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Hoping the Sallys will come back in the service industry: Column

Ceason Ranson
Ranson Ritings

It's not always food or clothing or décor that brings people into a business: Most often, it’s the people behind the counters.

Let me back up. If one can have a favorite drive-in restaurant, mine is Morrison’s in Logan, W.Va. If you don’t know anything about Morrison’s, it’s a Logan institution from way, way back in the day, like 1950s, and it's been in business ever since. The concept is pure drive-in: You pull up to a one-story, white-block building with red accents, park and give your horn a little tap (a polite tap — don’t be laying on the horn like an uncultured swine), and a nice waitress will walk out to your car window to take your order.

The menu is one giant billboard that’s up behind the restaurant, and consists of all your favorite comfort foods: Hamburgers, hot dogs, milkshakes and fries. Basically, if you can grill it, fry it or blend it, they serve it. The waitress takes your order down, you wait a short amount of time, and when she comes back, she hooks a tray onto your rolled-down window, and then you try and hand out food, drinks and salt shakers without spilling all over the car, and before the napkins fly away.

My mother, being a Logan native, will tell you no one makes a better hot dog than Morrison’s, who specializes in the West Virginia sauce-and-slaw dog. Myself, I’m particular to their cheeseburgers, which are notable for two things. One, they are served on grilled slices of white bread. Not white hamburger buns, not fancy potato buns, just straight-up white sandwich bread that’s been buttered and grilled. Then they serve it to you wrapped in clear plastic. I’m not sure if it’s the white bread or the plastic that keeps that bread steamy, but something about the combination makes it heaven on a window tray.

But it's not really the food that you’re going to Morrison’s for, although it's worth the drive: You go for the experience. Back when my mom was a Logan Wildcat, it was the place to be on weekends, the cars parked three rows deep, all the picnic tables filled, a place for socializing and celebrating another week done.

Now when we go, it's more for nostalgia than anything (well, and the hot dogs — still fantastic, 70 years later). It’s the ritual of taking the long way into Logan from Route 119, past Chief Logan State Park, through Justice Addition, past the island where the high school stands, stopping at the world’s craziest intersection right before your cross into downtown, then out onto the road that takes you to Morrison’s. Then we pull in on Mom’s favorite side of Morrison’s, Sally’s side.

Who is Sally, you ask? Well I have no idea. I’ve never met Sally, not sure I’ve ever seen Sally, but Sally Wall was a Morrison’s institution, a redheaded curb girl who since 1955 had come outside in rain, sleet, snow and sun to serve the customers in their cars with a smile. And if you were a Morrison’s regular, you knew Sally well, because Sally had served generations of your family. Sally passed in 2019, and if you want to read her story, you can check it out on the Logan Banner. Or better yet, take a day and zip down 119 to Morrison’s to have a meal yourself.

But I’ve been thinking about Sally lately, not because I knew her or because I’m craving a white-bread cheeseburger, but because of what Sally stood for: A time when people made life careers out of service. I remember when that was a thing, not just at drive-ins, but everywhere. If I went into Big R on Saturday morning and stood in line next waiting for that window in the back to open, the two gloved-up ladies who dished out hot Big R dogs were the same two ladies who’d been doing it my whole life. When I’d go to get shoes in Charleston at JC Penny, it was the same person measuring my feet who’d done it since I was little. If we needed cash, we had the same Saturday teller at United Bank smiling at us through the drive-thru window.

We talk all the time about continuity of service in our doctors or lawyers or accountants, the lifelong professionals in our lives whom we grow from early adulthood to death with, but I’m not sure we talk enough about that same continuity of service in our food and shopping establishments.

I’m not going to get into the very political questions about why it’s so hard to find consistent help nowadays. Those are economic and social questions that are above my pay grade at the moment, and there’s not one quick and dirty answer, but a myriad of reasons why people aren’t making careers out of the service industry anymore. But what I do know is that when we get nostalgic for the Heck’s Department stores, the Big R’s and the Village Cafés, it’s not just the food and the stuff that we miss: It’s the people. The Sallys, who provided the services, who loved what they did because they loved the people who came in and who made a career out of it.

And it’s weird, because even as online-everything is booming, those Sallys are still wanted. How many people continue to go to restaurants where the food is fine, but it’s the people who serve you that really makes it special? How many of us spend an unusual amount of time in local stores, not browsing inventory, but talking to the clerk (and often, owner) behind the counter? How many of us still trust the opinion of the guy at Hardman’s to show us the right filter for our AC more than internet reviews?

We value those people because they make us happy, make us feel special and are experts at what they do, and because they know us. They know what color shirts we like best, what our preferred dinner beverage is and what kind of road we live on because they see our tires in the shop. Sure, people may pick doctors and lawyers and accountants for life, but how often do you see those people in comparison to the guy at Tudor’s who gives you your Mary B and black coffee? I see a doctor maybe once a year. I see the girl at the Fairplain McDonald’s drive-thru at least once every two weeks (much to the chagrin of said doctor).

I guess the point I’m making here is that careers are anything that you make your life’s work. If it's work that needs done, you can make a career of it, and if you’re good at it, people will make you their go-to person. They’ll wait for you to help them at the hardware store. They’ll ask for your section at the restaurant, and they’ll only trust you to check their tires and oil and what have you. And yeah, maybe you don’t need college degrees for those jobs, but you do need something college can’t teach you: How to deal with people, but even more, how to make people feel like they’re being taken care of.

Service is a unique skill, a skill a lot of people don’t realize is their greatest skill until they get ready to retire after 30 years in one place and all their customers lose their minds at the going-away party, because they realize that the person who knew their likes and dislikes almost as well as their own mothers wasn’t going to be around anymore. It’s a skill that gets taken for granted, that doesn’t get enough respect, because you don’t even realize you’re in the presence of a service-skill master until they’re gone.

Like I said, I don’t have the answers for how to bring people back into the service industry that makes everyone happy. But I do hope that we get back to a place where the Sallys of the world can make a career out of their special skill, and soon. Because I too have special skills, but making a good-tasing white-bread cheeseburger, then serving it outdoors with a smile, and without tripping over my own feet and sending a family of four’s meal flying all over a parking lot, ain’t one of them.