This profile from Kitty Crider ran in the Statesman on November 2, 2005.
‘Hi, my name is Johnny and I will be your waiter — for the next 25 years.”
Like that would really happen in Austin. This is a university town, where waitstaff changes with the semester. No sooner do the Ashleys, Brads and Sams learn the difference between coulis and couscous than they exit for another gig.
Except for Johnny. He didn’t leave.
Johnny Guffey, 57, has been at Jeffrey’s Restaurant for two and a half decades. “We’re now oldies sweating to the oldies,” Guffey quips of his tenure. “I came with the dirt, not with the building.”
It was 30 years ago this month that Peggy and Ron Weiss and Jeffrey Weinberger founded Jeffrey’s, one of Austin’s first fine-dining restaurants. Located in Clarksville, the intimate eatery has long been a gathering place for power brokers and guests celebrating special occasions.
Next to the owners, Guffey has seniority at the restaurant, where the staff calls him Mother because of his age. But he is not the only one there with more than a decade at Jeffrey’s. This funny fella, who spouts more lines than Tuna’s Aunt Pearl, has become such an icon that his character is in the “Keepin’ It Weird” production playing at Zachary Scott Theater.
Guffey works five tables in the center section of Jeffrey’s — polishing the glasses, folding the napkins, adding the fresh flowers, mastering the daily menu, waiting on the guests. He’s served governors, stars, CEOs, politicos including President Bush, John Kennedy Jr. and more.
“Lady Bird still comes in. What kind of honor is that to wait on her?” he says.
But it’s not just the stars he loves to serve. It’s the young people on their first dates and the people having their anniversaries, even those entering with walkers. He’s gone so far as to drive an elderly regular couple home one night.
He has another couple who have come to see him every year on their anniversary. Now they are divorcing after 25 years and they are coming to have their last dinner with him as well. He considers it an honor.
“Over the years I’ve built a following,” he acknowledges. “It’s like having people over to your house, but you don’t have to cook.”
Some of his regular customers know his schedule and won’t come in if he is not there, owner Peggy Weiss says. Some nights all of his tables are requested.
Former Gov. Ann Richards says, “Everybody knows Johnny. He has the best sense of humor and knows the menu backward and forward. He has the biggest collection of Fiesta pottery anywhere, but you don’t have to talk to him about it. ”
His boss Ron Weiss adds: “It’s very comforting for me to know that Johnny is there taking care of our customers and giving them our best. When people dine out, they’re buying more than food and drinks; they’re buying a dining experience. Johnny has been a significant part of that dining experience for most of our existence.”
Not that there hasn’t been a hiccup on occasion.
“Every time I drop a knife or piece of silver, which isn’t often, I always think of the time I was waiting on Sissy Spacek and missed her little Adidas tennis shoe with a steak knife by 3 inches. She looked up and said, ‘You missed me.’ “But she came back the next night and asked for his table again.
Guffey considers his four-nights-a-week waiter job a great job. “My hours are good. The food is good. If I want to take three weeks off, there is always someone who wants to pick up the tables. It’s the ultimate slacker job in the ultimate slacker town,” he says.
He never set out to become a professional waiter. That’s a New York thing, not Austin, he adds.
Instead, he studied English and history for three years at what was then Southwest Texas State College. He says he worked with disabled students at the Brown schools in the area and with Marcia Ball in the library system in Austin before her musical career took her on the road. He became one of the first shuttle bus drivers at the University of Texas. Then he decided to go to Europe in 1976 during the U.S. bicentennial (“roots in reverse”) and hang out a while.
Upon his return, he got a job at the Texas Chili Parlor as a busboy and then became the first male waiter. When a friend told him about a busboy job at Jeffrey’s, he applied and got it.
“But he was such a terrible busser we almost fired him,” Peggy Weiss says. “We were in a bind, though, so we gave him a shot at waiting. Once he could interact with customers, we saw that he was all personality.
“He loves people. He really cares about them and wants to take care of them. And they love him back.
“Johnny is not only family to us, but to so many of our customers, ” she says.
He is single. His kids are his two dogs — Max, a 95-pound standard poodle, and his sister, Sophie, a 55-pounder. Guffey is a self-described Old Austinite who bikes to his job from his Clarksville home, enjoys a good burger at the Frisco or Dirty’s, exercises at Castle Hill Specialized Fitness, frequents local theater productions, collects Fiestaware and loves his job.
But he knows he is not a one-man show at Jeffrey’s.
“I breeze in here at 5 o’clock (in the afternoon); the chefs have been here all day. A lot of time we get the glory, but it is such a team effort, down to the dishwashers.” He knows. He remembers scraping that dried-up, melted cheese off those plates at the Chili Parlor decades ago. So when he got that $850 tip from a customer recently, he shared it with the busboys, the kitchen staff and the bartenders. Smart “Mother.”
Johnny Guffey on the perfect waiter
* Can read a table within a minute or two of walking up and know whether his patrons want to be entertained or want him to be invisible, whether they want him to be their friend or just their waiter.
* Must be clean, be neat.
* Must be familiar with the restaurant’s drinks.
* Must know the menu and what’s in the dishes. Better yet, have tasted the food. It is very important in fine dining to be able to speak knowledgably.
* Must be able to communicate the guests’ needs to the kitchen. If people are allergic to nuts, you certainly don’t want to kill them.
* Must be observant: Keep water glasses filled, replace butter, anticipate needs.
* Must know how to upsell without overselling. Don’t try to rip off the customer.
The waiter in a nutshell
Wants to go: with a creme brulee in his hand.
Will pig out on: the duck, any fish and the crispy oyster nachos. ‘I don’t like oysters, yet I can eat these all night long like Tater Tots.’
Salutes: the regular customer who has chocolate intemperance (Jeffrey’s signature dessert) first, then the oysters, then the entree, then another chocolate intemperance.