Here now, an episode of A Day in the Life, wherein Eater goes undercover with a professional in the Dallas food scene.[Photos: Margo Sivin/EDFW]
Today we follow Nikki Wallace, a server at The Mecca in East Dallas. Nikki, who has been waitressing for nearly 40 years (and working at The Mecca for six of those years), feels a true connection with the 75-year-old diner. "When I was a little girl, about four years old, my granddad would take me to The Mecca," she says. "It was very much a part of my childhood." After working in law offices, she decided the office life wasn't for her and pursued her passion — waiting tables.
8 a.m.: Nikki arrives at The Mecca to start her morning shift. Her first duty is to bring containers of orange juice, milk and ketchup from the prep station in the back room, nicknamed "the garage," to "the bar" in the main room. "The garage" is only open on weekends, when the diner is super busy, or if they've reserved the section for a private party. While gathering ketchup bottles, she recalls a time when they would explode if they hadn't been opened in a while. She and fellow Mecca server DJ began a regimented system of refilling ketchup bottles so they wouldn't be forgotten and left to explode on some poor customer.
8:32 a.m.: Nikki gets her first customer of the day. He is a single, older man who orders a diet Coke and water. When Nikki returns to the table with his drinks, he promptly orders his meal — the Mecca special. You can tell Nikki's a pro: "How do you want your eggs, what kind of meat do you want, white or wheat toast or a biscuit with gravy, hash browns or grits" — the barrage of inquiries just rolls off her tongue. "I've been doing this breakfast thing so long, the questions just come out," she says.
8:43 a.m.: Nikki's customer's order is up. "Here we are honey. You know, we have some homemade preserves you should try." The preserves, also for sale at the register, come in seasonal flavors: white chocolate raspberry (Nikki's favorite), strawberry vanilla, grapefruit, peach cobbler, pineapple ginger, and orange cider.
8:59 a.m.: Nikki teaches Nate, a new employee, how to enter an order step-by-step. She is not only detailed, but she truly cares about teaching the young servers the ropes. "I'm old school. I've been with The Mecca a long time," she says. "These other people are very new, but we are a team [and] we all do things for each other."
9:13 a.m.: Nate's table's order is up. Nikki reviews the order and sends a plate back. She says the pancakes "didn't look right" and she wouldn't serve them to her table, so he shouldn't either. She then helps plate Nate's tray and sends him on his way.
9:19 a.m.: Two women order The Mecca's most famous menu item, the gigantic cinnamon roll that can feed up to four people. If that's not big enough, The Mecca also sells a massive $75 cinnamon roll that weighs 15 pounds. She covers the roll with a generous serving of handmade icing and butter, and then sticks it in the microwave.
9:22 a.m.: Nikki serves the sticky, sweet roll to the women. "Are you happy?" she asks them. They laugh and nod their heads. "I try to interact with my customers as much as I can," she says. "I like to make them laugh."
9:52 a.m.: Twenty minutes earlier, Nikki got her third table of the day. As she stops by the table after dropping off their order, one of the men asks her to tell them a joke. We won't retell Nikki's joke because, quite frankly, our delivery won't be as amusing as Nikki's. Visit The Mecca. Tell her to tell you a joke. You'll be glad you did.
10:34 a.m.: Nikki turns on the charm when she delivers an older couple some coffee. "I'm sorry. I couldn't find a cup with your shade of lipstick," she tells the woman, eliciting laughter from the table.
11:04 a.m.: Leo with Scooter Boogie stops by "the bar" for a coffee and to pick up an order. The delivery service company has been working with The Mecca since January of this year. People can call in their order and Scooter Boogie will deliver if they're within the nine different zip codes the company services for a $5 fee.
11:30 a.m.: Nikki finally sits down for a break — something she's not used to having. "Waitresses don't get a real break," she says. She indulges a bit today since we're there. She has migas with chorizo and a bite of one of those famous cinnamon rolls — two of her favorites.
12:40 p.m.: A fellow server asks Nikki if she can stop by her table and explain why the restaurant is called The Mecca. She doesn't know why the place is called The Mecca, but she tells them about the diner's history. "This is the first time I've ever been here," the woman says. "I really want to try the cinnamon roll."
12:43 p.m.: Nikki delivers the cinnamon roll the women ordered. "Now, take a bite while it's hot, would you please?" They take a bite. "This is just bad," one woman says. "It's so bad, it's good!"
1:19 p.m.: Bobby, the "computer whiz," stops by the restaurant. "This lady's an expert," he says about Nikki. She says that The Mecca is a tight group.
"Even Bobby, he's the computer guy, but he's like family," Nikki says.
1:43 p.m.: Nikki begins wiping knives and forks to remove water stains and wraps them in napkins. All servers must "roll" 45 sets of utensils before leaving for the day. The restaurant is mostly empty at this point. As Nikki's rolling utensils, she talks about her life, hobbies and relationships with co-workers. "I'm doing pretty good. I'm hanging in there," she says. "It's a karma thing for me. I try to do good and be good." She says she's trying to quit smoking, a habit she's had since she was 16 years old. "It would make my father the happiest man on Earth to see me stop smoking before he dies."
2:17 p.m.: Romero, the manager, stops by the table where Nikki's rolling utensils and gives her some bills to drop off at a mailbox. "I guess I'll pay the damn bills," she says with a grin.
2:41 p.m.: Nikki's still rolling utensils. "I'll be honest with you," she quips. "If you and I hadn't been talking, I would have been done."
3:00 p.m.: At the end of the day, Nikki had 14 tables and $41.10 in tips. She says she usually makes $65 to $85 on a typical Monday, but today she had a long break, and a shadow.
3:09 p.m.: Nikki heads to the women's bathroom with DJ to stock toilet paper. After she's done with that, it's quitting time. She clocks out upstairs, meets DJ at the door and says they're about to go have a beer at the Smokehouse in Oak Cliff — a fitting and well-deserved end to a typically busy day.
Big thanks to The Mecca for letting us hang out all day.
— Caren Rodriguez