Hughes puts in 30 years of hard work and dedication into Mossy Grove restaurant

Published 3:00 am Saturday, December 6, 2014

If the Bible rings true, and Sylvia Hughes believes it does, then everybody has a gift.
Hughes turned over one rock after the other looking for her talent but to no avail. Not until she strapped on an apron, picked up a pad, stuck a pencil behind her ear and opened her mouth and the words, “What can I do for you folks today?” came tumbling out.
“Never in a hundred years would I have thought I would be a professional waitress but that’s what I am — a professional waitress,” Sylvia said with a big smile. “God gave me the gift of gab, and I believe I’m doing exactly what His plan is for me.”
Sylvia, as she is known far and wide, celebrated 30 years as “the” waitress as Mossy Grove Restaurant Thursday.
She came to Mossy Grove on Dec. 4, 1984. Jack Finlayson gave her the job, and she took it “just to see” if she could do it.
“I wasn’t sure I could waitress,” Sylvia said. “I’d been in retail and done all right, but God had given me the gift of gab, and on the first night waiting tables, I found a use for it.”
When a woman is trying on a new frock, she’s usually not in the mood for a saucy comment from the clerk. But, when people are out for a night of good food and fellowship, they are in the mood for some fun, usually.
From the first night, Sylvia was no “I’m Sylvia, and I’ll be your waitress” kind of waitress. She approached her customers as if they were long and dear friends and, before long they were just that.
“People like to feel special, and all my customers are special,” Sylvia said. “I remember the names of those who come in on a regular basis and their dog’s name and where they work and where they went on their last vacation. Not because I want a big tip — and I do want a big tip — but just because they are my customers, and I care about them.”
And Sylvia takes good care of her customers.
“Sometimes I’m too attentive, but I want to get what my customers need and want before they have to ask,” she said and added with her signature laugh, “Not because I want a big tip, and I do want a big tip.”
Sylvia’s customers are as accustomed to her quips as they are to her above board customer service.
“Oh, I like to tease my customers,” she said. “I’ll say ‘Thursday is my birthday, don’t forget’ or ‘Christmas is coming, and I love expensive jewelry’ all kinds of things like that. We laugh and have a lot of fun because my customers are my family.”
And, as in any family, Sylvia knows exactly what her regular customers like to eat and how they like it prepared.
“If I look out the window and see one of my regulars pull up, I’ll go ahead and get them set up because I know what they want so they won’t have to wait,” she said. “I give nicknames to some of my customers because they always ask for the same thing. One of them is the ‘onion man,’ and another is ‘orange marmalade.’ It’s all about making the people you care about feel special.”
But what about the not-so-familiar customers and those who have never walked through the door of the restaurant beneath the moss trees?
“Oh, they are special, too,” Sylvia said. “Sometimes I don’t remember their names, but I never forget their faces. And, usually, I remember something about them, like if they like to rodeo or, if they’re an Auburn fan. Then I’ll say, ‘War Eagle!’” And, if she remembers the customer’s battle cry is “Roll Tide” she’ll happen to forget about that.
“I like to joke around, and one night a man came in and wanted a Rusty Nail,” Sylvia said. “I didn’t know what that was. He said something about brandy and a sniffer.”
Sylvia came sniffing back to his table with a nail in glass and asked, “Is this what you want?” There was laughter all around and the man “lightened up.”
“When we have new customers, I go all out to make them feel welcome,” she said. “I find out all I can about them, where they live, what kind of work they do, how many kids they have, if they’ve ever been in jail — things like that. Then, when they come back, I’ll remember.”
And, they won’t have forgotten Sylvia either.
Over the 30 years that Sylvia has been a waiting on customers at Mossy Grove, she’s only had one accident.
“I spilled tea on a customer,” she said. “Now, every time he comes in, he’ll say, “Don’t spill tea on me this time.’ He won’t let me forget it.”
At Mossy Grove, “Hugs by Sylvia” come free of charge.
“When you care about people, you want to give them a big, ol’ hug sometimes, and I give a lot of hugs whether my customers want them or not,” Sylvia said. “Sometimes a customer will give me a hug without me asking, and that makes me feel good.”
Sylvia has carried so many children on her hips that she feels like they are her young’uns.
She is training one of her young’uns, Lynleigh Kate, who is the daughter of restaurant owners, Tom and Katie Romero, to take her place.
“Tootie has got it down just right,” she said. “She can charm the customers. She’s going to get big tips.
“Generations of customers have dined at Mossy Grove. Like I said, we’re family here, and I’m so proud to be a part of the Mossy Grove family. This place is my everything.
“I’ve gotten where the first thing I do every morning is read the obituaries, first to see if I’m in there, and then to see if any of my customers are. I’ve grown so attached to them that it breaks my heart to lose one of them. They are my family.”
The waitress that customers affectionately call “Mouth of the South” and “Big’Um” and “Wide Track” has a heart as big as the biggest tip she ever got, “one hundred bucks.”
“Mossy Grove is where God put me, and when the Rev. Ellis Bush and I sing, ‘Let’s have a little talk with Jesus,’ and I dance around and the other customers laugh and clap, there’s no doubt Mossy Grove is where God wants me to be.”

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