Three forty and the customers were already waiting outside the Southern Fried Honeybee for the dinner service. The staff were gathered in the empty dining room for their evening rounds between shifts. Through the windows of the bright lemon colored building the Honeybee’s young staff huddled around a heavy wooden table for a quick handoff of the afternoon crew to the evening shift.
The sweet smell of cinnamon bread and fancy crème filled pastries filled the air. The oversized display cabinet next to the cash register was packed full of the deliciously sticky treats just waiting to be snapped up by hungry customers waiting outside.
The Honeybee, as the locals called it, opened its doors at exactly six thirty every morning then stayed open for lunch. At three thirty they shut down to prepare for dinner which began at four p.m. on the dot. There was always a crowd waiting for them every day.
The Honeybee was the place to be if you wanted to see or be seen. Their customers were as diverse as could be.
They had everyone from garbage men on their way to work, to the mayor’s office staff and sometimes the mayor herself occasionally stopping in to enjoy a beignet with her café au lait or one of the other hundred combinations the menu had to offer.
The sugary sweet air maintained a constant level of anticipation because you never knew who you might see walking through the Honeybee’s infamous red door from day to day.
The red door, like its owner, had a long sordid history. Before it arrived to the Honeybee the door had belonged to the Sweet Spot, a brothel that used to sit in the empty lot behind casino row. It had been a historical landmark until Hurricane Katrina washed it away, all except for the door. Charlie believed the door brought them good luck by carrying on the tradition of providing a certain indulgence to all who entered. The indulgence was a little different than what the Sweet Spot had to offer, but it kept the customers coming back and that’s all that Charlie cared about.
One visit was all it took and most folks were hooked. After eating Charlie’s food, they couldn’t help but come back for more, and the Honeybee never disappointed. The staff made sure to stay fresh making changes to the menu weekly and continuing to serve up classic southern cuisine.
People liked to be surprised walking through the doors their eyes big like kids in a candy store searching the display case for something new they’d never tried before or an old favorite. In the end it didn’t really matter because they knew whatever they ended up with was sure to satisfy their craving.
However, on this day even the staff was having a hard time staying focused. For the past week signs had been springing up on the block surrounding the Honeybee letting everyone know they’d be filming inside the popular restaurant for two days. No one knew for sure what the filming was for, but they were all excited.
Since opening Southern Fried Honeybee, in Biloxi, Mississippi Charlie had kept busy, and finally, all the hard work was about to pay off.
The staff tried to stay as cool as their stylishly dressed boss but eventually their bright eyes would drift to the corner where their visitors sat during their evening meeting.
To her credit Charlie didn’t bust them on it. She also didn’t mince words as she gave what she called the daily rundown of employee assignments and expectations.
Charlie’s standards for her employees were high. Mainly because she didn’t play like that, but also, she knew their potential.
She hired only the best to work for her, and the job title didn’t matter. She didn’t care what the job was. As far as she was concerned a job was a job and Charlie hired only people who wanted to work, and that they did. She expected excellence in everyone around her from waitress to cashier to manager. Plus, the Honeybee paid well. Some of her neighboring restaurants said too well, but Charlie would tell anyone quick to mind the business that God gave them, and let her mind hers. As far Charlie saw it if it wasn’t broke don’t fix it. Besides she’d been running the Honeybee the same way since she opened ten years ago.
Now after all those years of hard work, she’d finally pulled off the coup of the century and the proverbial chickens had come home to roost. Oprah had come calling. Okay well, maybe not Oprah herself, but Oprah’s people had called. In Charlie’s mind that only meant she was just a hop, skip and a jump away from getting that phone call from the legend herself.
A freaking camera crew would be following her and her staff’s every move for two days. First, they’d do the interviews, then film the store’s activity. Everyone was geeked times a thousand even Charlie, but as usual she played it cool.
