By Jeff Keeling
Kat, Jameson and Samuel Cline light up as the cheerful, grandmotherly “Ms. Carolyn” approaches the Chick-fil-A booth where they’re enjoying lunch. Bar towel in hand, she shifts out of spick-and-span mode, leans over and catches up on how they’re doing before giving the siblings some love.
Pickens, who has worked at the restaurant on Peoples Street for seven years and will turn 75 this year, is a weekday fixture. Her duties are an amalgam of cleaning, bussing tables, playing hostess and – perhaps most importantly – cementing herself as an integral part of the Chick-fil-A experience for dozens, if not hundreds, of locals.
“We’ve known Carolyn for awhile,” Gretchen Cline, Kat, Jameson and Samuel’s mom, says. “We love her. She’s always assisting us – we’re gluten free, and she always sneaks us ice cream.”
Cline says she and her kids don’t soak up all of Pickens’ warmth when they’re at the restaurant.
“She’s the same for everybody – everybody’s grandma. And when she’s not here, we look for her, because our Chick-fil-A experience is not the same without Carolyn.”
At this point in her life it comes naturally to the mother of three, grandmother of six and great-grandmother of two, who spent 23 years working at Minco, a local manufacturing firm. On a typical busy lunch hour she’s clearly in her element, both as diligent master of cleanliness and as purveyor of what owner Tim Burchfield calls the place’s “secret sauce.”
Burchfield says Pickens epitomizes the approach he strives to instill in his team, which involves treating guests, “like they were coming to your house for dinner,” he says.
The basic elements, beyond good food, include tidying up where guests will be, making sure restrooms are spotless, and then enjoying one another’s company, Burchfield says. That includes treating others, from patrons to coworkers, with, “honor, dignity and respect,” he adds. Pickens interacts with people at a level that causes many customers to associate her with those principles.
“I’m convinced people come to the restaurant because, ‘that’s where Ms. Carolyn works, and we want to go because we like her and the way she treats us.’ Not only might they drive by another Chick-fil-A restaurant, they’d probably drive by 10 other restaurants to come there.
“When you talk about the secret sauce. It’s that combination, done with genuine heart, that people recognize – because what she’s doing’s not fake.”
For her part, Pickens says she appreciates the restaurant chain’s worldview (avowedly Christian) and the freedom she says that creates for employees to follow as the spirit may lead. “It’s a place of prayer,” she says. “You don’t have to worry about praising the Lord, and if the people come in here and they’re sick, I can pray with them.”
Asked if she’s grown close with the youngsters who comprise the bulk of the staff, she says, “oh yes, honey” – but also points to her friendship with co-worker Nola Sams, 10 years her senior. Just like the group gathered around her in support when her stepson took his life, she says, that support extends even to customers.
She recalls James and Darlene, regular customers who became special to the group. James, who was wheelchair bound, “passed away recently. We went to the funeral and everything, and Chick-fil-A took food out there, took care of them.” Darlene still comes to the restaurant.
Asked if it stays pretty busy most all the time, ‘Ms. Carolyn’ smiles and says: “This place is blessed.”