At 8 a.m. on a Tuesday, the waitresses at the never-closing, 24-hour Peter Pan Diner are clad in all black and quickly weave between booths and patrons, balancing trays of stacked pancakes, sunny-side-up eggs, and steaming cups of coffee.
With maroon spikes peeking around her face, 61-year-old Debi Benninger effortlessly pours a cup of coffee without looking. Her eyes are fixed on the four white-haired men who have just been seated at her table. Benninger leans in and whispers to them before she nimbly retreats to the kitchen, and the men erupt in laughter. She never took down their order, but their meals emerge from the kitchen within minutes anyway.
When owner Jeronimos Kourkoumelis is asked the secret to running the eatery that was opened by his father in 1978, he points to Benninger. She has been working there since 1994.
In 1994, Benninger had been working as a server at the Riviera Coffee Shop in Fort Lauderdale. But when the shop closed, the redhead walked into Peter Pan Diner asking if they needed any help. The manager politely told her they didn't, and Benninger left unfazed. When she pulled into her driveway, her phone was ringing. It was the diner. She returned for her first shift at 9 the next morning.
Nineteen years later, Benninger has been invited by patrons to graduations, weddings, and funerals. Upon entering, some patrons request to be seated at her table, and like clockwork, Benninger diligently arrives with a pot of hot coffee and -- if they're regulars -- their orders were put in before their car pulled into the lot.
"If you don't have a sense of humor and don't like people, it's not going to work out," Benninger says matter-of-factly in her chalky voice. "But I love what I do, and I love people. They're my extended family."
Benninger was 42 when she began working at the diner, but she has been serving people her whole life. She was born in Indiana and when she was 16 began working at a BBQ. She moved to Fort Lauderdale when she was 20 to help a cousin take care of her baby.
"I tell people I've been working here a third of my life; I was 42 when I started, " Benninger says without flinching. (She has no qualms about revealing her age, and while she's bashful when customers compliment her, no one can deny her beaming radiance.)
Benninger has been awake since 4 a.m. She had to walk to the dog, see her husband of 25 years off to work, and shower. Her shift starts at 6 a.m. For the next eight hours, the high-energy waitress serves guests in waves but rarely confuses orders and names. She also does some prep work in the kitchen and even tends the bar when needed. But, as Benninger said, she's a people person and spends her days serving folks she's come to sincerely care about over the years. And they sincerely care about her too.
"Debi is extremely hard-working, trustworthy, and the customers love her," Kourkoumelis says fondly of Benninger. "She's a wild one. I call her my redheaded firecracker."