On a chilly summer solstice in Wyoming on a morning that saw light snowfall, Charles Kidd, Jr., career waiter, served lunch to his millionth guest.
Kidd has tracked his guest count for 47 years, ever since his first job flipping eggs and pancakes at Hobo Jo’s, a diner in Tucson, Kidd’s hometown. Now aged 63, he began by jotting numbers and data on paper; only recently has he recorded them on his cellphone for easier access.
While many in food service may have attributed sore feet and aching backs to feeling like they have served a million customer meals, it takes dedication to track the numbers to prove it.
The numbers were never meant to be a publicity stunt.
“When you dine with Charles, it is not just a meal, it’s an experience,” his wife, Jennifer Trevis Kidd explained. “You are not just a number, but someone who has entered his life for a reason. Over the years, Charles has said grace with his guests, toasted to memories of loved ones, performed magic tricks, and held screaming babies in his arms to quiet them.”
Kidd, who has a knack for finding humor in what others might think inconsequential, alongside a finely honed understanding of human nature, served his millionth guest with dramatic flair in the Mural Room at Jackson Lake Lodge, one of the most rarified dining rooms in the world.
The iconic Mural Room is a special place in the west
The restaurant is located in a place out west where land and water meet, where earth supports a rocky upthrust called the Grand Tetons, three jagged spires that strike blue sky. Humans spend hours contemplating the mountains’ craggy upwards push.
Standing on the bluff outside Jackson Lake Lodge overlooking meadows near Jackson Lake, if you reach forward, you might believe you can touch their majesties. Indistinguishable from royalty, touching rock at this distance is an impossibility. Proximity is an illusion.
But there is one sure way to feel in sync with this natural beauty. In 1955, Jackson Lake Lodge opened under the visionary guidance of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Designed by architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood to rest on the bluff, the building is a meld of mid-century modern and classic American rustic. It was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 2003.
Inside the lodge is the Mural Room, a grand dining room offering a sixty foot stretch of floor-to-ceiling window installed for gazing at these mountains. From mid-May through early October, the restaurant serves three meals daily to tourists in Grand Teton National Park. But the vaulted room makes a statement all its own. Even in the midst of a day’s frenetic meal service, it is a place for guests to reflect and take part in nature’s panoply.
Carl Roters’ murals bring the past to life in the restaurant
Behind the wall of glass, across a stretch of rustic dining room and raised on a parapet is additional seating for admiring both the glass-walled vista and ten murals painted on wood. After a competition sponsored by Rockefeller in the 1950s, winning artist Carl Roters painted the murals, “The Fur Traders and Trappers of the Early West.” The murals depict Alfred Jacob Miller’s contemporary watercolor sketches, a historic work illustrating the 1837 Rendezvous. Through the artwork, trappers, fur traders, Native Americans, and a landscape unmarked by civilization bring the early days of our country to life.
For those interested in the epic doings of men, the murals depict days gone by. But the wall of glass frames nature doing its daily thing. Dinnertime packs hungry tourists into the Mural Room, intent on capturing an iconic sunset to post on Instagram. In this quotidian activity, there is reassurance that all is right and well with the world.
At any time of day, a meal enjoyed there is worthwhile for both the cuisine and the chance to contemplate the Tetons.
But majestic rocks, radiant sunlight, hot plates, and empty wine glasses aside, Charles Kidd is in control of the room. He has worked there intermittently, for seven seasons since 2003.
An independent force, Kidd has waited on tables of heads of state and hungry tourists alike. How he treats restaurant guests is unvaried and democratic across the board.
“My goal is to get people to stop thinking about the big stuff and focus on enjoying the moment,” Kidd said. “It’s all about how you address diners. I irritate guests so they put their shoulders up and their ears back.”
After ruffling feathers, Kidd steps away.
His method is at times brusque and yet unfailingly simple. Having experienced his method first hand, I can say it works.
A meal served by Charles Kidd is an experience
The first night I met Kidd we had arrived a few minutes late for a 7:00 seating. The reservation had been for a party of four but our friends opted out of a fancy dinner after a day spent cycling a loop from the lodge to Jenny Lake. Thinking it a prime opportunity to snag an empty two-top next to the windows, one with a first row seat of the sun sinking below the Tetons, we asked a waitress if we might switch from the four-top placed six feet away.
