Waitress personifies Southern hospitality

Patrons appreciate Swan Coach House level of service

On her way out the door of the Swan Coach House restaurant the other day, a bride-to-be stopped the hostess to pay her waitress a compliment.

“She was so great,” the woman gushed before launching into a detailed account of her experience at table 50.

Hostess Louise Van Damm responded with a knowing smile and offered the young woman her thanks.

“We hear that all the time,” she said. “Let me tell you, it’s constant.”

At a time when good customer service has all but disappeared, patrons here say Tammy Allen is the embodiment of Southern hospitality, delivering heartfelt niceties that would make a grandmother proud. If she ever had a bad day — and there have been plenty — most would’ve never guessed.

“Hello, sweetie,” she greets them.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she says, smiling.

“Thank you, sweetie.”

In some ways this Atlanta restaurant, which opened in 1965 and specializes in chicken salad sandwiches, is a cushy assignment. The floral bathed walls of the dining room and fresh roses on every table belie its casual service ethic. There’s no need to sweat the pomp and the food is good so diners hardly ever complain.

But if there is anything Van Damm has learned, it is this: If you want to avoid complaints completely, seat as many guests as possible in Allen’s sun-dappled corner of the room.

“If I turn them over to Tammy, I don’t ever have to worry about anything,” she said. “They love her.”

Allen brought her brand of customer service to the Swan Coach House shortly after her mother, Geneva Thompson, joined the staff some 25 years ago. At first it was just a part-time gig, but the moment a full-time slot opened, Allen snapped it up.

“I was in love with the place,” she said.

Waiting tables hardly figured into Allen’s daydreams growing up. She wanted to be a flight attendant. Then, one day at a car dealership with a friend, she set her sights on a Chevrolet car salesman and, well, things changed.

She was 16 and Jay Allen was a 36-year-old, who in her words looked like a “rock ’n’ roll, bad-boy type.”

“I liked him right away,” she said.

Tammy Allen didn’t care much for school but being a “little bit smart,” she said, she stuck with it because Jay insisted, and in 1986 she graduated from Berkmar High School in Lilburn, where she lived with her mother and three older siblings.

On Christmas Day that year, she and Jay were married. In the spring of 1991, she left working at her sister’s jewelry shop to come to the Swan. Three years later on Oct. 23, she gave birth to a daughter Ashley, an only child.

Allen never boarded a plane to any of the places she’d dreamed of going.

But she traveled plenty, she said, enjoying the sights from stories her husband told her or viewing the exotic places on the postcards she received from vacationing Swan patrons.

Mostly, she took care of her aging father, who was prone to falls, until in 2005, William Shambley died.

Patrons at the Swan Coach rallied around her. They sent cards and cooked meals. They had grown to love Allen and her sweet ways. To watch her flit from table to table, patrons say, is a sight to behold.

“You just don’t find folks like her too often,” said Andrea Shelton, who dined at the Swan recently with her 12-year-old daughter Abby. “I watch with admiration as she kisses an elderly patron, takes time to hear a story, pours sweet tea with a ‘Here ya’ go, honey.’ She busts her chops to make sure your experience is above and beyond.”

For all that, Allen gets verbal tips supplemented by 20 percent, sometimes more.

Mondays through Saturdays, she works the restaurant’s lunch shift alongside her 79-year-old mother, arriving from her home in Dacula at 10 a.m. and usually staying past the 2:30 p.m. closing time.

At 43, Allen is funny, generous with her encouragement and knows instinctively what many diners seek — a server who can help them get excited about something.

“She does everything except she doesn’t cook,” said Julie Bone of Dunwoody, a Swan Coach regular. “She’s excellent.”

Sure, patrons say, there are moments when she asks what they’d like from the menu, but other times she just knows her patrons the way a wife knows her husband’s palate, from the pimento cheese sandwiches to the signature Swan dessert, neither of which you’re likely to catch her eating.

“It’s too fattening,” she says.

Waiting tables at the Swan Coach is no more a job than taking care of those she loves. She said she gets as much as she gives.

“This is my therapy,” she says.

That was never more true than when her husband was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2008.

“I could come in and get into this and forget until three hours were up,” she said.

Jay had managed to kick his craving for More cigarettes five years earlier. He seemed healthy. But by the time he sought a doctor’s care, the mass had progressed to stage 4.

Jay died Jan. 12, 2009.

“I was devastated,” Tammy Allen said.

The Swan Coach patrons rallied again, providing prayers and comfort food, cards and hugs. Even politician Max Clelland, Allen said, gave her a really great book.

“The support was unbelievable,” she said. “I’ve gotten so much from the guests. I think of them as angels.”

And the Swan Coach House as her place of understanding.

“It’s kind of my life, “ she said.