You have to be fast and unflappable to be a breakfast cook, said Chris Suh, at least if you’re the one on duty at Brownsville Market. Suh’s the owner of the bustling gas and convenience store that also offers home-style food. The four rotating breakfast cooks grill and serve upwards of 300 breakfast sandwiches a day. And everyone on the dawn shift understands that regulars are not there just for the hot biscuits. They’re looking for the cook who hands them their regular order when they walk in the door, the cashier who notices if they look tired, the lady behind the counter who always calls them “darlin’.”
“We once had a cashier who was rude, but we let him go right away,” said Suh, who works several breakfast shifts every week. Early on, he also replaced a cook who was slow. From the time he bought the business more than ten years ago, he knew the speed of the food delivery (three minutes from grill to checkout) and the friendliness of the staff would build his clientele. He’s figured out that the two goals are not at odds: “If people are stacked up waiting for special orders, I tell the staff to stay calm,” Suh said. “It’s worse for them to snap at the customers than to take an extra minute.”
That’s not to say there weren’t a few tense moments at the start, said Suh, who came here from Northern Virginia. “When I first pulled into the lot and saw all the huge trucks, and men with no shirts and long beards, I was afraid to get out of my car.”
Suh, who is Asian, had heard stories about racism in the rural south. His fear was unfounded, he said: “Everyone here was more than welcoming.” In fact, when a customer recently teased him about his background, another customer called out, pretending to be surprised. “I thought you were a redneck, just like us.”
Suh wanted a place where even strangers feel like family, where everyone on the staff goes out of their way to be welcoming. That includes the occasional odd order or after-hours customer. “We try to give customers exactly what they want,” said Roponzal Irving, Brownsville’s night cook.
The parking log is deserted when Irving pulls in at 1 or 2 a.m., preheats the grill to 350 degrees, and starts cooking the 25 pounds of bacon and 25 pounds of sausage that she’ll slide into the biscuits every morning. Although the other cooks, including Suh, have plenty of scars and tiny burns from spatters, she hasn’t had a mishap in some years. “I’ve been doing it so long I know how to avoid them,” she said.
“She’s my backbone,” Suh said. Irving also cleans the area and starts the first batch of chicken and sides for those who want to grab lunch for later. By 4:30 the case is stacked with hot, wrapped biscuits, and the first cashier arrives; at 4:45 Irving listens for the surgeon who knocks on the door for a biscuit and coffee to carry with him on his long commute to Norfolk.
At 5, the second grill cook arrives, the doors officially open, and a steady stream of farm workers, carpenters, electricians, power line workers, commuters and laborers crowds the space. “They mostly want bacon, egg and cheese or sausage, egg and cheese, so they can grab ones from the case,” Irving said. But there’s always someone who wants a special order, made from scratch on the grill. Sometimes business is so heavy that the case empties of pre-made biscuits and they’re at the grill trying to catch up.
At 6:30 or so, what Suh calls the “white collar crowd” shows up. Different work attire, same favorites—eggs with bacon or sausage in a biscuit.
But tastes differ. There’s the regular customer who always orders runny eggs on burnt toast. “We always take the time, and we always make it right,” Irving said. “If we make a mistake, we fix it, by giving a replacement free and usually an extra one the next day.”
At 8, Irving puts out the first batch of fried chicken. “It’s gone by 8:45,” she said.
Shortly before nine, a much younger crowd arrives, high school students who’ve worn a path from the store to Western. They have a slightly different preference in biscuits, leaning towards chicken, Irving said, but the staff knows this and is ready for them. “They’re great,” Suh said: “We’re always glad to see them.”
Late in the morning, the retirees arrive, looking for a reduced price on the biscuits left in the case. The regular group that drinks coffee at the table in the back leaves the store, and breakfast is over. There will be plenty of activity all through the day, with regulars coming back for hot lunches and dinners, kids stopping by after school, and extra customers when the lottery looks promising, but before noon, Irving’s day is done: “The early shift has always been the best for me,” she said.
Suh’s hospitality has been repaid. He recalls a fight he was trying to break up in the parking lot one time. A regular stood by, making sure neither of the fighters would turn on Suh. “He later told me he had a gun in his pocket, ready to intervene.” And hardly a day goes by that a customer doesn’t start another vat of coffee brewing when the staff is busy.
“People tell me that it’s like “Cheers,” (the popular television show of the ‘80s and ‘90s) said Suh. “A place where everybody knows your name. I like that.”