before waking up to cook dinner and come back to the restaurant.
Tensions are rising at work. One of the managers doesn’t want Peggy sitting at tables with her customers anymore. It’s not professional, the manager told her. Pretty soon, Peggy worries, she won’t be able to talk to customers unless she’s taking their orders.
A customer called in complaining about her nickname for the Butterfinger shake: Butt shake. Peggy sighs, leaning back in the booth as she drinks another cup of coffee.
“People, it’s just a play on words,” she says, her eyes partially closed, enjoying the minute of rest. After a pause, Peggy opens her eyes and takes a sip of coffee.
“Fine, let’s call it an ass shake.”
On the night of the 2009 IU Homecoming game, the restaurant is packed. At nearly 4 a.m., it’s so loud, Peggy can’t hear herself think. She’s swamped. As she stops to punch in an order, one of her regulars comes up to her. He and his friends seated themselves, ignoring the “Please wait to be seated” sign.
“I need you to clean my table,” he says.
“I’m sorry, what did you say?” Peggy asks, raising her voice over the din.
He repeats his question. Peggy can tell he’s had too much to drink.
“If you would’ve waited at the door, you never would’ve had to sit at a dirty table,” she says, continuing to punch in the order. “Let me finish this, and I’ll be over to clean your table.”
By this point he’s yelling, but Peggy has six or seven other tables to get to before him. He’s a regular, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to rush right over. She has other customers to take care of first.
One day off and she’s back for another eight hours on Monday. As she clocks out, her district manager walks in. He wants to talk.
As Peggy later recalls, the manager tells Peggy she’s causing a hostile environment with the employees, being rude to customers and giving free food to her regulars because they call her “mommy Peggy.”
Peggy looks at him.
“Well, they don’t call me ‘mommy Peggy,'” she says. “They call me ‘momma.'”
He continues to list problems, including instances of insubordination. She doesn’t remember anything like that. He says he warned her before. She swears he never sat down to talk to her in three years. There’s nothing in her file, she says. She’s never been written up.
He argues otherwise.
“So,” he says, “we’re just gonna have to terminate you.”
Peggy used to tell people to fire her, joking that she wanted to know what it felt like. She knows now, but it doesn’t really upset her. It had been nine years since her last vacation.
A few months after her firing, Peggy’s collecting unemployment and taking care of her family. She still sees some of her regulars around town or at Walmart. They ask her what happened, wondering why their favorite waitress is no longer around.
“I tell them, and they say, “Well, we haven’t been back,” she says. “I know a lot haven’t been back since I’ve been fired.”
Ever since she left work, her knee feels much better. She spends her time at home as her husband prepares to have surgery. She’s celebrating her 50th birthday today with her family. As for Steak ‘n Shake, she hasn’t been back.
At Steak ‘n Shake, Peggy’s old manager Regina confirms that people still ask for her. Regina enjoyed working with Peggy, but says there was only so much she could do after five or six customers complained to corporate.
“There are certain things you can only let go on for so long,” she says one night as she works the register.
Regina says she sees Peggy around sometimes, out at Walmart or when Peggy waits for the bus at her apartment. Regina honks, but either Peggy doesn’t see her or doesn’t want to talk. Peggy doesn’t wave back.