For a decade they’ve pulled into the diminutive, sometimes-paved lot, hungover and sleep-deprived, wearing the grime of last night on their sleeves like a cry for help: feed us. They’re mostly harmless, and the majority know the drill — come early, even if it means lining up outside in the soggy summer heat. The Early Bird Diner’s Sunday soldiers are well-trained, but the staff who feeds them, well, they might just be the special ops of breakfast service.
General manager Danny Infinger arrives first, at least an hour before the 10 a.m. opening. He preps the sweet tea, scooping cup after cup of sugar into boiling water, as he explains what is about to happen. “I call them brunch zombies,” he laughs, gesturing at the front windows. The blinds are drawn and the front of the diner looks empty, almost peaceful now, but I’ve been here on a Sunday before. I know what’s coming.
The kitchen crew shuffles in, the servers soon after. Clutching tumblers and mugs from home, they finish the last drops of their fuel before refilling with EBD’s King Bean house blend. I down two cups without thinking, feeling very much at ease amongst these friendly, experienced F&Bers — Infinger says turnover is low, with most servers sticking around at least two years — but I’m also very much in the way. My water cup sweats all over the counter, and a server absentmindedly wipes away the pool as I move to the corner of the wrap-around bar — “shit! I’m sorry!” She doesn’t even blink, “you’re good.” I’m careful not to touch the shrine of condiments — Worcestershire, three kinds of hot sauce, jam, butter, ketchup. Infinger throws out some stats — “we’ll go through nine gallons of sweet, six unsweet, we have seven new specials each week” — as manager Amber Cheslak lays out the morning’s sections on a sheet of paper, delineating who will serve where before the 80+ seats get filled.
It’s 9:45 a.m., 15 minutes before the doors officially open, and the parking lot is almost full. Not one of the four servers looks remotely shaken as the shadows of my former places of employment — and my many serving peccadilloes — start creeping into my brain space: that time I forgot everyone’s order when I tried to serve a 10-top after day drinking in college, the weeks I smelled like ranch when I donned a Buffalo Wild Wings jersey, the absolute rock bottom when I dropped mashed potatoes on everyone — and really bruised my foot — only a few years ago in downtown Charleston … bubbly brunette server Lindsay Gorecki interrupts my descent into hellish thoughts. Smiling and poised, she’s never dropped mashed potatoes on unsuspecting tourists. I ask her how busy she thinks it will be. “Last week we did 480 covers in a morning shift,” she says, grinning. “I had 102.”
10:01 a.m., I have to stop Infinger from pouring me my third cup of coffee, as it good as it is, I’m starting to twitch a bit. I crane my neck from out of my corner at the counter as two older regulars eye me suspiciously. The restaurant has been open for a single minute and it is three quarters of the way full — “it’s usually completely full,” notes Gorecki. The couple next to me gets their food at 10:10 a.m. — they’ve ordered cups of tomato soup alongside standard breakfast plates.
They polish off the eggs and bacon, then treat the soup like dessert. I’ve never seen such a thing, but damn it smells good. Early Bird isn’t just a diner, it’s a place where you come and eat exactly what you want. At the other end of the counter, a fit, middle-aged couple orders two glasses of milk; farther down, an older gentleman simply orders the blueberry cobbler. The place is completely full at 10:25, and tables start turning at 10:30. The wordless communication between Infinger and the bus boy and a server plays out over the battleground, and three tables are seamlessly cleared, wiped, and reset within a matter of seconds. Just as I look into my empty cup, wondering if a third might make me feel as good as the rest of the jolly, unnerved staff, there’s Gorecki, leaning indolently against the counter as the well-oiled machine keeps turning, “Man, I wish you’d seen a crazy one.”
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