Nikki Graham: On her city, service and growing up at Huey’s Downtown
Nikki Graham, Huey’s Downtown Head Server, grew up at Huey’s Downtown.
Starting at 18-years-old, she paid her way through college, earned a bachelor’s degree, traveled the world, cared for her father while he was in hospice and raised her children while working at Huey’s. Why? Because to Nikki, the people of Huey’s are family.
As Nikki walks through the store with blues playing overhead, past bouncy maroon booths surrounded by graffiti walls, she instinctively straightens tables and places chairs as she goes. It’s easy to recognize that she is familiar with the place. She knows Huey’s Downtown – the company and the people – inside and out.
“I made Downtown my home,” she said, after explaining that she worked at Huey’s Midtown and Huey’s East before she decided on her permanent location.
Nikki said she chose Downtown because of the diversity and the excitement she feels being in the city. “You get to meet so many different people,” she said. “You learn a lot of history, and the Downtown culture is amazing. I get to tell visitors about my wonderful city and all the things they can experience here.”
Speaking of her wonderful city, Nikki has an exceptionally large handful of suggestions for anyone visiting Memphis. Her top tip? “Eat,” she said, laughing. “Of course, they’re already at Huey’s, but I tell them to eat local and name a lot of other local businesses.”
Her other tips are to check out the zoo, hit up Overton Square or Cooper Young in Midtown, visit the Pyramid, Beale Street, and of course – the Peabody. She even gives her guests schedules to go see the ducks and take pictures of the fountain.
Nikki said guests visiting Memphis love the personal touch that Huey’s employees give when asked for suggestions. “We’re straight up writing paragraphs of places to go for them,” she said. “Next thing you know, they come back the next day to tell me where they went and how much they loved it. Visitors love to see that you’re excited about your town, you’re excited about your job, and you go out of your way to help them.”
Although Nikki has met countless travelers over the years, one Memphis local is etched into her memory. “We’ve had so many regulars,” she said, “but a man named Bill, who passed away about eight years ago, sticks out to me. He had cerebral palsy, and all the girls that worked there used to watch each other’s tables so we could sit and help him eat.”
Nikki was honored that Bill trusted Huey’s to serve him. “He always came and had a beer, and I love the fact that he felt comfortable enough to always choose Huey’s,” she said. “When he passed away, we all went to his funeral.”
Due to COVID-19, “regulars” look different these days. “We have COVID to-go regulars now,” Nikki said, grinning. “For example, I know I’m always going to get a call from John on Friday morning, getting his grilled chicken salad with vinaigrette. I’ve had conversations with customers where we cracked up for two minutes on the phone over the way we said hello. There’s another woman who lives down the road and walks here with her husband. We know each other’s names and get excited to see each other. That’s what keeps us going.”
While COVID-19 has changed many aspects of Nikki’s job, it hasn’t changed her passion and dedication to making the best of every situation. “We’re having to adapt to change every day,” she said. “After all, who wakes up and says, ‘Oh, today we’re going to learn to navigate a pandemic?’ Sometimes it can be frustrating and hard, but we’ve become closer trying to keep everyone positive and motivated. I do believe we’ll get through this.”
Nikki has been Head Service since 2007, and she takes responsibility for her part in the culture of Huey’s Downtown – in and out of the pandemic. “My tips on restaurant industry leadership would be to set a good example and keep your team positive and motivated,” she said. “Honesty is crucial, because in order to succeed, employees need total transparency.”
When it comes to leadership, Nikki said she has learned from the best. “I love that the owners of Huey’s are in touch with their employees,” she said. “It’s a family, and I love the comfortable feeling of being in that family.”
Nikki said sisters Lauren Robinson, CEO, Ashley Robilio, COO and Samantha Dean, Special Projects Coordinator, have been there for her through the hardest and happiest times of her life. “When I had my kids, they came over. They were at my wedding. They write hand-written notes. And it meant so much to me to walk into my dad’s funeral and see them there. They go above and beyond.”
Nikki said she believes the Huey’s culture is shaped by being a woman-run company. “They’re one-on-one, and you don’t get that at other companies with over 500 employees,” she said. “As moms, I think they have a soft spot for Huey’s moms. It’s so personal to them, and I love it. Even now with Coronavirus going on, they have done so much to help all the employees and make sure we’re okay.”
After twenty years and more memories than she can count, Nikki said she stays at Huey’s for one overarching reason: the company cares. “I love that I got to take care of my father when he went into hospice,” she said. “They were so flexible and so caring. You just don’t find that in a lot of companies. I paid my way through college, traveled for a year, had my son and became a stay-at-home-mom for a period. Huey’s gave me the opportunity to do that. I can raise my children with flexibility, volunteer at their school, go on field trips and be present with them. This is an absolutely amazing place, and it’s been an amazing ride.”