Debbie Hutchens is Pizza Hut’s prized employee
Debbie Hutchens isn’t afraid of hard work. Yet when she nervously walked into the First Street Pizza Hut that warm August morning for her first day on the job, she wasn’t sure if she had what it took to be a good waitress.
Twenty-six years later, you could say it worked out.
In an industry notorious for its high turnover rate, waitress Hutchens stands out. From deep-dish to desserts, sodas to salad plates, Hutchens faithfully has served hungry dining patrons in the Grand Valley for 2 1/2 decades. Born and raised in Craig, Hutchens moved to Grand Junction in 1983.
Twenty-three years old and just off a divorce, she was looking for a fresh start when her mom suggested she move in with her brother while she got back on her feet. With the Exxon oil shale bust beginning to take its toll on the local economy, jobs were scarce.
So when a friend of a friend told her about a waitress opening at Pizza Hut, she jumped at the chance. She recalled thinking at the time: “I’m not sure if I’ll be any good at it, but I need a job. And I love pizza. I’ll try it.”
Slender (that’s what running around all day on your feet will do), Hutchens displays a warm smile fitting of a person whose job entails constant interaction with a variety of personalities. In fact, that’s part of the appeal. “I get to talk to a bunch of different people,” she said, adding that she never really knows what to expect each day. “You can have the sweet old lady in one table and, across the way, have the rude guy telling you dirty jokes.”
Other customers, the regulars, are more predictable, and are a big reason why Hutchens enjoys her work. She talked of familiar faces — folks who have been sitting in her section for 20-plus years — some of whom dine at the pizza joint at 601 N. First St. three days a week.
“I’ve seen their kids grow up,” she said of long-time patrons turned friends. “And now I see their grandkids come in.” She’s even developed somewhat of a following.
Customers “bring their family in to meet their waitress,” she said with an appreciative smile. Other times, when Hutchens is away from work, she inevitably finds herself bumping into a loyal customer who has good news to share. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, Deb, you have to see our grandbaby.’ ”
The job hasn’t always been so pleasant though, especially in those early post-bust years. A tough economy can be even tougher for those who survive on tips.
“I started when things were really hard,” she recalled. “We’d get 75-cent or 50-cent tips at lunch. I would go home with $5. Most of the time I’d go straight to the store, and that’s what I could spend for groceries.”
Unwaveringly polite today, Hutchens admitted to having occasionally revealed her sassy side in the past.
“When I first started, I had a guy spit his chew on the floor.” What did she do about it? Ask him politely to refrain? Keep quiet so as not to jeopardize a tip?
“I went over there and I made him go clean it up.”
Then there was the weekend she’d like to forget. Busy and short-staffed, Hutchens ran ragged keeping up with all the orders. She forced herself to keep smiling throughout, this despite the fact she was in constant pain: “I had a tooth infection that was going to my brain.”
And it’s safe to say you’re not going to spend all those years serving thousands of customers without the occasional mistake. The Sunday she dropped an entire tray of water-filled glasses on a couple still seems to haunt her. “They had ice-cold water running down their back, and here they were, just in from church, dressed in their Sunday best.”
Mostly, though, fond memories abound, like the children’s birthday parties the restaurant used to hold each Saturday. Back before the days of Bananas Fun Park and Chuck-E-Cheese, Pizza Hut was birthday party central for the under-12 set.
In the packed restaurant, booths and tables would be filled with excited kids and their weary parents as the jukebox blared out the latest Michael Jackson hit. It could drive some people up the wall, but Hutchens actually enjoyed it. She’d serve up pizza, cake and soft drinks while the kids sang “Happy Birthday” and played “Pin the nose on Tony Pepperoni.”
Then there was the time — just a few years back — when she was in the middle of serving a cordial family of four. The talk soon turned to how long Hutchens had been working at Pizza Hut. She had to think about for a second. “Actually, it’s been 23 years today,” to which the customers responded by giving her a $23 dollar tip.
“I’ve received bigger tips, but that one I always remember,” she said. “It was special to me.”
Hutchens usually doesn’t like to go out to restaurants on her nights off. The crowds, the noise, the clanking of dishes and glassware seem a little too much like work. “I just watch movies at home, and be peaceful.”
And why not? Waiting tables, after all, requires the patience of Job. It’s stressful, tiring work, all of which makes Hutchens’ longevity even more impressive. She proudly shows off a gorgeous diamond necklace — one that was personally picked out by the franchise owner — and given to her in honor of her 25th anniversary at the restaurant.
Yet it’s a love for her customers that motivates her each day. Especially the regulars.
“They sit in their usual booth. They don’t even have to tell you their order. You already know exactly what they want, but you ask anyway, just in case. Most of the regulars that come in here are my family.”
“Or when somebody has a baby, that’s exciting. That’s my family. When I see them out at other places, they’re excited to see me. And that’s the best feeling in the world. It’s better than how much people tip you.”
Hutchens has received plenty of job offers over the years — including non-restaurant positions — from potential employers who can spot an efficient hard-worker when they see one. She’s polite when brushing them off: “I like it here.”
Besides, she said, it’d be extremely hard to leave. “I’ve put my heart and soul, blood, sweat and tears into this place.”
Still the question has to be asked: After 26 years of hot pans, dirty plates, throwaway crusts and being bombarded with the ever-present smell of cheese, sausage and pepperoni, does she ever— just maybe — get a little tired of pizza?
She shook her head and laughed: “No, no. Not at all. I still love pizza.”