Waitress keeping order for 30 years

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Vicki Richards delivers food to a table Friday during her lunch shift at Sargents Restaurant and Lounge in Hayden.

Vicki Richards cannot stand a sloppy salad bar.

No exceptions - the bar must be neat and clean, piled high with fresh vegetables, ready for the next customer.

Ditto the floor. Richards cannot stand a dirty floor. She mops, she sweeps, she scrubs. If the floor is not spotless, it's not acceptable.

"She's very, very meticulous. Very exact," said Terry Eastman, co-owner of Sargents Restaurant in Hayden. "She's always half an hour early, too. She's just a great joy to work with. It's her place more than mine."

Richards, a spritely 64-year-old who's been waitressing at Sargents since 1982, is always on her feet. Five days a week, she works four hours in the morning and five hours at night.

Between shifts, instead of relaxing for an hour or two, she takes her dog out for a run - "He gets a little chubby during the winter," she said - or tackles a project around the house.

Her coworkers agree: Vicki is tireless, and she never slows down.

"She's loved by everyone. She's incredible," said waitress Maddie Cameron. "She's constantly moving. She's amazing."

To celebrate Richards' 30th anniversary as a Sargents employee, a group of friends gathered at the Coeur d'Alene Inn a few weeks ago. The conversation was cheery, the laughter constant.

True to form, the loquacious waitress entertained partygoers throughout the evening.

"We just told stories. Some of 'em were pretty good ... back in my younger days," Richards said. "It was wonderful. I have a real hard time thinking that I'm 64 years old, 'cause I don't feel it."

Known for its prime rib, seafood and pasta, Sargents is a low-key, comfortable place. A gas fireplace flickers in the far corner, and the booths are cozy. Longtime patrons chat with friendly bartenders.

Thanks to Richards' fastidiousness, the salad station is always well-stocked.

"You can't find many restaurants like this left," she said. "We're the old-fashioned kind. We love to spoil you, and take care of you."

Few can remember exactly when Sargents opened, but staffers say it has been around for nearly 60 years. Part of the restaurant was built by the U.S. government - an adjoining structure, now part of the dining area, was plucked from the grounds of Farragut Naval Training Station.

In the early days, Richards recalled, Sargents was surrounded by open country. Now the old joint on Government Way is near the center of downtown Hayden, just one of many eateries on the city's main drag.

A Coeur d'Alene native, Richards found work at the Athletic Roundtable - a social club where hydroplane pilots once stopped for drinks - when she was 15 years old. She learned the waitressing profession, then left for Salem, N.H., to run a friend's inn for two years - a job she wasn't fond of. When she returned to North Idaho, a neighbor told Richards about Sargents, which was hiring at the time.

It was a perfect match. She was energetic, charming and experienced, a real people person. Sargents was a community spot, a good place to build a career.

The job was hers.

"I've been in this business all my life," Richards said. "I fell in love with the customers. Some of the people I've been waiting on for 30 years."

She formed a close bond with Von and Edna Sargent, who owned the restaurant for many years. Her customers, many of whom dropped in once or twice every week, adored her. Bouncing around the dining room, serving coffee cups or prime rib platters, Richards became part of the place.

"She's history. History in a good way," Eastman said. "She's a fixture."

Eastman, John McGrunder and Jerry Thompson took over Sargents about 10 years ago. By that time Richards was already a 20-year veteran.

Independent as ever, Richards still lives in Coeur d'Alene with her husband, Wayne. She shovels snow off her roof in winter, and operates the chain saw if need be. Instead of wearing her down, Sargents revs her up.

"It keeps me energized," she said. "It's the customers, I'll tell ya ..."

Grandparents, sons, daughters - Richards knows everyone, and probably knows their pets, too. To her way of thinking, a good waitress - and she's surely one of the best - is also a good friend.

"People say, well Vicki, you're from the old school. I say 'Yeah, and I'm proud of it," Richards said. "I'm very proud of this place."

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