Tony Johnson will perk you up faster than a cup of coffee (but he'll also get right on that coffee).

One cannot judge a great dining experience solely on the taste of the food. It's also the people who work at the establishments who have the power to make a place memorable—not just the entrees. Take Tony Johnson at the LePeep Restaurant on Westheimer. This location is one of the breakfast and lunch chain's busiest, pulling clientele from nearby hotels as well as the Galleria. And while LePeep may not be considered haute cuisine by some standards, its speedy service and warm atmosphere (as well as, notably, its excellent pecan coffee and grilled potatoes) bring in consistent customers.

But even the handy carafes filled with water and lemon slices perching on each table for diners' easy access aren't necessarily the main attraction here. Because while LePeep has a nest of exceptional servers, there’s one in particular who's proof that good food and handy water carafes aren't the only reason folks will wait in line for brunch here. Johnson was the first server I ever had at LePeep, and I remember being caught off-guard by his easy-going attitude and genuine smile. My roommate and I joked at the time that Johnson was like a unicorn of servers, the best we'd ever had, and we've been coming back for both Johnson's service and that pecan coffee ever since.

Johnson, who has been a server at LePeep for 14 years, is a tall, slender man, his pepper hair lightly sprinkled with salt, and it's his mission to make the appeal of dining out much better than eating at home. He greets ravenous guests with a warm smile from behind large, black-rimmed glasses. He approaches guests with a simple introduction that is neither over-zealous nor insincere, gently suggesting that pecan coffee or some fresh-squeezed orange juice.

He likes to laugh and keep things light with his tables, and offers a running joke about patrons asking whether or not LePeep offers mimosas. “I always tease people that no, unfortunately we don’t have mimosas,” he leans in like he’s telling a secret and jokes, “but if you bring your own champagne, I won’t say anything—especially if you share.”

I can’t bring myself to just take care of my favorite customers. Regardless of whether you’re the best tipper, you deserve to get the best value for your money.

During his many years at the same location, Johnson has seen guests' kids grow up, go to college and come back to dine in his section. It is his menu knowledge, patience, sincerity, kindness and spark that resonate with guests, making him a favorite to many, though Johnson says he doesn’t think of himself as a particularly charismatic person. “I care that the customers get what they paid for,” he says. “I can’t bring myself to just take care of my favorite customers. Regardless of whether you’re the best tipper, you deserve to get the best value for your money.”

That's only one of Johnson's secrets to success, however. While any server needs to make money, Johnson says that any good server's focus should be on, well, serving guests instead of getting them out the door as quickly as possible. It also helps, he notes, to know the menu frontward and backward; a little upselling of his favorite items—say, the french toast—doesn't hurt either. “I try to be a good salesman, to make the customers aware of everything we have available, without being pushy like I’m a used car salesman,” he says.

Customer service has been a life-long priority for Johnson, who worked in the service industry for many years before joining LePeep, as well as the manufacturing department at Compaq before the computer company was absorbed by HP in 2002. At one time, he held down three jobs simultaneously, working part-time at the Red and White Wine Bistro in the Toyota Center, as a server at The Burning Pear in the Sugar Land Marriott Hotel and here, at LePeep. For now, Johnson only works at LePeep, but he admits he's looking for an evening job, ever industrious. He laughs, shaking his head, saying he’s “not a spring chicken anymore,” so he probably could only handle two jobs—not three—right now.

He credits his work ethic to his father, an ex-military man and car salesman. Johnson says he worked in the family business as a car salesman for a while, but it wasn’t for him. “To me [being a car salesman] is kind of cutthroat,” he says, cringing. “You gotta push everything on them you can.” From his upbringing and past experience, it seems that Johnson found a nice balance in serving, as it still requires salesmanship. But he does expect his customers to be taken care of in a certain way, prompting him to say he’s a self-described “drill sergeant.”

During peak hours at LePeep, there can be a good wait time; however, table turnover is fairly quick, so a mistake can throw off the restaurant’s rhythm—and that's when being a well-trained, drill sergeant-type comes in handy. As does caffeine. “It’s not always easy, I drink a lot of coffee,” he admits with a chuckle. “I just try to focus on what I believe in, which is that customers deserve to have a good attitude and not have somebody who comes in acting like they don’t want to be there, don’t want to do their job, don’t like their job or don’t want to take care of you.”

But sometimes, the guests are the ones having an unpleasant day. They may sit down already displeased and unhappy. For these guests, Johnson says it’s best to “not take it personally” because everyone is dealing with their own issues and “bad things happen to good people sometimes.”

“People do come in and they’re on a short time frame. A lot of people get cranky when they haven’t had their caffeine or they haven’t eaten all day—I’ve seen it so many times. It’s like,” he makes a growling noise, “in the beginning. But once you get the guests squared away, they’re completely different people.”

Tony says he understands. He's dealing with some thyroid issues himself, which he says can slow him down sometimes. Everyone—including him—has rough days. But the most important piece of advice he'd give servers—old and new—is simply this: have a little faith in the people you're taking care of. “Don’t focus so much on the money," he says. I never put gratuity on my tables…and 99 percent of the time, I’m not disappointed. The customers are always more than generous.”


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