It was a detail that spoke volumes: a steakhouse waiter who presented his business card with his tableside greeting.
Nestled into Booth 61 at Okeechobee Steakhouse, unaware of its romantic ghosts, a customer might glance at Wesley Thomas’ personalized card and capture the essence of the place. It was gracious. It was professional.
There was Thomas, in person and in print, a silver-crested gent in a black vest, white dress shirt and bow tie, ready to serve and sometimes entertain. What the customer might not know was that Thomas had worked a nine-hour shift that day – at his construction job – before donning his crisp, waiter uniform and reporting for his night job. He did that for 25 years.
Then again, Thomas did not consider his evening shift at the steakhouse to be work at all. It was the highlight of his day.
“This is where I wanted to be every night. Even if I was not working, I wanted to be here. I’m a people person. I just enjoyed coming here,” says Thomas on a recent afternoon in the lull between lunch and dinner service at the restaurant where he has worked more than half of his life.
He will retire on March 30, after more than 42 years on the job at Okeechobee Steakhouse. At 68, he will have been the longest working server at Florida’s oldest steakhouse, one proud relic within another. But you won’t hear him say goodbye, not to the place or the people. How could he? The place is where his best memories linger between the rich, wood-paneled walls and deep caramel-colored leather booths. And the people, they are now as close to him as family.
“This job has been a godsend, a true godsend. This place is home away from home. These people are now my family, and always will be,” said Thomas, impeccable in his waiter’s attire, an American flag pin sparkling above his heart.
It was Thomas who started the restaurant’s tradition of presenting server business cards to customers, says Okeechobee Steakhouse owner Curtis Lewis, whose family has owned and operated the place since 1947.
Lewis recalls the 25-year-old local who came to work at Okeechobee from a neighboring steakhouse. Thomas started as a busboy and was promoted to the server ranks after several years of experience and training.
“Over the years, Wesley has been very personable with his customers and he is requested by his people,” says Lewis, referring to the repeat customers who have requested Thomas by name when making their reservations.
For those customers, and for those who land in Thomas’ station by chance, the veteran server has (mostly mild) jokes and industrial quantities of patience.
“He’s definitely Mr. Hospitality. He always has a new joke each day,” says co-owner Ralph Lewis, Curtis’ son. “He has regulars he’s served for 30 to 40 years.”
Adds Curtis Lewis: “He calls himself The Senator, or The Southern Gentleman.”
The Southern Gentleman, youngest of seven kids born to the Thomas family of Douglas, Georgia, arrived in West Palm Beach at age 19, lured by relatives who spoke of better paying jobs. He had worked as a carhop, making 25 cents an hour, so he was ready for an upgrade. He would come to learn there were good tips to be had in the restaurant business.
After some time, he arrived at the Okeechobee Steakhouse. The then-27-year-old restaurant had just undergone a massive makeover that required a prolonged hiatus. It had closed its doors as the Okeechobee Drive-Inn, a casual spot where carhops served meals curbside, delivering steak and cocktails on metal trays that fastened to car windows. Seven months later, it reopened as the Okeechobee Steakhouse, a cosmopolitan spot that reflected the expanding city’s, its changing landscape and its rising steak house culture. Even the “Okeechobee” in the name shifted in definition, at first reflecting the name of the two-lane Okeechobee Road, then echoing an expansion to Okeechobee Boulevard.
It was an era of Tom Collins and Manhattans, salad bars and dishes that demanded no selfies. 1974. Nixon had just resigned. Ali had knocked out Foreman in Kinshasa. Hank Aaron, who would become an Okeechobee Steakhouse regular, had hit his 733rd and final home run as an Atlanta Braves star. Crooner Charlie Rich of “Behind Closed Doors” fame – another Okeechobee customer – had just won CMA Entertainer of the Year.
It was at the blurred end of 1974, on Dec. 26, that Thomas clocked in for what would be his longest held and final job. It would be a waiter’s career during which he’d earn as much as $400 in tips in one meal, learn to spirit blazing-hot platters from the kitchen, witness (and enabled) marriage proposals, averted many a spill, yet manage a few, and accidentally yank a wig off a customer. He gobbled it up like a 24-ounce porterhouse with a side of shrimp scampi – his favorites.
He remembers the day one customer quietly asked if he would bring a pair of martinis to his table, then made a peculiar request: Would he please drop an engagement ring into one of the glasses? Thomas obliged. He watched from a prudent distance as the man’s girlfriend took a sip from her glass, then squealed. She said yes.
He recalls another, particularly busy night at the steakhouse, when he was balancing scorching, metal platters fresh from the kitchen and heading to a table. As he rounded a corner, he saw a small figure race toward him. It was a young adult customer who happened to be a dwarf. Had neither of them stopped, the collision might have been disastrous. But Thomas gathered his wits, held firmly to his searing platters and spread out his feet into a wide stance for balance. The young customer managed to race between the waiter’s legs to safety.
Another night, however, Thomas could not avoid disaster. He had been waiting on a flamboyantly dressed redhead celebrating some kind of special occasion. The woman wore her hair in big, wild curls. The night had gone swimmingly well.
“At the end, I leaned over and said, ‘I did not get my kiss tonight,’” Thomas recalls.
That’s when it all went downhill. As he leaned in to give the woman a peck on the cheek, her flyaway curls got caught on Thomas’ snazzy fork-and-knife lapel pin. When he backed away, the hair came with him. All of it. Turns out it was a big, red wig and it clung to his lapel, leaving the poor woman’s bald head exposed.
Thomas could hear the entire dining room fall silent as he fussed with the pin and the voluminous tangle of red curls. He could not untangle them. A manager had to come help him break the wig loose. Thomas did his best to put the wig back on the customer’s head.
“But it was all crooked. It was a mess,” he says.
The customer, he recalls, was a good sport and left the place in good spirits, considering. And once she did, Thomas says he could feel the entire dining room exhale before breaking into laughter, not at the woman but at the Waiter vs. Wig spectacle.
On a brighter note, Thomas once did the Twist with Chubby Checker, who had come for lunch at the restaurant. He can tell you how much Hank Aaron loved his steaks. He can rattle off a visual of Charlie Rich’s visit to the steakhouse:
“Sat at the bar, red and black plaid jacket, not wanting to be noticed. I said, ‘Are you Charlie Rich?’ He says, ‘Don’t tell!’”
More recent famous visitors include Robert Duvall and Rudy Giuliani. But there are so many faces at a steakhouse that cuts 3000 pounds of beef a week, and Thomas says he treats them all the same.
“I always wanted to treat the people as I would want to be treated. If they were coming to my house, I would want to give them the same service,” he says.
For health reasons, he has worked greatly reduced hours for a while now. He’s down to two days a week. He sensed it was time to cut back and move toward retirement when he noticed his hands trembled as he carried coffee to his tables.
What will retirement bring? More time for his family, his son Wesley, his four grandchildren and one great-grandchild. More time for playing pool. More time for volunteering with veterans’ causes.
Curtis Lewis says Thomas’ volunteer work is one of his great strengths. He describes his employee as the guy who dresses up as Santa each year to bring toys to underprivileged kids.
And for the steakhouse, what will his absence mean?
For the Lewises, Thomas’ good example lives on in the younger servers he has mentored. For the customers, Thomas’ likeness is immortalized in that business card he pressed across the table: There he is, displaying a tray of hand-trimmed Certified Angus Beef steaks, forever their waiter.
The waiter who once earned that $400 tip from a grateful family of four has a tip of his own to share with those who want to excel as a restaurant server:
“Be congenial, supportive and always have a smile.”