RALEIGH — During last Tuesday’s lunch rush at Pharaoh’s Grill in North Hills, Debbie Robbins was a whirl of motion, ringing up orders, scooping crushed ice into tall, white cups and chatting with a steady steam of customers.
“How are you?”
“Where have you been? So good to see you.”
“Tell your wife I say hello.”
Robbins has a kind word for everyone and a memory for faces that means she’s greets hundreds by their first name.
Owen, Ed, Stephanie, Laura, Bill, Tara. The list went on and on over hours.
For nearly seven years, Robbins has been a fixture behind the counter. But she’s leaving at the end of this week for a new, less physically taxing job.
“That’s going to be a hard day for me. I’m going to have tears all day,” she said with her eyes already shining.
It’s Robbins’ warm, friendly presence, as much as the famous chicken salad or the fresh-squeezed orangeade, that regulars mention when they talk about what keeps them coming to the restaurant.
They like that she knows their names and their orders, but most of all they like the way she makes them feel comfortable, like this is their place, too, all of them together.
“It’s more than just the bricks and mortar,” said David Stover, a regular at Pharaoh’s. “It’s the people.”
Robbins is quick to give credit to the entire team at Pharaoh’s, especially co-owners George McNeill and Richard Brown, and they return her praise.
“There are people in your life who are stars,” McNeill said. “And Debbie is a rock star.”
When she started at the restaurant, though, Robbins hardly could make eye contact with the customers who came to the counter, she said. Robbins, a breast cancer survivor, was at a low point in her life after undergoing several surgeries for her cancer.
But with each hello from her customers, she felt she gained back some strength.
“They helped heal me, and they didn’t even know it,” she said.
In the early years, Robbins would take notes to remember customers’ names. So-and-so wore glasses or looked like Superman, she would write.
Today, she knows those people well. They know her children, a teenage son and daughter, and they bring her Christmas gifts. They and Robbins talk on the phone and visit one another.
Jeanelle Lovett is one of Robbins’ regulars who said she’ll miss seeing her when she walks in the door and catching up on each other’s lives.
“She’s my friend, not just my friend at Pharaoh’s,” Lovett said.
Even last week, with just days left to go at the restaurant, Robbins was busy asking people for their names and learning a little bit about them, with the hope of putting a smile on their faces.
That’s the whole point, Robbins said: to help one another through life, one small moment at a time.