By William P. Thompson: PNT Staff Writer
Portales waitress Ruby Burden began her serving career at Jimmy’s Cafe 36 year’s ago. She hasn’t skipped a beat, going to work for the Donut Hut, Nell’s Cafe and then Judy’s Cafe before becoming one of the first employees of the Wagon Wheel Cafe in 1986.
Wagon Wheel regulars have enjoyed Burden’s cheerful service ever since. She said waitressing was all she really wanted to do when she became a young adult, although she did attend cosmetology school for awhile, moving from Floyd to Portales at 18.
“People just didn’t push college as much back in those days,” Burden said. “My family was a dryland farming family. Everybody worked hard. We had to work hard.”
Burden said she found out soon after her career began that a job as waitress was something she had a knack for.
“I guess it’s in my blood now,” Burden said. “I enjoy the people. You learn a lot about people. You can walk up to a table of unhappy people, but with a few kind words you can change their mood. I’d say people are unhappier these days.”
Wagon Wheel’s hostess, Nancy Williams said Burden has charm.
“She just has a good personality,” Williams said. “It comes naturally to Ruby to wait on people.”
Burden said she’s used to serving regular folks, and can’t recall serving even one major celebrity in her 36 years.
“I’ve just never been that lucky,” she said. “Really, you get close to the regulars. There is a certain older gentleman who comes in on a regular basis and if he doesn’t come in at the regular time, we’ll start looking for him.”
Burden said she still usually gets the average tip of about 15 percent although she said a man gave her a $50 dollar bill once, her biggest tip ever. She said there are people who regularly don’t tip, and the waitresses call that “getting stiffed.”
“You still give them the same good service,” Burden said. “You have lean periods in this business. It doesn’t stay that way. You just have to pinch your pennies and you get through it. I’ve bought a house and a new pickup (from money earned as a waitress). I’m doing fine and living comfortably.”
Burden said her job can be strenuous.
“Waitressing is hard work. You have to get orders out fast and the orders have to be right,” she said, “and I’m still not used to getting up at 3:30 in the morning (to set up for breakfast at the Wagon Wheel). When you have personal problems at home, you just have to keep a smile on your face at work.”
Burden said about the only thing that’s changed in the waitressing profession is the advent of computerized ticketing for orders. She had to learn a computerized system about six months ago. She was a little worried when told the Wagon Wheel would be going high tech.
“I prayed it (the computer system) would blow up,” she said. “The first two and a half weeks were really hard, but I got the hang of it.”
Burden said she’s had no drive to be anything else but a waitress, and one need not call her a “server” as many in the profession are called today.
“I want to be called a waitress,” she said. “The only other job I would like to do would be construction work inside of homes.”
Burden and her husband train fighting roosters as a hobby. Burden said it’s perfectly legal in New Mexico if gambling isn’t involved. She’s also into southwest art. She doesn’t work 40-plus hours a week like she used to, but she often puts in more than 30 hours a week.
“I’ve slowed down a bit, but I can still keep the pace” she said. “I’ll know when it’s time to really slow down or quit, but I’ll always be doing something.”
Kenneth Williams, a regular customer of the Wagon Wheel and one of the cafe’s “famous coffee drinkers,” said Burden is top notch.
”She’s one of the best waitresses there ever was,” he said. “She’s right on top of everything. She’s one of my best all-time friends.”
Burden keeps moving at work on about four cups of coffee a day. She said she sometimes will pretend to be shaky as she’s pouring coffee for customers just to see a worried look cross their faces. She quickly tells them she was only fooling and everyone at the table has a laugh.
She said she’s had pieces of fried chicken go flying off the plate as she was serving customers and yes, she has actually done what every waitress dreads doing— she accidentally spilled coffee on a customer once.
“I spilled coffee on a lady who was wearing a white dress. She was on her way to work,” Burden said. “She said she used to be a waitress and she was very understanding.”
Burden said the most memorable customer she served was out of this world.
“He said he was a from another planet and was here on Earth on a mission of mercy,” she said.
She declined to prod that customer for more details.