They may be a little unknown country place to the rest of the world, but they were already an institution in Biloxi and their reputation was spreading throughout the Southeast. On any given day she had customers from Atlanta, Birmingham, Florida, Mobile, Memphis. She even had some that came from New Orleans which was the biggest compliment. With all the good food there, Charlie was always pleased when she got someone to leave their parish to make the drive to the Honeybee.
However, this was a whole other level. With Oprah exposure Southern Fried Honeybee would gain not just national attention but international attention. If she actually got chosen to be included in OWN’s lineup it would only be a matter of time before her plan for worldwide Honeybee domination would happen and according to her plan it was five years ahead of schedule.
To say she was ecstatic was an understatement. On the outside she was the picture of calm, but inside her heart was doing cartwheels. This week was a game changer and everything had to be perfect.
“What’s that smell?”
“Don’t what smell me? I told you Frederick. I don’t like cologne especially your cologne. It smells like two skunks had a baby and peed on it. Go wash it off.” Frederick quickly left the dining area where they were having their evening meeting.
None of the staff even acknowledged their coworkers exit except for one, Charlie’s newest hire. Jimmy Valentine was fresh out of high school working the evening shift while he attended a local community college. Unfortunately, Jimmy was still new and not yet indoctrinated to the ways of the woman The Sun Herald described as Michelle Obama meets Martha Stewart.
If laughing at his coworker’s comeuppance hadn’t been enough to draw Charlie’s ire the smirk on his face had. As soon as she saw it, she zeroed in. One thing she didn’t tolerate was traitors. If the ship went down, they all went down that was rule number one at the Honeybee. They didn’t stand on the sidelines jeering at those actually doing the work.
“What are you wearing?”
“Did I stutter,” Charlie said her eyes intense on the young man’s face. “Go home and change into the regulation clothes unless you can produce an actual white shirt in the next two minutes.”
“This is a white shirt,” Jimmy said a confused frown on his shiny face. The silence in the room was deafening as the other workers did their best to remain statue still less to draw attention to themselves. Charlie fixed her withering stare on the young man as if she were taking his face apart cell by cell then putting it back together again in a more acceptable formation. Charlie may look like a picture-perfect southern belle type, sweet as lemon meringue pie, but she actually had a will as strong as iron when it came to how she ran her ship. No one disputed Charlie’s word. No one. And Charlie didn’t play when it came to the Honeybee.
“Okay,” she said turning her back to Jimmy as she continued with her menu review. “We all know what we have on special today,” she said. Jimmy felt a hand on his back urging him to leave. It grew more forceful until he looked up.
“C’mon man,” Romeo said to the sullen young man, nodding his head towards the door. Confused, Jimmy looked at the others who all had their eyes on Charlie as she continued to speak as if nothing had happened.
“Get out,” Romeo said in a deep voice. Jimmy stood with his mouth opening and closing for several seconds before finally shuffling off into the kitchen. A second later there was a loud clanging noise.
Charlie looked at Romeo who’d been there since day one and had long earned her trust. With a small nod Romeo took off for the kitchen. He was back a second later.
“Boss,” he said barely clearing the kitchen, “the little jerk knocked over a couple of trays of those new pastries you wanted to debut today.”
“That’s all I need,” Charlie exhaled loudly the only betrayal of her true emotions. One disgruntled employee, a new one at that, wasn’t going to ruin the single most important day of her life- strike that all of their lives.
“Want me to go catch the little punk?”
“Naw, let him go. He knows better than to show his face around here again. Make sure the back door’s locked though.” Romeo disappeared again but this time one of the camera men followed behind him. Charlie was angry, but then her business sense kicked in gear; this might actually up her chances of getting a spot on OWN. Reality TV shows were all about drama. That wasn’t her real life but a little drama might help if it got Oprah’s attention. She’d make this work. She had no choice.
The staff knew their boss well enough to not argue with her. The reason being was that even when Charlie was wrong, she was right. The woman was like a drill sergeant when it came to the Honeybee which was why it did so well. She had an almost preternatural sense when it came to growing her business which was why it was the success it was today. That and of course, her people, but then again, she’d had a hand in the hiring of each of them so even that was Charlie’s doing.
