NEW ORLEANS - How long have you worked at your job? Most people can say 10, 20 or even 30 years. But Pearl Jefferson can claim 54 years at a job she loved – serving generations of customers at The Old Coffee Pot restaurant in the French Quarter.
On Wednesday night, friends and co-workers threw her a retirement party, just four days before she officially retires as a waitress at the restaurant on St. Peter Street, where she has served breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert (most notably the bread pudding she made herself) since 1959.
“I never thought I’d be here that long,” she said. “I honestly thought I’d be working somewhere else, but after I got here and I liked it and I loved the people, I just decided to stay because they’ve been very good to me.”
Born and raised in the tiny town of Arm, Mississippi, northeast of McComb, Miss Pearl, as everyone calls her, came to New Orleans on the recommendation of her brother, who worked at Brennan’s Restaurant.
“I came from Mississippi and within a week I had the job. My brother was the one who told me about it and I’ve been here ever since.”
Restaurant critic Tom Fitzmorris, long a fan of the restaurant and particularly fond of Jefferson, gives her much of the credit for the restaurant’s consistency.
“It has gone through many owners over the years, but managed to remain consistent – largely due to the presence of Pearl,” he wrote in one review.
At least one former owner and the restaurant’s current owner, Dustin Palmisano, helped her celebrate on Wednesday.
“I worked for at least nine different owners and each of them kept me on, so I must have been doing something right,” she joked.
With its classic French Quarter courtyard, tiny front room and old sign hanging above the entrance, The Old Coffee Pot, right next to Pat O’Briens, is the kind of place where you’d expect to find someone like Pearl Jefferson, taking care of customers with her sweet Southern accent and smile.
For more than five decades she’s served the restaurant's Creole standards such as gumbo, grits and grillades, lost bread and even calas, or a Creole rice cake, a dish that has vanished off of nearly every other menu in town.
Jefferson herself has made many of the Coffee Pot’s desserts over the years, including banana pudding, millionaire pie and bread pudding, which she says she’ll return to the restaurant for a least a little while to help teach the staff how to make, in her style. Chef and general manager Will Falcon explained that it’s not so much the recipe or ingredients that make it special, but the love that Miss Pearl puts into it.
When she retires on Saturday, in time to spend Mother’s Day with her family (three children and four grandchildren), she said she’ll miss the love she’s felt from her co-workers and customers the most.
“Meeting different people and kind people and being kind to them and people returning every year and sometimes twice a year. They come back to see you and remember you. Sometime you didn’t remember them, but they remember you. I’ll miss them.”