Her Customers Helped This Waitress Stay Sober

The supportive community also encouraged her to open her own restaurant.

Posted in , Aug 27, 2019

Dana Smith, proprietor of D's Friendly Diner

I walked past the diner every day on my way to work.

The diner was called Mr. Omelette. It wasn’t fancy. A counter and tables. Breakfast and lunch. Smelled good outside. Lots of regulars. Everyone seemed happy.

I worked at McDonald’s. It was a job, and I was grateful to have one. Still, I wondered what it would be like to work at Mr. Omelette. Probably better hours. Nice to be around happy people. Some employees at McDonald’s were mean.

I was too intimidated to apply. They’d never hire someone like me. I was a recovering drug addict. I lived at a women’s shelter plus care program (supportive housing for people with substance abuse or other challenges) while I attended drug court. I had no car, no driver’s license. I’d lost custody of my kids a long time ago. This wasn’t my first arrest for drugs. I’d gotten caught with opiates this time, but I did lots of drugs—heroin, methamphetamines, crack cocaine, alcohol. Lots of other bad stuff too. Stealing. Prostitution. I sank about as low as you can go and then some.

I was sober now. Not for the first time. I started every day praying to stay sober. I went to outpatient drug treatment, attended support group meetings and always showed up to work on time. I really wanted to change my life. After more than a decade as a drug addict, I wanted so badly to make my kids proud. They were young adults now.

Let me tell you something. It is hard to stay clean from drugs. When you feel ashamed and hopeless, it is so hard to resist using. My life is worthless, you think. Might as well get high.

Picturing myself working at Mr. Omelette—serving all those normal, happy people in that bright, pleasant place—helped me hold out against drugs. What if the owner did hire me?

Wouldn’t happen. Those nice people would stare if I went in. Or leave.

I used to hate drug addicts. There was some problem drinking in my family when I was growing up. I wanted to emulate my parents, hard workers who did their best to raise my siblings and me.

I had bad acne as a teenager, and I got bullied a lot at school. I had zero self-confidence. Despite my good intentions, I was primed for addiction.

I graduated high school and completed a one-year nursing program. I found a job at a nursing home, then moved to a hospital. I went back to school to become a registered nurse.

I met a man at work who flattered me. A few months later, I was pregnant. We married, but things got dysfunctional pretty quickly. After another child, the dysfunction got worse. Eventually we divorced. I became a single mom.

A guy I knew through my ex-husband introduced me to methamphetamine. I still don’t know why I tried it. He kept at me. “Just a little,” he’d say. “Do it for me. Trust me. You’ll love it.”

The drugs felt great at first, then quickly took over. I went from meth to pills and started stealing medication from the hospital. I got fired. After a failed stint in rehab, I switched to heroin. I fell into prostitution and lived on the streets.

Before I landed in drug court, I was with a man who gave me drugs to keep me close. He threatened to kill me if I ever left him. He might have done it except I got arrested.

No, those nice folks at Mr. Omelette would not want me as their waitress.

I prayed about it anyway. “God, I really want to work at Mr. Omelette. Give me the courage to go in there and ask.”

One day I stopped in front of the diner. It was closed for the day, but a man I assumed was the owner was behind the counter. I stood there, thinking. Not only was I a recovering addict, I was 43, twice the age of the servers I’d seen.

I thought some more. If I never went in, I’d never know whether I was passing up a great opportunity.

I took a big breath. Then walked in.

“I’m wondering if I could apply to be a waitress here,” I said to the man.

He smiled but also shook his head. “Sorry, we’re not hiring at the moment,” he said. “You’re welcome to check back later. My name’s Dave. What’s yours?”

“I’m Dana,” I said. “I really like your restaurant.”

“Thanks, Dana. Check back anytime.”

I knew my way around a diner. My mom used to run one called The Friendly Diner. I worked there growing up. Mom served Southern comfort food: fried chicken, turnip greens, biscuits. I knew I could do a good job for Dave.

I decided to check back every week.

One week something amazing happened. Dave seemed pleased I was so dedicated. After I asked my question, he said, “You know what? I just had someone not show up for work. Dana, I’ll give you a try. When can you start?”

I made sure to tell Dave about my past. He hired me anyway.

I started early one morning. Most Mr. Omelette regulars came for breakfast.

My first day, you’d never have known I’d worked in a diner. I was so nervous, I got everything wrong. “I’m sorry,” I’d say. “Oh, pardon me, ma’am. So sorry.”

Finally one couple stopped me. They were in their eighties and just about as bright and cheerful as can be.

“Honey, you don’t have to apologize so much,” the woman said. “I’m Theresa. This is my husband, Jimmy. We think you’re doing a terrific job.”

“I keep getting the orders wrong!”

“So what? You’ll figure it out. We all order the same thing anyway.” Everyone laughed.

Each day got better. Theresa and Jimmy introduced me to Fred and Pat, another regular breakfast couple.

More regulars introduced themselves. Roy and Anne told me they’d overheard me talking to Dave and were praying for my recovery.

“We all are, honey,” Anne said.

Going to work became the best part of my day. I learned all about my customers, and they learned about me. They even asked me to pray for them. Me with all my troubles. I was getting to know the women I lived with and people I met in my drug treatment program. Their support—plus love from my kids, my sister and customers at the diner—made me feel good about myself for the first time in my life.

One day, Dave made an announcement. “Good news. I’m expanding. We’re moving to a location by the university. Big place. You’ll love it.”

The new place was nice. But the regulars? Many stopped coming. All the students changed the atmosphere. And the new location was farther away.

I was devastated. Those regulars were my family. I didn’t know what to do. Dave had been so nice to me, I didn’t say anything. I just fretted every day.

Sometimes I drove past the old location. (Yep, I had my license back.) One day, a ridiculous notion came into my head. What if I opened my own restaurant in the old spot? Hah! Who would ever give me a business loan?

I mentioned the idea to a regular who still came to the new location.

“Do it, Dana,” he said. “Don’t be intimidated. If you need anything, you talk to us.”

Days later, I arrived to find Roy and Anne in the restaurant. They pulled me aside. “We’d like to lend you some money to help you start a restaurant,” said Roy. “We’ve prayed about it, and we know this is the right thing to do.”

I’d already saved some money. I refinanced my car and borrowed more. Roy and Anne’s loan gave me enough to open D’s Friendly Diner at Mr. Omelette’s old location.

My first day of business was my forty-eighth birthday. Many old regulars came. I was a wreck, trying to make sure everything went right. I can’t say it did, but no one cared. Everyone was thrilled to be back and so proud of me. I felt proud of me too.

Seven years later, D’s Friendly Diner is still going strong. I have lots of regulars, of course. I also have a staff of cooks and servers who are almost all in recovery. The walls of my restaurant are lined with pictures of customers, employees and people in recovery.

What’s stronger than drugs? God is stronger. How does God show his strength? Through the prayers and support of a loving, faithful community. That’s D’s Friendly Diner.

My restaurant family even supported me through the death of my son. I wish I could say it was happily ever after when my kids came back into my life—they’d been with my ex through my years of drug abuse. My son, my younger child, died of heart disease.

Not so long ago, that would have been a reason to get high. Now it was a reason to stay sober.

Drugs did so much damage in my life and in my family’s life. I can’t undo that. What I can do is trust God and give others the love and support that were so crucial to my own recovery.

People come to the restaurant looking for a job. I can tell they’re like I was, starting their recovery journey. I welcome them into this place of love. The kind of love that lifted a person like me from her very lowest to her highest.

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