She’d opened the Honeybee in Biloxi and it was doing so well the neighboring coastal cities in Mississippi and Alabama were clamoring for her to open stores there too. However, her next move was expanding to a second location down by the Gulfport Marina on the boardwalk down by Highway 90.
Everyone had to be ready to roll with it or get rolled over. If Jimmy didn’t get that, then it was best they all knew now. The Honeybee was about to blow up and hit the big time. Charlie needed all the help and good energy she could muster. Anyone who couldn’t keep up needed to jump ship now.
Television exposure would be huge for business especially if the segment they were shooting over the next few days actually aired.
All of Charlie’s dreams for the Honeybee were finally coming true.
Born the only child, Charlie was used to being the center of attention of her small family, and had the personality that thrived on it. She was a natural born leader so when her little side business she’d started in college grew and grew, the next step of opening a shop seemed like a no-brainer.
However, just like everything else Charlie couldn’t help but infuse her store with her personal style. Ten years later her plan of becoming the Queen of baked goods was right on track. She was so close she could taste it. She just had to get through today and tomorrow without a huge mess up then she’d be on easy street. Then she and Oprah could become business partners and (although Oprah didn’t know it yet) best friends.
“It don’t mean shit,” the remaining employees said in rote.
“Because all of us are responsible for this ship,” they said in unison. “And if one of us goes down we all go down.”
“So, what are we going to make sure we don’t do?”
“We don’t go down,” they said.
Laughter filled the restaurant as each of the crew stood then headed off to take their assigned station before the doors opened.
“Romeo, music,” Charlie called out and a second later the speakers embedded in the exposed brick walls came to life with delicious R&B music.
The meeting was over. Jimmy was gone, and Charlie felt it was good riddance. Even though Charlie could be a hard taskmaster she believed in having a relaxed work environment as long as the work got done. Not because she cared about being friends with her staff, but because she knew a relaxed work environment made for a relaxed staff which made for relaxed customers. They had to be a team, that was the only way any of it worked. That was the true key to the Southern Fried Honeybee’s success.
The customers that came to the Honeybee were coming for the experience just as much as the food. When you came to the Honeybee you were with family. Whether breakfast, lunch or dinner, Charlie had built her business on the southern hospitality she modeled in every interaction.
The Honeybee wasn’t some greasy spoon. Breakfast was hearty with food that stuck to the ribs, and of course their signature baked goods which were the most popular items. Lunch was the southern classics: gumbo, fried fish, macaroni and cheese, greens, salad and sandwiches. Dinner was a broader fare. They had some fine cuisine items on the menu, of course, but they weren’t scared of a good fried situation. Like the sign above the kitchen said, “it wouldn’t be southern if it wasn’t a little fried.” However, the big sellers always were and always would be the desserts and gourmet coffee which was an experience in itself.
All of her servers were trained baristas that were able to speak eloquently on the long menu list of coffee beans they ground on site. They had everything from the cheap stuff to the more expensive gourmet items that only a true coffee snob would ever attempt.
Charlie’s supplier specialized in custom made coffee which like her sweets she changed out regularly. Right now, the most popular coffee she was serving was a special blend with Jamaican coffee beans and a hint of caramel infused in every cup. It could be served hot or cold which was a major plus during the summer.
Sue and Cyndi called Charlie a fanatic about the Honeybee. They said it was to her own detriment, but Charlie didn’t listen.
“Charlie, don’t you want more. Don’t you want a family of your own someday, a husband, kids?” Sue had asked her more than once.
“The Honeybee is my family,” Charlie always said. It wasn’t that she didn’t want love, but it would have to be a love that was greater than what she felt for the Honeybee. Find a man like that, and she’d marry him tomorrow (with a prenup, of course).
