Why this Dallas 87-year-old has worked the same restaurant job for more than 6 decades

Highland Park Cafeteria Mr B

Why this Dallas 87-year-old has worked the same restaurant job for more than 6 decades

Sharon Grigsby, Metro columnist

Sixty-two years ago, Ernest Bowens stopped by Highland Park Cafeteria to talk to a friend in the kitchen. Bowens wound up with a job and has worked there ever since.

Given that a lifelong loyalty to a single employer is as unfashionably quaint as a cafeteria-style restaurant, Bowens is a midcentury treasure. He’s far from the top of the org chart, but he’s the heart and soul of a Dallas institution’s last remaining outpost.

While he has spent his life inside the cafeteria’s walls with its never-changing recipes, Mr. B has seen immense societal shifts unfold there. And at age 87, Mr. B — as he prefers to be called — is on the job when most of us would be in the rocker. He laughs off retirement talk and told me he loves “cooking and being around these people. We are family — this is home.”

In its heyday, Highland Park Cafeteria, which opened on Knox Street in 1925, was that rare restaurant where you’d find movers and shakers, celebrities and average folks dining under the same roof.

Mr. B bused tables and washed dishes after he was hired in 1956. Soon he was on iced tea and coffee duty. Next was meat preparation.

He had a hankering to cook, so he watched the pastry chef carefully. When the restaurant ran out of meringue, Bowens whipped up a new batch and saved the day for chocolate pie lovers.

“Meringue was my big break,” he says with his sweet signature smile.

Bowens had already worked in almost every nook and cranny of the old HPC by the time I discovered the restaurant. Like so many, I relished its down-home comfort food — the next-best thing to Sunday lunch at my grandmother’s.

But by 1996, after years of expansion into satellite locations, financial trouble shut down all the Highland Park Cafeterias. Thankfully, the one in East Dallas’ Casa Linda shopping center quickly reopened and Bowens was back on the job.

Briefly called Casa Linda Cafeteria, the restaurant later went dark a second time. But through all the business drama, Mr. B and his co-workers persevered. Jeff Snoyer restored stability when the Dallas resident bought the cafeteria a dozen years ago.

Most days now, Mr. B supervises the vegetable cooking during his six-hour weekday shifts. He’s the keeper of the restaurant’s prized recipes. And he leads the staff’s daily devotional, a tradition going back to the original cafeteria’s earliest days.

“That devotional is what keeps us going,” Bowens said. “If it wasn’t for the Lord on our side, we couldn’t make it.”

Every successful company has its secret, Snoyer said. “Mr. B. has the secret recipe to everything HPC is.”

Mr. B deflects all the praise to the Lord and the rest of the HPC staff. Pressed about his role, he’d only joke, “I’ll tell you my secret. What we put in our food is ‘come-back’ — come back for some more.”

Bowens, who is black, also acknowledged during our interview his early memories of those Dallas residents who couldn’t enter the restaurant at all. For years, African-Americans weren’t allowed to dine there — or most anywhere else in Dallas.

“During segregation, we just had to take one day at a time — we felt we couldn’t do anything about it,” Bowens recalled.

He still hurts over seeing his employer turning away a football team because it included black players. But he also remembers the color barrier breaking at the cafeteria after Dallas Cowboys like Mel Renfro and Don Perkins started dining there.

Bowens prefers to talk about the present, not the past. “Dallas has changed, good and not always good. You have to go with the change.”

But Mr. B. and his co-workers are dead-set against one change: any variations to Highland Park Cafeteria’s beloved recipes.

As Snoyer tells it, a persistent vendor one day insisted on leaving a large vat of instant mashed potato mix, despite the owner’s declaration that HPC was committed to making the dish from scratch.

“The staff spotted that package,” Snoyer said. “Within the hour, Mr. B and all the cooks came to my office and they’re standing there, arms on their hips, saying, ‘We see you are starting to use instant mashed potatoes. We quit.'”

Snoyer assured them that HPC’s mashed potatoes were just as safe as Mr. B’s signature sweet rolls and yeast breads.

Married for 40 years, Bowens and his wife, Helen, live in Pleasant Grove and attend nearby Greater St. James AME Church, where Mr. B is a deacon.

While God, job and family are Bowens’ priorities, he also confessed his passion for the Dallas Cowboys and his new white Ford pickup.

But even when talking sports, he quickly pivoted to a life lesson: “The Cowboys gave it their best shot. That’s the same as with a job. When you give it the best shot, then you go home and rest well. That’s what I try to do every day.”

My conversations with Mr. B reminded me of the old adage about listening to our elders. The world would be profoundly different if more of us would go through our days the way he does.

He is salt of the earth in the biblical sense, seeking in simple ways to bring balance and hope to those around him.

Although Bowens works mostly back in the kitchen, customers — many of them longtimers themselves — insist on saying hello to him.

Among the regulars is Mark Lovvorn, whose grandparents founded the original Highland Park Cafeteria. As a young boy, he was allowed to visit its kitchen, and his earliest memories include Mr. B.

“I was there all the time, often in the kitchen, and Ernest was always very prominent in my life,” Lovvorn told me. “We just have very few constants in our life like that. He is one of those for me.”

Lovvorn, a Lakewood resident and chairman of Providence Bank, has four grown children. He said he taught all of them that Bowens’ character was one worth emulating.

“He is an example of the diligence and loyalty and joy that you should show in your daily work,” Lovvorn said. “I now have nine grandchildren and I hope he continues because I want all of them to meet him.”

Lovvorn likely will get that chance. Mr. B is unconcerned about his 88th birthday in March.

“I like to keep going at work,” he said. “The Lord will tell me when to quit.”

Read online at Dallas Morning News.