Shirley Copeland is a woman with many families: her children and grandchildren; her church family; and her co-workers and customers at the Northside White Castle where she's worked for 41 years.
Her assistant manager, Missy Nerlinger, calls her "mama," and while sitting across the booth from her it's easy to see why. Shirley's soft-spoken, modest manner draws people in. While her day-to-day job is working the egg grill and fryer, you can tell that Shirley's true life work is caring for people.
"Morning, how are you?" she says to a customer standing behind me.
"Praising the lord to be here speaking to you," says the dapper-looking older gentleman.
"And you know what, that means a lot. It just brightens your day don't it?" she responds.
He's one of their many regulars, and like any good restaurant crew, Shirley and Missy know what their regulars want and take care of them fast.
"We've got one guy -- he likes his eggs fried on his sandwich," Missy says.
"He pulls in and we say, 'Five fried!' Some of them like an egg on White Castles."
"We have one customer -- he wants jalapeño cheese with onions and egg," Shirley says. "We just fix 'em up. Yeah, we spoil them a little bit -- like we do the children."
And while Shirley, a single mother, admits to spoiling her White Castle family, she has pragmatic advice for her own children and grandchildren: "Work hard and learn how to save and do a job when you're working. And when you spend, spend wisely."
It's advice Shirley followed so well that she's been able to travel the world on a fast-food salary, visiting five continents over the years.
"I met a friend that came into White Castle," she says. "I became his traveling partner. It's something I never dreamed I'd get to do. I never traveled much before that, except to Alabama to see family. It put a little more joy and excitement into my life."
The non-initiated might joke about White Castle and late-night, drunken college adventures with "slyders," as their burgers are sometimes called. (Shirley has heard all of them and giggles as she recounts some of the more colorful monikers like "belly bouncers" and "rectum rockets.") But for her, White Castle is a career, and a good one at that.
"A lot of people are amazed -- they can't believe the benefits White Castle has," she says. "You stay long enough you see the results. Benefits like profit sharing, a trust fund, a pension, life and health insurance and a service bonus."
Missy explains that employees get credits for every year they work, "So she gets like 5,000 credits! That's when I really call her mama!"
Along with her many years of service credits, Shirley has gained a reputation for making the best breakfast sandwich in the world.
"Even people from the office come here and eat her breakfast," Missy says. "Something about the way she does the egg -- nobody else can get it right."
Shirley jokes that it must be because she's left-handed.
Shirley received another honor this year when she was asked to be Grand Marshal in this year's Fourth of July Parade in Northside. When asked why she thinks she received the honor, she says, "Because I was really nice to the customers."
Shirley reminds me of a different time and place. She really does believe that service and caring matter in a job. "Speed of service is important and good and hot food," she says firmly. "H and H -- hot food and hospitality."
She says that in her role as Top Team Member she's one of the people co-workers always look up to.
"I make sure the orders are out and the customers are really taken care of," she says.
But Shirley goes way beyond the call of duty when it comes to caring for her customers. It's more than just giving them an egg on a burger if they want it. You can see that in the way she interacts with the regulars.
Her favorite is George.
"That troublemaker," Shirley says, chuckling. "Even when it's the holidays and the store's closed -- that's the first car you see in the parking lot. ... He likes to mess with me. I think he just likes to get me going."
"He won't know what to do when she does leave," Missy says.
Is Shirley ready to call it day after 41 years?
"I'll find something to do -- not sit at home that's for sure. I'm used to working, you know, I don't feel like sitting at home, and I can also come back here part-time if I like."
"I don't think that would last, though," Missy says. "She'd end up being full-time again!" ©