Making Drivers Feel at Home

Veteran truckstop waitress Tawni Gage has made a lot of friends during 20 years serving truckers.

Tawni Gage, a 20-year veteran truckstop waitress has seen it all, and then some.

Through it all she’s retained a great sense of humor and enjoyment in her work. “I love being a truckstop waitress. The best part of my day is when a trucker says, ‘Thanks Tawni for making me feel at home.'”

Sometimes, a truckstop waitress is the most familiar face a trucker sees on a long haul and the truckstop’s mix of customers, waitresses, cooks and managers becomes, over time, like an extended family and a home away from home for traveling truckers. “We all recognize the loneliness of the job and do our best to offer good food and service to lighten his load,” Gage says.

Gage started her waitressing career in the early 1980s at a Fat Harvey’s, a small diner in Canyonville, Ore. She had to wear a uniform of black slacks, white blouse and red smock, but steaks were cheap and a full breakfast was served 24 hours a day. Gage started out working the graveyard shift, and nights and days ran together as she racked up seniority and learned the ropes. She came to see that her work wasn’t just about putting a platter of food in front of a trucker; it was about making him want to come back.

Gage eventually moved to California where she worked at the Redding Travel Center. It was there that she honed her skills as a waitress, averaging up to 10 tables and 10 counters per day. “I could earn $100 in tips on a good shift, $75 on a regular day,” she says. The work was hard but the camaraderie of the customers and staff made it fun. “It is especially important to get along with the cook. He can prepare the food exactly like the customer wants, or not. Depending on how much he likes the waitress,” she says. Which can mean the difference between a good tip and an average one.

The truckers appreciated her good service and she had a cadre of regulars. She would serve them exactly what they wanted, before they ordered. “Those were the days of real customer service,” Gage says. “A truckstop restaurant was a home-away-from-home for a lot of the guys. We took care of them, asking them about their families, giving them support or a kind word.”

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In return, truckers gave her tips in all kinds of forms from origami figures made out of napkins to gifts at Christmas and birthdays and intricate drawings on placemats. Her fondest memory of a tip is from the early days when a trucker once left her 25 cents. “I know it wasn’t much, but it was all he had,” she says. “It was from the heart. I really appreciated it.”

Her rapport with truckers helped her earn good tips and rave reviews from her bosses. But she says it takes a certain kind of woman to make a successful truckstop waitress. “You can’t take things truckers say too personally, or too seriously,” Gage says. “Sure, there’s a lot of flirting going on, but most of it is harmless. I’ve seen too many girls let it go to their heads and take off with a passing truck driver.”

Common sense and good intuition helped her deal with all kinds of customers over the years but one night she was unprepared, and her worst nightmare was waiting at a table for her. It was Feb. 13, 1997, and Gage says she had an eerie feeling that something was not right with a couple sitting at a booth in her station. The trucker seemed jittery and the woman he was with wasn’t eating or talking, just moving food around on her plate.

Gage pleasantly asked her if the meat was cooked to her liking when suddenly, the woman picked up her steak knife and lunged at her, stabbing her in the abdomen. Gage staggered back to the kitchen, not sure what had happened. The woman grabbed the trucker’s steak knife and went outside to the parking lot, armed with both knives.

Gage was rushed to Mercy Medical Center in Redding while police arrested a 34-year-old Ogden, Utah, woman outside the truckstop a few minutes after the incident. Gage’s attacker was a mental patient who had walked away from her mental health facility and hitched a ride with the trucker.

Truckers, patrons, and even country singer Merle Haggard, sent flowers, get well cards and gifts while she recovered from the attack. “I used to wait on Mr. Haggard when he’d come through town. It was really nice of him to think of me.”

Gage recovered from her wounds but the memory of the random act of violence says with her. “I put a lot of stock in my intuition now. If someone doesn’t seem right, they probably aren’t.”

Her next waitressing gig was at the Las Vegas Travel Center in Nevada where she worked as a waitress for seven years. Eventually, the restaurant closed and was replaced with several fast-food chains within the Travel Center.

Gage now manages the Center’s food court, but she still has fond memories of her waitressing days.

As a diner herself, Gage is always careful to tip and gives the standard 15 percent unless the service is exceptional. Tips stands for, To Insure Prompt Service, and that’s what she always provided. A few times over the years she’s been stiffed. But one poetically just occasion stands out.

“A group of guys in a pickup truck ordered a big meal and then walked out, deliberately not leaving a tip,” Gage says. “A while later they came slinking back in to face the angry truckstop staff. Their truck had a flat and they needed our help.”

She also recalls a pitiful case of a wife or girlfriend snatching the tip from the table and pocketing it behind her husband’s back. “I figured she’d must have needed it more than I did,” Gage says philosophically.

These days Gage stays busy with her work at the TA and enjoys life with her husband, three grown children and four grandchildren. She has seen a lot of changes in the trucking industry over the years but feels like truckers basically remain the same. “They are lonely guys looking for a little conversation to pass the time,” Gage says.