Feeling at Home at Johnny Rockets

Getting stranded in a snowstorm worked out for the best for one Alabama woman.

- Posted on Jan 7, 2015

Laura at the Johnny Rockets where she manned the grill the night of the storm.

I stumbled through the snow with the wind and the ice nearly blinding me. I could barely make out the neon sign ahead: Johnny Rockets. The retro hamburger joint. It was my only refuge. I pulled open the door. The lone employee and two customers at the counter turned to stare. I ran a hand through my hair, suddenly self-conscious. I must’ve been a sight.

“Y’all mind if I wait out the storm here?” I asked.

“C’mon in,” the man behind the counter said. “I’m Jeff. I was supposed to close up early and go home, but never made it past the parking lot.” I took a seat at the counter and looked glumly out the window—the snow was coming down harder than ever. The weather report had predicted just a light dusting for Birmingham. The two inches we actually got were an avalanche by Alabama standards. Birmingham was at a standstill.

I’d left work at noon only to spend an hour stranded on ice-covered Summit Boulevard with hundreds of other drivers, getting colder and more frantic by the minute. When I spotted a sign for Johnny Rockets at a shopping center nearby, I abandoned my car and made a run for it.

Now here I was, stuck at a hamburger joint in the middle of an Alabama blizzard.

Stuck. That’s how I’d felt ever since I moved to Birmingham, three months earlier, right after my graduation from the University of Alabama. At the time it’d all been so exciting. I’d been offered the opportunity of a lifetime managing the women’s apparel section at a major department store. My dream job.

I’d worked my way through college, managing clothing boutiques and hostessing at restaurants near campus. I loved interacting with customers, loved running the show.

Guess I really was my mama’s daughter when it came down to it. I was only nine years old when my father passed away from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Afterward, Mama took on three jobs just to keep our family afloat. No one took charge of a situation quite like her.

I pitched in too, cooking dinner most nights and helping my brother with his homework. When I got the job in Birmingham, Mama had been so excited. “Go after your dreams, baby,” she said. “God will take you far.” But I felt lost in Birmingham, completely out of my element.

For one thing, I was the youngest person at my job by a good 10 years. No one took me seriously. Every Monday, I was supposed to give our sales associates a pep talk to get them pumped for the week ahead. So far, I hadn’t succeeded in boosting anyone’s confidence, least of all my own. I kept second-guessing my decisions.

Sure, I’d excelled in college, but I was in the big leagues now. One mistake and our sales numbers would take a hit. There was too much at stake.

God had always guided me, but where was he now that I was truly on my own for the first time? Gone too was the supportive college community I’d grown accustomed to and the loving family just a 10-minute drive away. My boyfriend lived in Birmingham but traveled almost every weekend for work.

Most nights, I just plopped down on the couch alone, exhausted from another 10-hour day, and caught up with friends on Facebook. They were traveling the world, moving up the ranks at work. Me? I was snowbound in Johnny Rockets.

“Wonder where my family is,” one of the customers at the counter said. “The phones are down…can’t find anyone.”

“I’m sure they’re okay,” Jeff said. “Riding it out like the rest of us. Tell you what. How ’bout I fix you three something to eat? Reckon we’re gonna be here awhile.”

My stomach growled in agreement, but I felt bad making Jeff cook for us.

“Can I help?” I asked out of politeness. I’d waited tables before, but I was no short-order cook. I’d watched those guys work. It was a real skill. I often wondered how they managed everything during a big rush.

I followed Jeff to the kitchen, pulled on a hairnet and paid close attention. He showed me how to work the grill and the fryer, talking slowly, as if he were explaining astrophysics to a second grader.

I took out two patties of meat and followed his instructions. Or thought I did. They ended up looking like hockey pucks. My second attempt was better. Plus we were so hungry, I doubted anyone would notice. Sure enough, there were no complaints— we wolfed down those burgers in five minutes flat. Maybe it was my imagination, but no burger had ever tasted quite so good.

Just as I was clearing the plates, the door flew open. An older couple and three teenagers stumbled inside, soaking wet. I glanced at Jeff—I could tell what he was thinking.

“My boss told me to shut down,” he said. “But there’s no way he’d want me to turn these folks away, and there will probably be more.”

Jeff and I headed back into the kitchen. More customers? Talk about leaving your comfort zone! Jeff formulated a plan. We’d stick to the basics— burgers, chicken clubs and fries—and feed anyone who came in. I put my hairnet back on and got to work grilling the burgers, getting better with each one. When I snuck back into the restaurant to deliver the food, the place was packed—every booth full, every stool taken, the jukebox blasting out oldies.

“What if we run out?” I whispered to Jeff. We’d already gone through three huge trays of ground beef.

“Not a chance,” he said. “As long as we got power, we’ll keep on grilling. I have a freezer full of food.”

I prayed he was right. The restaurant was busier than the women’s shoe department the day after Thanksgiving. But everyone was so appreciative, especially when I explained that I wasn’t a “real” cook or waitress.

“I’m just so thrilled to have a place to rest my feet,” one woman said, leaning back in her chair. She was eight months pregnant and had been stranded up the road. Her husband was on his way to pick her up, but there was no telling when he’d get there. “Thank y’all for doing this.”

“Happy to help!” I said.

And I meant it. I was having more fun than I’d had since moving to Birmingham. All around me, strangers were sharing their stories, laughing and telling jokes. Whenever new customers filtered in, everyone shifted in their seats to make room. I refilled coffee cups and supplied endless trays of cheese fries, stopping to chat here and there. I met the manager of a local boutique and we entertained the crowd with our retail horror stories.

Jeff and I flipped burgers until 10:30 that night. The roads were still bad and my car was still on Summit Boulevard. But one customer had managed to get a call through to her son, who owned a truck with snow tires. They offered me a ride home.

I took off my hairnet and apron, then hugged Jeff goodbye.

“You did great,” he said. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”

Really? Despite my aching feet I felt myself straighten with pride. I’d stumbled into Johnny Rockets feeling like the most downtrodden person in the world, feeling like a blizzard in Alabama was the last straw. In fact, though, it was just what I needed. God gave me a challenge and I rose to it. Birmingham was feeling a bit more like home, snowstorm and all.

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