When we think of dining out, we picture servers and bartenders, maybe a smiling hostess. If someone were to ask us about the people responsible for creating our meal, we'd probably think of a chef. But in every restaurant, big or small, there is a bustling and hard working back of house staff that toils away at dozens of tasks we never thought of. Their unseen and unappreciated hard work keeps the restaurant going. Without them, our meals would never arrive.
Standing at 4'11" with an apron tied tight around her waist, Marie Estime isn't as recognizable as the Green Owl's servers that flit around the front taking orders with a smile. Instead Estime, with a shy manner and quiet laugh, stays unseen in the kitchen washing dishes.
Embarking on her 25th year at the Delray diner, Estime is a kind of matriarch. She has worked there longer than anyone else. Despite oftentimes going unseen, her labors are integral in the diner's day-to-day function.
Perched on the bustling Atlantic Avenue, the Green Owl opened in 1981 and has remained a constant as the city of Delray Beach transformed around it. From the menu prices to the wood paneling, not much has changed at the diner, including Estime.
Hired by previous owner Carol Gensman in 1988, no one really knows how old she is and she isn't telling. According to Mike Gensman, the son of the previous owner and brother of the current owner, Estime looks exactly the same from when he met her in high school. He would guess somewhere between 65 and 70 but would never dare to ask.
Working 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, not a single member of the Green Owl staff can think of a time when Estime has ever been late or called in sick. "Me, never, never," Estime says shaking her head laughing at her punctuality.
When Estime first started she was just washing dishes but now she preps and buses every tables. If you have ever enjoyed the Green Owl's homemade meatloaf, Estime is the one you should thank. She prepares it every Wednesday.
"She has her place back there," Gensman explains. "She is happy and hardworking."
Originally from Haiti, Estime speaks Creole. She communicates with the staff through comical eye rolling and exaggerated hand motions. The language barrier doesn't interfere with her work or in her relationship with others working there.
"Everyone calls her mommy," Gensman says, shaking his head fondly. "Everyone loves her and she loves everyone."
The wishbone contest every Monday -- where Estime competes with Gensman's brothers John or David for the lucky bone break and bragging rights -- has become a cherished pastime at the diner. A weekly ritual for the last 20 years, Estime is competitive and doesn't like to lose.
During Estime's summer vacation, she visits her family in Canada for a few weeks. The weekend dishwasher, Fafa, must cover for her along with others in the staff and it's then that Estime's vital role to the working of the diner becomes clear.
"She's worked here the longest than anyone besides family," Gensman says. "And you don't really realize how much she does until she's gone."
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