Mississippi cook has been serving restaurant patrons since Reagan was in office

Published 6:52 am Sunday, June 30, 2019

Clara Hicks still remembers the day she learned of a job opening for line cook at Harveys Restaurant in downtown Columbus.

“I just went to the unemployment office and they told me, and I went down to talk to John Bean,” she recounted. Nothing unique in it — except that it was 33 years ago, and Hicks is still at Harveys. The restaurant had only been open about a year when she joined the staff in 1986. Co-workers and management helped her celebrate the anniversary June 6. In an industry accustomed to turnover, Hicks is a valued mainstay.

“She’s kind of like our MVP,” said Harveys Columbus Executive Chef Jonathan Boyd. “Everything kind of goes through her. I could go on and on about how many items she preps. Her hands touch more product in this building than anyone else.”

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Some of those signature menu favorites include the restaurant’s bread pudding, five varieties of quiche and its famous creamy chicken noodle soup.

Born and raised in Columbus, Hicks — one of 11 children — first learned her way around a kitchen by watching her mom, “a great cook.” It was perhaps no surprise that she and her five sisters all went into food service at well-known Columbus restaurants.

“They are all great cooks,” said Hicks, noting that the combined talents really set the standard high at family dinners and holiday gatherings.

She takes pride in her longevity and her role at the restaurant. That includes helping new kitchen staff acclimate.

“I play a major role in leading when all the new people come in; I have to show them the ropes,” she said. “They ask me a lot of questions.”

Ashley Wilson is human resource director of the Eat With Us Group, which encompasses Harveys, The Grill, Sweet Peppers Deli and Bulldog Burger restaurants in Mississippi and Alabama (plus Smackers Frozen Yogurt in Columbus).

“But before that, I started out as a server (at Harveys) in 2011,” she explained. She worked with Hicks. “Miss Clara is one of the sweetest people you will ever meet. You can ask her a question 15 times and she’s going to give the same sweet answer.”

For more than three decades, Hicks has adapted to changes in the food service industry. A primary one, she said, is the way staff is set up and the way the food and kitchen are organized now. She chuckled about the paper-food tickets-on-a-spinning-wheel of years gone by.

“Now we’re computerized,” she said.

For the restaurant, Hicks is a knowledgeable resource.

Harveys General Manager Pat Donahue said, “She’s been a phenomenal part of our success. She’s the kind of person you just love to have on your staff because she cares so much about it.”

“For a chef, it’s like a once in a lifetime thing to have an employee that’s been with (the establishment) so long,” said Boyd. “She can tell you almost anything. She’s my Harveys dictionary. And she doesn’t just prep, she takes ownership of what she does. You cannot teach that. I think that’s why Miss Clara is so important here — you can’t teach someone to have that level of responsibility and skill.”

Hicks was just 24 years old when she joined the Harveys family. She looks forward to many more years.

She remarked, “I like what I’m doing, and I’m working with some good people.”

If there’s a secret to her career longevity, Hicks said it’s “to just stay motivated and be the best that you can be at what you’re doing. Just be good at it — and come in with a positive attitude.”