MARLBOROUGH — The lunch crowd at this South County diner comes for the taco pizza, the loaded buffet and a little banter with waitress Sally McCluskey.
"How are you doing today, sweetie?" asked Mike Grossenheider, a regular at Happy Joe's Pizza & Ice Cream Parlor.
"I'm getting interviewed, so look out, you're talking to a celebrity," McCluskey answered, putting her hand up to the back of her head and striking her best starlet pose.
"Well, I hope you're not misbehaving," Grossenheider said. "Try to be good, OK?"
"I know why he's picking on me," McCluskey said. "I think I might have hurt his feelings a little because I didn't get him his knife and fork."
McCluskey, 85, has been an employee at the restaurant since it opened 35 years ago in the heart of Marlborough, a village south of Webster Groves.
"My neighbor got a job here, and she said they're hiring, but that I was too old," McCluskey said. "I said, 'Like hell I am, I'm going to go apply,' and they hired me."
Owner Rick Simmon described McCluskey as a character.
"She's full of baloney, a whole lot of baloney," he said.
He initially hired McCluskey to do cleanup before the diner opened. That lasted maybe a day or two before he put McCluskey to work in the kitchen, and she quickly got the job as day manager. Now she's scaled things back to waitressing the 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. lunch rush on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
"I guess I could retire, but who likes to stay home and do housework?" McCluskey said.
McCluskey actually is one of two McCluskeys with a long history at Happy Joe's. Sherry McCluskey, Sally's daughter, has been working there for 31 years, ever since she turned 16.
Sherry is the day manager now, her mom's boss, and that can make for some interesting moments, considering Sally's feisty behavior.
"She'll say to a customer, 'Watch this, I'm going to get in trouble again,'" Sherry said. "It's kind of an act with the customer and her because I don't really yell at her."
The regulars call Sally "Mom" because she makes sure to greet everyone who comes in and remembers who needs things like extra sour cream or hot sauce with their usual entree.
"Even people who aren't regulars will come in and say, "Where's that little old lady who works here? She's a hoot," Sherry said.
Carl and Phyllis Beckman come in every Wednesday to have lunch with their friend Fred Hummel. When they can't make it they call, otherwise Sally will worry.
"Sally is Happy Joe's as far as I'm concerned," Carl Beckman said. "People come in here and joke with her and it breaks up their day."
Beckman said he was the target of one of Sally's pranks on his birthday a few years ago. Patrons at Happy Joe's get a free ice cream sundae, while workers set off flashing lights and sirens and the whole place sings, "Happy Birthday."
Beckman said he was getting a little sloppy with his sundae, and Sally sneaked up behind him and tied a child's bib around his neck.
"She's always running around here giving us static, and that's what keeps most of us coming back in," he said.
The McCluskeys have seen some unusual things in their 30-plus years together at the restaurant. About 20 years ago, a regular patron collapsed after suffering a seizure.
While Sherry McCluskey dialed 911, two women came in and asked Sally if the buffet was still open.
"The man was shaking, the paramedics were tearing stuff open, and wrappers were flying, and these women just stepped right over him," Sherry said.
Sally added, "Some people are just worried about getting their food."
The customer survived, and he came back in to thank them for helping to save his life.
The best part of the job for Sally is the relationships she's formed with her co-workers and customers.
"Everyone is nice to me, and the boss is good," she said. "If I get a crab, I fool around with them a little until they come around."
At a birthday party for Sally at the restaurant a few weeks ago, customers gave their favorite waitress a dozen bouquets and $150 in cash and gift certificates.
"It's amazing that at her age she keeps going," Grossenheider said. "I don't know how she does it other than for the love of the place."