© August 29, 2011
It's 5:30 in the morning. Homewood Suites by Hilton is still, the
lobby empty but for a guest on the couch and the front-desk
The kitchen, however, has been overtaken by a whirl of activity.
Rhonda Sheehan is preparing breakfast for the guests.
She slides trays of roasted potatoes, apple-cinnamon scones and
sausage patties into the industrial oven, spoons fruit salad into a
big bowl, and pours juice into pitchers.
"I move like this every day," Sheehan says. "I talk really fast,
too, I'm told."
The three-year-old hotel, off Newtown Road, opens its complimentary
breakfast buffet at 6:30 on weekdays. But by 6:04 Sheehan has
everything ready - the yogurt and bagels, the waffle mix, all of
the hot food, including oatmeal and scrambled eggs topped with
shredded cheese and flecks of chives.
"We have businesspeople," Sheehan says. "They expect that. You
don't want them to go to work hungry."
She spaces chairs just so around a TV. Wipes a smudge off her
shirt. Smoothes it down. Puts on her black apron and name tag.
Sheehan surveys the empty dining room. "A lady in waiting," she
says of herself.
For the local hospitality industry, she is royalty. In May, Sheehan
was named the best continental breakfast attendant in Virginia
Beach, winning a tourism award sponsored by the city's Convention
and Visitors Bureau and Hotel/Motel and Restaurant
"Some people come just to take a paycheck," says her boss, Meredith
Brinkley, the hotel's general manager. "It's not a paycheck to her.
She takes it so personally. She goes home and thinks about things
that work. She just wants to be the best."
In the year and a half she's been at Homewood, she's never been
late, though her shift starts before sunup.
The funny thing is, Sheehan never made eggs in her life before she
became a breakfast attendant.
"Good morning, Brian," Sheehan welcomes one diner.
"That's my friend Rhonda!" he breezes back.
"Are you eating waffles cause it's Wednesday?"
"I'm eating waffles cause I shouldn't be eating eggs every
He lives in Maryland, she says later, and works for a computer
company. He always has waffles in the middle of the week.
Sheehan gets to know the guests and their tastes. And, her boss
says, she goes out of her way to satisfy them.
When one guest wanted mustard - yes, mustard - with her eggs,
Sheehan made sure it was on hand for the rest of her stay. She
couldn't accommodate an Asian guest's request for duck egg soup.
But when a woman last summer asked for a straw and the buffet
didn't have any, Sheehan went to a fast-food place, bought a drink
and got the straw.
"For a hotel, the most important thing is guest loyalty," Brinkley
says. "Being away from the beach, we've got to put ourselves up and
Homewood Suites sits 12 miles from the Oceanfront. Yet its
complexion changes dramatically during the summer. Its guest mix -
70 percent business, 30 percent tourist - gets flip-flopped,
Brinkley says. Nearly all of its 122 rooms are occupied.
That also changes Sheehan's job. She has to prepare for - and clean
up after - a lot more people. So the breakfast crew gets doubled.
Today another employee, Tiffany Freeman, will join her at 7.
The types and quantities of food also get modified. Sheehan
estimates she goes through three to four times more waffle batter
during the summer. Some breakfast standards get featured more
regularly, like scrambled eggs.
They're big with children, Sheehan says, especially when topped
with cheddar cheese.
But not always.
A mother and son approach Sheehan, asking if he can have
cheese-less eggs. She bounds into the kitchen with a plastic plate
and returns with a helping.
"He asked for 'no fromage,' " Sheehan says. "He's from Canada."
At 8:15, most of the 18 tables are empty. The breakfast rush, with
its rollicking parade of families, usually hits between 8:30 and
9:30. But Sheehan is already a blur of motion, darting between the
buffet area and kitchen.
She wipes off spatter from the edge of the chafing dish holding the
scrambled eggs and lifts out the nearly empty potato dish. In the
kitchen, she takes a tray of hot potato wedges from the oven and,
with one sweeping motion, empties it into the dish, which she
replaces at the buffet. She spots a nearly full trash bag, carries
it to the kitchen and vigorously rubs her hands with sanitizer.