“Alright guys,” Charlie said smiling. Turning to the windows she looked over the crowd at the door, then down at her watch. It was four o’clock on the dot. “We’re on. Cyndi let’s open up.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the perky woman said as she walked quickly to the door and unlocked it. Immediately, the doorway was flooded with the first of many waves of customers that would come in for their dinner on the way to work or home.
Thirty minutes later the store was maximum capacity. There was a disturbance where a couple of women dressed in brightly colored scrubs looked like they were going to swing on each other. Charlie looked to see both cameramen with their cameras zoomed in on the escalating altercation.
“The signs saying we’re filming today are posted outside, right?”
“Yup, last time I checked,” Sue said as the line began to wrap around the tables trying to avoid the two women circling one another. “I doubt those vultures even noticed them.”
Sure enough the two women had their eyes locked on one another. The customers surrounding them weren’t much better they were so busy trying to maintain their place that the line was beginning to get a little rowdy as well. The two husky cameramen went unnoticed even though one of them stood on a chair beneath the big screen television to get a better view.
Charlie had learned early on to not overstimulate the evening crowd the majority of which were more interested in getting their goodies and getting out then lingering around.
The crowd swelled once again pushing the two women closer to one another. Quickly, Charlie ran towards the cash register to climb on top of a chair and address the growing crowd.
“Good evening everyone,” she yelled a broad smile on her face. The last thing she wanted was for someone to get hurt in her store. As much as she knew drama would be good for the show, she didn’t want her shop torn up in the process.
“Hey y’all, I hope everyone’s having a beautiful day. I know we’re a little crowded, but believe me my folks are working hard to make sure everyone gets served quickly so you can go handle your business,” Charlie breathed a sigh of relief as the crowd closest to her seemed to spread out a little bit so they were no longer pressed against the display case.
“I just wanted to tell you lovely folks that I have something new I’ve been working on,” a slight murmur went through the crowd as everyone, including the two nurses stopped circling each other and looked her way like a couple of meerkats on National Geographic.
“It’s called the Lemon Explosion,” a buzz went through the crowd. That’s when she knew she had them. “It’s a creme filled lemon éclair that is to die for. Who’d like to try one on the house?” Charlie wasn’t surprised when every hand shot up some folks even holding up both of their hands. They were grown adults, but no one turned down a free sample at the Southern Fried Honeybee.
“Free samples coming up then for all my patient customers,” Charlie said before descending from her perch glad to see the frowns disappearing from the faces on the other side of the counter. The serene smiles continued to greet her as the line began moving much more smoothly which was exactly what she wanted.
“Good job, boss,” Cyndi said a wide grin on her pretty face.
“What can I say? Happy customers film really well,” Charlie laughed. She was joking to keep the mood light but it was also the truth. She didn’t want people who watched the show to be scared away from coming to the restaurant when they visited Biloxi.
“Boss, you sure about those lemon things?” Romeo asked but one look from Charlie silenced him. The noise level was beginning to rise again so she pulled him to the side where they could talk.
“Toss the ones that dropped on the floor, and then I want you to cut the éclairs in half and wrap them in parchment paper. Get Sue to help you out. Remember make it as neat as possible, and then pass them out to the crowd. I’m going to get Cyndi to put a display together to advertise for the rest of the day. We’ll put them on the menu tomorrow.”
“Aw man,” Romeo said still angry about the loss of product.
“Looks like Jimmy did us a favor,” Charlie said. “Just think of today as a test run. We can test it today and weigh the response. Nothing worse than wasting time on a product that won’t move, right?”
“Like anything you make doesn’t move,” Romeo laughed.
“Well, what can I say? I’m a genius in the kitchen,” Charlie high fived the younger man before backing away to help a customer now that another fire had been effectively put out.
They stayed busy but it only made the hours pass quicker. The smiles on her customer’s faces got her through the first wave of the dinner crowd. Everything was running as smooth as grease on a hot comb until the devil himself, Trace Johnsonne, walked through the red door.