Bradenton restaurant like home for waitress, 85

vmannix@bradenton.comJanuary 7, 2014 

BRADENTON

Maria Dingman is some kind of beloved waitress.

Children want her to come home with them.

Patrons give her hugs and kisses and send Christmas cards.

Some even sing to her, serenading the 85-year-old waitress at Red Lobster, 5711 14th St. W., with the iconic ballad from "West Side Story."

"'Mariiiiiaaaaa...' I had a woman do that Sunday," Dingman said. "I love that musical."

General Manager Jo Ann Penska, who thought she'd seen -- and heard -- it all in 25 years with the chain, smiled and laughed.

"We've got to worry when they start dancing on the tables, get a little chorus line going up there," she said. "People appreciate what Maria does for them."

She's been doing it a long time, too.

Dingman has been a Red Lobster waitress for 32 years, including 24 in Winston-Salem, N.C., and she is still going strong. She'll turn at least 30 tables a day, working lunch five days a week during the season.

"It keeps me busy, occupied and I like people," said the widowed Schenectady, N.Y., native and great-grandmother. "Some of them are really my friends and they've been good to me. They've invited me to their homes. They took me and my husband out to dinner. People have been wonderful."

The daughter of Italian immigrants, Dingman engenders such feeling with her personal touch and old school style of waitressing.

"A couple told me I treat them like they're in my own home," she said. "I treat them with respect."

Having seen many servers come and go, Penska appreciates what Dingman truly brings to the customer's table, not to mention the example she sets for the wait staff of 36.

"You have to be patient, have to love that interaction with guests

and serving, providing an experience that people are going to leave and say not only was the food good, but they made me feel like I was at home," she said. "It's a very transitory business. A lot of people are going to school, so it's short term. You don't get a lot of career servers anymore. So when you find somebody, and doing this is their passion, you really cherish and nurture them.

"Someone like Maria you want in the building, you need in the building, taking care of our guests."

That matriarchal feeling extends to her younger colleagues.

Dingman is like a grandmother to some and enjoys bringing in yet another box of her homemade goodies: brownies, chocolate chip cookies, coconut cookies, you name it.

"I do a lot of baking, but I'm not going to eat it by myself, so I bring it into them and say, 'Here you put the weight on,'" she said with a chuckle.

Her baking isn't all that impresses co-worker Ladonna Hendricks.

"I admire Maria's desire to keep working," the waitress said. "She's always very caring, asking how you're doing? Talking about her family. I look forward to working with her."

So does Joy Baker.

"She's very helpful, sweet all the time," the waitress said. "I watch what she does."

Dingman doesn't intend to stop working anytime soon.

That Darden Restaurants, which owns Red Lobster and is considering selling its Red Lobster properties, won't affect her plans.

"It doesn't impact us," Penska said. "We're just focused on giving our customers the best service and dining experience we can give them."

Even if a chorus line breaks out accompanying the serenading by Dingman's loyal customers.

"Don't be surprised," Dingman said. "I may get up on the table myself."

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix

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