My Ohio: Lessons in Short Order

Money for college was just one of the rewards of working the grill at a lakeside diner.

The best summer jobs are the ones that leave you with more than just money for textbooks, pizza and other critical college expenses. They teach lessons about life you won’t learn in a lecture hall.

In 1987, at the close of my sophomore year at Malone College, I saw a flyer for summer jobs at Eddie’s Grill in Geneva-on-the-Lake. The jobs offered a fair wage, plus room and board. For an inland Ohio boy, whose only glimpse of Lake Erie had been from the top of the Gemini roller coaster at Cedar Point, it sounded exciting.

I wrote a letter and received a warm reply, confirming my employment as a short-order cook — one of the 15 or so students Eddie hired each summer.

Eddie Sezon is a tall drink of root beer, eager and friendly, with dark-rimmed glasses, a crew cut, and a work ethic hardwired into him by his Slovenian immigrant parents. Eddie started his business in 1949 at age 17 when he answered an ad in Popular Mechanics offering blueprints for a build-your-own Richardson Root Beer stand. With support from his parents and a lot of sweat equity, a North Coast icon was born.

I was lucky the three summers I worked there that I got to see Eddie’s parents, sister, wife and daughters all working shoulder-to-shoulder. You can read in history books how immigrant families have built American dreams from the ground up, but it’s most meaningful when you see it for yourself.

The recipe for Eddie’s success is deceptively simple: offer all-American favorites — hamburgers, footlongs, french fries and fresh lemonade — at reasonable prices in an immaculate ’50s-style diner. If you give customers a good experience, they will come back. With their friends. For generations. That’s the Eddie’s Grill story.

And that’s the first thing I learned there: Do the small things well, and chances are, the big things will turn out OK. So often that’s the difference between success and failure in business, relationships, jobs, baseball, gardening … you name it. It’s the deadline met, the small acts of kindness in families, the well-executed sacrifice bunt, the weeds pulled, the self-discipline, that win the day.

I also learned practical skills. It was an honor when Eddie deemed you ready to solo — that is, cook for a lunchtime rush or a weeknight dinner crowd alone. Any cook knows timing is everything. Making sure every part of a meal is done at exactly the same time is an art I honed in the grease-spattered trenches.

I still have a lot of Eddie’s Grill habits. My kids think I’m a culinary genius when I make grilled cheese sandwiches using two bottom halves of hamburger buns. But it’s just how we did it at Eddie’s. I always cut three short diagonal hash marks in hot dogs when I grill them. Why? I don’t know. Eddie taught us to make them that way. It looks appetizing.

With the money I earned, I paid school bills, bought my first car and picked out an engagement ring for my college sweetheart, now my wife, but still my sweetheart.

I can still take myself back to those days. That’s me — the skinny English major in the paper hat, white T-shirt and apron, standing with the other cooks amid the deep-fryers, grills and hubbub of a big crowd on a humid Saturday night. The waitresses lean in toward the cooks, resting their elbows on the aquamarine counter during a brief lull. There’s a little flirting, but more often, brotherly-sisterly teasing and advice, talking about what we would do when we graduated from the University of Eddie’s and went out into the world.

Now I’m there — in the future. It’s 25 years later, but Eddie’s Grill and its namesake are still going strong. Inside, I’m still 20 years old, still curious about what’s ahead, still putting appetizing slashes in hot dogs on the backyard grill, still flirting with my wife as she takes the plate into the house and calls the kids for dinner.

Still grateful for those summers at Eddie’s.

John Gladden is an Ohio Magazine contributing editor based in Seville.