Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 11, 2014
SALISBURY — Vickie Carter amazed customers.
She was like a human calculator. No matter what combination of hot dogs, cheese dogs, hamburgers, cheeseburgers, chips and drinks you threw at her, Carter knew your total bill immediately.
“She can calculate faster than I can pull out my money,” Sarah Giles said of Carter.
Giles and her husband, Chad, have been coming to Hap’s Grill on North Main Street since they were kids. They couldn’t believe Friday was Carter’s last day after almost 21 years of seeing her behind the counter, taking orders.
“I feel like I’m getting a divorce,” said Greg Culp, owner of Hap’s Grill. “I’m real happy for her though.”
In the narrow, shotgun building that is Hap’s, Carter performed a daily ballet of movements with Culp up front and Jamie Gobbel in the back.
“When Greg goes this way, I know to go that way,” Carter explained. “It’s kind of like a dance.”
Carter pulled her hair back and kept it sprayed. Only her bangs fell forward.
Her uniform was simply comfortable clothing, but she also relied on compression-type wrist bands to deal with all the repetitive movements she made at the counter — from making change, to twisting off bottle caps with her towel, to bagging up orders or sliding hot dogs and hamburgers onto wax paper.
On the advice of Culp, she began wearing Crocs on her feet several years ago, and she had about 20 pairs she rotated in and out.
The only way Carter would agree to have the newspaper mention her retirement was a promise to wait until the day after she retired.
She grudgingly accepted the publicity, too, when she realized many of her customer friends would wonder where she was next week.
Carter reported to work about 8 a.m. and worked until 3:30 p.m. She made the chili every day and manned the counter without a break from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Carter loved the work and the sheer speed of it all, because she naturally talks fast and moves even quicker. She fell in love with the consistency behind Hap’s, which never changed since she first worked for Hap Alexander in 1992.
“People know they are going to get good, hot food here and good service,” Carter said.
She also took pride in getting orders right, and it’s why she always repeated each order to Culp, even though he was working right over her left shoulder.
“Greg is so fast in what he does,” Carter said, “it makes my job look easy.”
Carter got to know exactly what the regulars wanted.
“What’s it going to be today?” she asked Adam Hull as he reached the counter Thursday. “One or two?”
“One,” Hull answered.
Carter knew “one” for Hull is always four cheesedogs with chili and ketchup. “Two” is two cheesedogs with chili and ketchup, and a cheeseburger.
Patti and Wayne Allman ordered two cheeseburgers, two Cheerwines and a bag of chips.
“$9.75,” Carter reported back immediately.
“How much?” Wayne asked his wife while still fishing out the money. By this time, Carter already had retrieved their bottled drinks.
“She’s just so fast,” Patti Allman marveled later while eating the lunch.
Sarah and Chad Giles make their trip to Hap’s about once a week, and they each order a cheesedog. Carter knew Thursday they would also want those cheese dogs with Hap’s homemade hot sauce.
Chad Giles said Carter always had a smile and seemed to be in a good mood.
“Guys will come in surly,” Giles said, “and she will smile at them anyway.”
Of course, most people knew Carter by her greeting and her fast figuring.
“What would you like today?” she would likely ask, or when things were more hectic, she might rely on a quick, “What for you?”
And over the course of an order, there were other questions: “Want it in a bag, or do you just want me to hand it to you?” or, “Is this all on the same ticket?”
Vickie Carter actually had more years of restaurant experience than Culp, who she often described as “a great boss man.”
Back in 1979, Vickie and her husband, Wayne, operated Wayne’s Barbecue in Granite Quarry. They also would have two eateries in Rockwell and, for a short time in 1998-99, Vickie helped her son with a Kannapolis restaurant.
Over two decades, it was her only break from Hap’s, besides recovering from back surgery in 2008.
Carter had been working at Jeter’s Deli when Hap Alexander gave her the job behind the counter in 1992. She served as a mentor of sorts for Culp who bought the grill in 1995 when he was only 22.
Culp said he was young, dumb and stupid, and Carter “pretty much watched me grow up.”
“She has been the backbone,” he added.
Carter is a robust 57 years old. She’s retiring to have more time with her new and probably last grandbaby, Corbin, who was born in November.
“I’ve got plenty of stuff to keep me going,” Carter added, mentioning Zumba classes, swimming and weight-training.
She and Wayne live in Granite Quarry and have been married 37 years. They have eight grandchildren.
Wayne Carter said he doesn’t know how they’ll cope with all the extra time together. He retired from Freightliner in 2009.
“I tried to sell her to him,” Wayne said, motioning toward Culp, “but he wouldn’t buy her.”
Don’t be fooled. Wayne and Vickie are pretty much soul mates.
“He spoils me rotten,” Vickie said. “He’s the best husband in the world.”
Vickie said she won’t miss having to keep a separate work wardrobe at home because of how the grill smells permeated her clothing.
Crystal Kirkland will continue to man the Hap’s counter on Saturdays, and Culp is keeping Carter’s Monday-Friday replacement under wraps for now.
Carter said she will fill in whenever Culp needs her, so you’re likely to see her again some day.
Over all the years Carter and Culp worked together, “We’ve never had an argument,” Carter said proudly.
Culp has a retirement plan for his cherished friend and longtime employee: All the hot dogs she can eat for life.
The human calculator already is busy, trying to figure out the price.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or firstname.lastname@example.org.