"I've been hyperactive my whole life," she says. "It's not going
away. That's why I do this job."
Sheehan, 40, once went to secretarial school. She didn't last. She
couldn't imagine being cooped up in an office all day. For nearly
all her adult life, she's worked at restaurants and hotels.
"I like not doing the same thing every day, and you get to talk to
different people," she says. "I'll talk to anybody."
She chats up a man wearing a Boston Red Sox T-shirt, mentioning her
New England roots (born in Lynn, Mass., and raised in Peabody) and
her happiness to be done with the rough winters.
To another, as he's taking an apple-cinnamon scone, she mentions
that the next batch will be blueberry. Later, he asks for a
blueberry. She gets him one from the kitchen, though the buffet
still has the apple cinnamon.
During another stop in the kitchen, Sheehan takes a swig from a
bottle of Mountain Dew. "This keeps me going," she says. "I don't
She lives in an apartment not far away. To get to work by 5:15, she
gets up at 4:45. "I'm not a glamour girl," she says. "I take a
shower, put my hair up and go to work."
She works six days a week during the summer. They're usually split
shifts. Sheehan stays till about 10:30 a.m., and then works from 4
to 7:30 p.m., preparing and cleaning up after a complimentary
dinner that the hotel offers Mondays through Thursdays.
"I don't mind it at all," she says. "I go home, walk and feed the
dog, and take a nap for an hour."
Dinner, too, has a more kid-friendly feel in the summer. Chicken
cordon bleu disappears from the menu, replaced by chicken tenders
and macaroni and cheese. Unchanged are Sheehan's bubbly personality
and attention to guests' tastes.
Brian Ogden has traveled on and off from outside Nashville to do IT
work in Norfolk since February 2010. Sheehan knows his food
preferences so well that if the dinner option isn't to his liking,
she'll have a PB&J sandwich waiting for him. And she always
supplies Ogden with barbecue sauce for a chicken meal.
"She's just great," he says. "You see some of the same old faces,
and she knows all of them by name."
The breakfast rush arrives and by 8:41, nearly all the tables are
filled, almost all by families.
The door to the kitchen swings back and forth as Sheehan
replenishes supplies. More scones. More potatoes. More plates.
She opens a plastic bag of frozen sausage patties, dumps them onto
a tray and slides it into the oven. "This is sausage bag No. 3
today," she says. Each has 80 patties.
"Run, run, run, run," she says. "I want some roller skates."
Sheehan has lost 31 pounds since she began working at Homewood. The
city's best breakfast bar attendant usually doesn't eat breakfast,
though she's sampled the buffet offerings. "I'd rather eat a big
lunch," she says.
Eggs are her favorite dish to make for the buffet, though she's
relatively new to the process: "I told them the first day I didn't
know how to make them. I never made eggs in my life."
She learned fast. The key: "Watch them."
She's also learned this: If it's cloudy, guests sleep in and come
down later for breakfast. Salt is out of favor. Young female
athletes tend to favor yogurt and bagels: boys, eggs and
"You know the waffle machine is going to get messy. You know kids
are going to spill juice. I don't think anything is a challenge if
you know it's going to happen."
It's 9:33, and cleanup is in full swing. Sheehan wraps or tosses
leftover food and returns dishes and trays to the kitchen, which
she and Freeman, her partner on the shift, will wash by hand.
Among the tasks to come: vacuuming and mopping the floors, and
taking the trash to the Dumpster outside. Even that unappetizing
prospect doesn't crack Sheehan's positive demeanor.
"You have to love your job and be happy every day you're here. And
I'm definitely happy."
As she disassembles the buffet, a boy approaches, asking for apple
juice. Sheehan points out the dispenser, sitting on a cart ready to
be wheeled back to the kitchen. But she doesn't stop there.
Sheehan walks over with him and presses the lever down as he holds
his cup beneath the spout.
Philip Walzer, (757) 222-3864,