Waitress celebrates 50 years at the same restaurant

Joyce Smith
Kansas City Star

Judy Eddingfield’s first day as a Winstead’s carhop could have easily been her last.

It was April 6, 1965, and Eddingfield was just a month shy of her 16th birthday. She had the customer roll the window halfway down and carefully loaded a tray of food, just as her mother, a 13-year veteran of Winstead’s in Kansas City, Missouri., had trained her.

Just one problem. Her mother forgot to tell her that with certain car styles, maybe only 5 percent, the window had to be rolled completely down or the tray would tilt too much.

“The tray tipped over and a vanilla malt slid down a lady’s fur coat. I was so embarrassed,” Eddingfield said. “Of course, she hollered.”

Winstead’s had the coat cleaned and all was forgiven. Eddingfield stayed on — for five decades and beyond.

On a recent Wednesday, she celebrated 50 years at Winstead’s by handing out slices of anniversary cake while taking orders and refilling coffee cups and getting hugs — lots and lots of hugs.

Eddingfield has watched the original Winstead’s replace its carhops with a drive-through and an order of a hamburger, french fries and drink go from 65 cents in 1965 to the current $7 plus. At first it was a hangout for hippies, then golfers and now people of all walks of life, as well as the great-grandchildren of some of her first customers, she said.

When she joined, it really was a home away from home. Her mother trained her, and her sister, two brothers, two aunts and two cousins also were on the staff. She worked nights until she graduated from high school and then stayed on after getting a full-time job at First National Bank downtown. She thought she might make banking her career, but it was just too hard to leave those Winstead’s customers.

“I met my first husband right out here on the curb,” she said.

He didn’t say much, but he came to Eddingfield’s station so often, she took notice. Eighteen months later, they married.

Over the years, she took maternity leave after the birth of her daughter in 1970 and her son in 1973. She was down for 10 days after a 1989 virus and came back for just three days before a gallstone attack had her down for six weeks.

A favorite Winstead’s memory was when Jerry Mathers and Tony Dow of the television series “Leave It to Beaver” stopped in while headlining a local play in the late 1970s. Mathers was “talking with his hands” and knocked over a tray of double onion rings and shakes his server was carrying to the table, sending the food flying.

“Leave it to Beaver,” his on-screen brother said, to the delight of the staff and diners.

Eddingfield also said the employees often play practical jokes on each other, such as the time they had a server call in pretending to be the police. She asked the manager to check on a possible bomb left in the front lobby. But the staff didn’t know someone really had called in a bomb threat a few days earlier.

Once Winstead’s had just locked up for the night when a man clutching a rifle started pounding on the door, demanding to be let in. Eddingfield quickly dialed 911 and then tossed the phone to her manager before running to hide in the bathroom. And on Sept. 11, 2001, she realized the staff would want to know the latest news, so she went to Wal-Mart and bought a little TV so they could watch for the rest of the day.

Now servers such as Sue Allen are following her lead.

“She trained me to be her. Pleasant as she is, prompt. So that people will come here for you and continue to come,” said Allen, who has worked at Winstead’s for 13 years.

Whether she had customers coming in after a bad day and nothing would please them, a large group of folks unexpectedly filling up the restaurant after an event or “grouchy old ladies” wanting her to divide their checks even if she was shortchanged a bit, Eddingfield took it in stride.

“All you can do is the best you can,” she said. “But I couldn’t wait to be an old lady so I could be grouchy, too. And I’m there. I hope I’m not grouchy, but you never know.”

Eddingfield’s biggest tip? $600 — split with another server — from a man who treated his staff of 48 during the holidays in 2014.

Longtime customer Liz Uhlmann first came with her parents, Henry and Marion Bloch, and now comes with several generations of Blochs.

“She remembers our birthdays and what we always order,” said Uhlmann.

The family would subtly maneuver to sit in “Miss Judy’s” section, trying not to hurt the feelings of other servers.

“Everyone wanted to sit in her section. It wasn’t just us,” said Liz’s husband, Paul Uhlmann. “She’s so cheery, so kind to everyone. It has made coming here a real joy.”

Longtime customer Tim Degnan said: “She makes us feel like we belong. This is more than a restaurant. It’s a community.”

A supersize anniversary card signed by staff and customers had such comments as “You are an all-star” and “It’s been a pleasure to work with one of the greats.”

Eddingfield, who turns 66 on May 13, has made some concessions to age. She doesn’t wait on six-top tables as much as before, sticking to the two-top and four-top tables.

“The six-tops are so far from the kitchen and I’m not as fast. I didn’t bring my rollerblades,” she said.

But she plans to keep going as long as she’s healthy.

“New employees are amazed. They think they won’t last 50 days, let alone 50 years,” she said. “But if you really like the job, you’ll return. If you don’t like it, you won’t work here too long. I really enjoy what I do.”

So what is Eddingfield’s favorite meal at Winstead’s?

As a 3-year-old, coming from her family’s home in the suburbs, Judy Eddingfield’s first Winstead’s meals were a simple hamburger and strawberry ice cream soda. But after eating at Winstead’s nearly every day for 50 years, she has fine-tuned that order to a double cheeseburger on rye with grilled onions, pickle, mustard and ketchup — sometimes she’ll add tomato and mayonnaise — with a Diet Coke and an occasional hot dog.