When Millie Burnine breezes through the door at the St. Louis Bread Company store at Highway 55 and Loughborough each morning, she calls out a mighty, "Good mornin' everybody."
"That's the first thing I do, every day," she says. "Then I put stuff in my locker, grab my apron, put my towels on a tray, and go to work." She holds the title of "dining room hostess," coined by her first Bread Co. boss.
Burnine, 80, used old-fashioned networking to land her first gig at the newly-opened Ballas store. Her nephew, then a baker at the store, encouraged her to apply when she asked if there might be a place for her. Since then, she's followed her managers to open three more stores: Sunset Hills, Grasso Plaza and Loughborough.
"My job is to keep the coffee coming, keep the dining room clean and the tables cleared," she says. She makes the coffee, hefts the heavy urns from the back to the serving islands, bends to pick up bits of paper from the floor and whirls around the dining room, hands flying, five days a week.
"I don't call this heavy work," she says.
She's a people person who learns the faces first, then the names of her regulars. During her rounds, she'll take time to ask after their families, offer a newspaper or share a story. She's diligent about trying new things on the menu.
She credits her work ethic and her upbeat attitude for her success. "I tell my younger associates there is no reason at all to be bored. ‘Look around, see what needs doing. If you want your hours, earn them,' I say."
Burnine's been working since she was 14 when she cooked, waitressed and pumped gas at a truck stop near Union, Mo.
"The farmers came in with short-bed cattle trucks," she says. "I learned shift patterns moving those trucks, following a diagram on the visor." Burnine parlayed the experience to drive livestock professionally. Soon, she graduated to 18-wheelers, hauling everything from charcoal briquettes to sugar through all 50 states when few women drivers took to the road.
"When I started in the 1950s, the driver loaded and unloaded the trucks," she says. "And that sugar-you talk about a sticky mess. We cleaned our trucks, too, inside and out. Now that's heavy work."
Burnine, who has always had a strong work ethic, says she has "no regrets about working longer because I enjoy everything I do."
And, after a recent interview, she got right back down to business.
"And now, I've got to check my coffee," she said as she put on her apron, started moving through the dining room and greeting customers. "Mornin' Bill. Good mornin' Laura."