At the Table

Our panel of service experts

Johnny Guffey, Jeffrey's server: Undoubtedly Austin's most famous waiter, Guffey is a career practitioner of the hospitality arts who has worked at Jeffrey's for 27 years. He's so well-known, in fact, he was one of the quintessential Austin characters profiled in Zachary Scott Theatre's recent Keep Austin Weird production. He has a long list of established customers who request (demand) his tables and eagerly anticipated his return to the restaurant after heart bypass surgery in 2003.

Mahala Guevara, Magnolia Cafe general manager: Young Guevara's articulation of her attitudes about both service and hospitality made a significant impression on the panelists. Her grandfather provided medical care to hospitality workers in New Orleans and she related how she'd grown up "in this enchanted world where everywhere we went, people were delighted to see us and bring us wonderful food," making hospitality something she considers part of her "cultural legacy."

Bill Norris, Fino bartender: Former New Yorker Bill Norris is a relative newcomer to Austin, but he's the third generation of his family to work in the bar or restaurant business. An accomplished photographer, published novelist (Snapshots, 2001), and former college instructor, Norris says tending bar affords him time to write and that he hears great stories behind the bar.

Rachel McCown, Asti server: Like many young people, McCown put herself through college waiting tables and she's proud of her advertising degree, with a minor in women's studies, from Texas State. Though she feels right at home with Asti's wonderful food and comfortable neighborhood vibe, her ultimate goal is to make a contribution to society working in the nonprofit world.

Tom Upthegrove, Vespaio bartender: His cheerful, efficient handling of the chaos in Vespaio's very busy bar earned Upthegrove recognition in our Critic's Restaurant Poll last year. The now semiretired musician came to Austin 12 years ago with San Diego roots rockers the Forbidden Pigs, and he's played his share of Continental Club gigs. Tom began tending bar at clubs like Antone's and has been at Vespaio since a week after they opened seven years ago.

Susan Shields, Vespaio server: Shields is a former journalist, who turned to waiting tables as a way to put herself through UT's graduate program in creative writing, finding both a second career and a family in the process. The day of our round table, she celebrated her sixth anniversary at Vespaio, where her husband Nathan Baumann (father of baby daughter Lux) works as a cook. These days, Shields artfully balances motherhood, a job at Vespaio, where many customers regularly request her service, and a creative writing career that includes two recent finishes in the top 5 of the Austin Chronicle Short Story contest.

Ahmad Modoni, co-owner of Manuel's restaurants and Changos taquerias: Modoni began his career in Austin restaurants in 1975 as a busboy at a soon-to-be famous restaurant called Fonda San Miguel. After working his way up to a position as one of the most accomplished and regularly requested waiters in that landmark eatery, Modoni moved on to manage the popular Gianni's before joining business partner Greg Khoury at Manuel's (1983) and later Changos (1998). Quality service and gracious hospitality are the hallmarks of his restaurant career.

Sharon Bright, Castle Hill Cafe server: Bright supports her passions for art (printmaking) and antiques (a dealer at Uncommon Objects) by waiting tables and has done so for 20 years. She credits Castle Hill founders Cathe and David Dailey with fostering a genuine appreciation of food and wine in their entire staff. We suspect her ability to communicate that appreciation is why Bright, too, has an established list of customers who request her particular service.

Winston Shipman, Cafe at the Four Seasons server: Shipman's Austin hospitality career began years ago at the World of Tennis resort, where staff members were encouraged to interact with guests, many of them sports celebrities. Winston says that early training has always made it possible for him to establish a "comfort zone" with any customer. Shipman and his business partner, chef Gert Rauch, operated the Courtyard restaurant for 12 years, and he's been an oft-requested waiter at the Four Seasons for 12 as well. He enjoys playing golf and swears it's much easier being a waiter than an owner or manager.

Edward Zambrano, Matt's El Rancho server: Zambrano spoke emotionally about learning the most important aspects of the waiting trade from legendary El Rancho waitress Lupe Redkey and eventually inheriting many of her regular customers. His 27-year career at Matt's has provided for his wife and three precious daughters, the oldest now a college student. These days he gladly greets the second generation of families who request his section when dining at Matt's.

Tyrone Soares, 34th Street Cafe, Asti server: After hearing several panelists discuss dealing with their regular customers, Soares ruefully said he'd never seen guests wait for one of his tables. He described being part of the team to close some ill-fated, high-profile local restaurants, such as Sardine Rouge and Seven, and said the joke among his journeyman waiter buddies is who is cursed with closing the most local eateries.

Steven Adams, Fonda San Miguel server: Though trained as an architect, Adams has made his living working in restaurants for much of his adult life. Once he had a family, regular evening hours helped him and his wife divide childcare duties and provided the lucky dad daytime hours to attend his son's school and recreational activities. Adams has spent 13 years at local landmark Fonda San Miguel and continues to take great satisfaction in providing both regular guests and newcomers with a positive experience at the restaurant.

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