I’m sitting alone at a two-top in a place called Oliver’s Sandwiches in Milton.
There’s a phone ringing off the hook with pickup orders and a DoorDash queue filling up like credits at the end of a made-for-TV movie and teeming in amongst an already sizeable working class lunch crowd are 20-something high schoolers mashed, braces to ponytails into the dining area, laughing their awkward laughs and being angsty and hip and difficult in a more general sense of the word. Not paying attention to their orders, forgetting that they hate mayonnaise until after it’s been smeared on their bread, understanding how to use Snapchat.
All of this chaos seems strange for a place like this when you don’t have all the puzzle pieces. First, this is Milton, not U-District or Southcenter or Pike’s Place. Second, Oliver’s is one of about six restaurants in this shopping center, and not one of the others is anywhere near as slammed. Finally, all three of the people behind the counter are HUSTLING. Hands flying at ingredients, juggling utensils and condiments like a circus act, fully in command of their stations, all over their duties.
A place like this, far from the hustle and bustle, smack dab in a fast food oasis with easily assembled ingredients and a crack team of professional food ninjas at the helm should be humming serenely at 1:30 p.m. on a Thursday.
Unfortunately, this analysis is lacking a single, vital, piece of information.
These sandwiches are coo-coo.
I drifted in here in a relative lull between rushes, ordered a gladiator sandwich combo and watched the tide of hungry wildness swell up and fill the inside of this place. Sat and waited and thought, “this food better be good.” Ten minutes later, I was hungry-hippo-ing my plate off the table like nobody could see me.
A formidable stack of carefully complimentary meats bopping under Swiss cheese, all seated atop a layer of black olives, pepperonis, lettuce, tomato and mayo. Piece of cheesy bread on either side. The ingredients didn’t say anything about opium, but there had to have been at least a one-hitter rolled up in there. The fries were crispy. The ketchup didn’t come from a packet.
When I finally came up for air, I remember thinking, “Oh, that’s why this place is slammed.” It was drawing people from all over the area. Kids from school, working folks from nearby construction sites, even people who couldn’t get away from their desks were calling in for pickup orders or having DoorDash deliver it to them. The delicious mass of these sandwiches was creating a black hole in the surrounding area, drawing everything into it, funneling down to a single point behind the counter that consisted of three exhausted looking people, doing their best to deal with the chaos their food had created.
“What can I get you?” Matthew Nguyen, the owner, is saying. The woman he’s talking to looks exasperated.
“I already ordered,” she says. The phone is ringing again.
“Don’t answer that,” Matthew barks to one of his line cooks. To the woman he says, “Remind me of your order.”
The guy behind her looks at his watch. A construction worker with his arms folded over his chest sees the watch-checker. They shake their heads. Hungry heads shaking all throughout the place like cicadas in deep woods calling out at one another. Altogether like ripple through still water.
A DoorDash driver near the register asks how much longer her order will be and Matthew says, “at least 10 more minutes.”
“What?” hackles up.
“I’m really sorry, I told her it would be about 20 minutes when she called it in.”
He did. I heard the call. DoorDash is not mollified. The guy with the crossed arms is still shaking his head. A few more people check their watches and a snapshot of the room at that moment becomes a body language teacher’s study aid for a lecture on impatience and frustration. The wild tide is turning.
From my table, I see Matthew see it. I watch him post his arms up on his station, full of unmade sandwiches. I’ve seen this moment play out at so many restaurants, to so many different ends. I’ve seen line cooks break down and cry behind their knives. I’ve watched chefs turn on their staff, screaming over their shoulder at people who are doing their best to do better. Usually though, things happen more passively. Usually there are a handful of quiet apologies to each angry customer at the register. Usually there’s a thin layer of contriteness covering a mutual anger that congeals into disgruntled employees and bad Yelp reviews.
This time is different.
“Everyone,” Matthew says. It is a proclamation. His voice reaches out over the angry crowd. His hands are still working, cutting, spreading, assembling. “I just want to say that I appreciate all of you.”
The phone is ringing again, but he talks over it.
“I appreciate all of you coming here and I’m so sorry for making you wait.”
There is a calm in his voice, that is run through with sincerity.
“I hate to make you wait, it really isn’t my style, but I’ve only got two hands,” his two hands flying at his station. “I’m really sorry,” he says.
Sitting at that table with my belly full of crazy goodness, I look out over the wild tide and watch it turn again.
Arms uncross. Heads stop shaking.
The DoorDash lady says to him, “I used to own a BBQ place in Phoenix,” she’s holstered her phone in her purse. “I get it. Restaurants are really hard. You’re doing a good job.”
A conversation about the food industry starts in the back corner where the head shaking started. The teenagers are back at their phones. Matthew tells a joke about his 4-year-old child developing an British accent from watching too much “Peppa Pig” that starts a brushfire of laughter in the line in front of him.
I don’t know what happened after that. The world pulled me out the door and back into my own life and I didn’t see how the rest of the lunch shift went. A riot may have broken out 10 minutes later. Maybe Oliver’s Sandwiches is nothing more than a crater in a strip mall now.
But for a while at least, the place was serene. Orderly. Yes, there were hungry patrons, and yes, they were standing in line, but Matthew had done something special at that counter. He’d been honest and appreciative and apologetic. He’d reminded those people that he cared so much about, that he was human. That they were all human.
And humans need time. Humans need understanding. They need these things almost as much as they need wackadoo, delicious sandwiches.
Check out Oliver’s Sandwiches on Meridian in Milton, but please be patient. He only has two hands.
Kellen Burden is a local novelist and lunch enthusiast. More of his work can be found at www.goatfederation.com.