She had no chance to reply. From behind came a bellow. “Coming through with a plate!”
It was Kidd, on a mission to serve and seat. Seeing the dilemma of a table reserved for four and a window table for two, he asked if we preferred the table at the window. But in the intervening seconds, teetering on a tightrope between the two options, we had decided that the four-top offered a better view of the sunset. We told him we were happy to stay put.
The decision was never meant to be ours. In silence, Kidd evaluated us, then moved the water glasses, grabbed the silverware from the four-top, and informed us that the two-top was where we were going to sit.
We soon learned if we played according to Kidd’s rules, everyone would be happier.
The samba began, Kidd bringing us warm bread baked in-house and moose-shaped butter pats, me questioning him about life as a waiter. By the time he handed me a serrated steak knife to cut my filet mignon, we had nearly become friends. And at the evening’s conclusion, he accepted my request to “friend” him on Facebook. One of 131, I was honored.
Serving a million guests
During our meal, Kidd said he had calculated he would serve his millionth guest sometime in June 2019.
Kidd explained that his initially crusty demeanor stems from a technique honed from his life philosophy, one shared while sitting on a bar stool next to stand-up comedian George Carlin — yes, the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” George Carlin. At the time they met, Kidd was driving a Gray Line bus three days a week transporting tourists from San Diego to Universal Studios.
“Everyone on the bus would arrive as strangers, but after seeing Jaws on the boat ride, they’d leave as friends,” Kidd told me.
Waiting for his passengers to return from their studio tour, Kidd wiled away time at Victoria Station’s Universal City location, a railroad-themed steakhouse not far from where buses parked after dropping off passengers.
“George was taping some new material for a cable company and said he was renting time at the studio,” Kidd recalled. “I had a lot of time on my hands to sit around and wait. George happened to be sitting on the barstool next to me. We ended up philosophizing about humor and what makes people funny. We reached the mutual understanding that it was life’s little things that are most humorous.”
A finely honed understanding of human nature
As a waiter, Kidd has a talent for sensing a person’s weak spot. Like a knight balancing a heavy lance, he is skilled in the art of discerning human nature, knowing how to discover the chink in our armor. It allows him to penetrate the shields we all wear in public. It’s a skill, knowing how to draw people away from their everyday habits, worries, and psychoses.
Kidd gravitated toward Grand Teton after selling his Arizona catering business. The Tetons are in his family history; his grandfather was the Executive Chef at Jackson Lake Lodge for two summers, back when the steak was $7.99 and a lobster tail was an extra two bucks. From there, his grandfather moved into the kitchen of the Waldorf Astoria in New York City.
Kidd has served tables under Emeril Lagasse at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans and waited on Mikhail Gorbachev in Miami. He’s worked at Marie Callender’s and Applebee’s in Tucson. When I asked what the President of the Soviet Union ordered, Kidd recollected, “He wanted a steak and a baked potato. He didn’t want food from his country.”
He’s also waited tables in Virginia, California, and owned or managed restaurants. These days find him serving at Sullivan’s Steakhouse in Tucson.
“Charles is a gypsy, always in search of adventure,” his wife explained.
Hand-picked to be the millionth
His millionth guests turned out to be Becky and Wayne Conover, first-time Grand Teton visitors from near Atlanta, Georgia. Kidd said he handpicked the couple, sensing there would be a connection after observing their wonderment as they gazed at the mountains.
Seated at a window table, lunch commenced. Chilled prawns with Bloody Mary vinaigrette, pancetta, and Vertical Harvest rock chives were followed by seared Idaho rainbow trout on polenta, and a grilled mozzarella, roasted red pepper, and heirloom panini. After the meal, the Conovers and their waiter — now a friend — enjoyed conversation and the Mural Room’s bold zinfandel house wine on the lawn overlooking the Tetons.
It’s doubtful that Kidd treated the Conovers any differently from the 999,999th guest who had preceded them. But in keeping track of his numbers, “It’s a way of honoring and remembering his guests,” said Jennifer Kidd. “They have all touched him in some way.”
As with the daily occurrence of the sun’s setting, it’s reassuring that there are people like Kidd, the ones who have undertaken a life of serving others food — the most basic of human needs. We all rely on those in the restaurant service industry to treat us professionally and hope there might be a sense of shared humanity.
And when you find that, it’s worth counting.
Jennifer Trevis Kidd contributed to this story.