Breakfast unfolded at the familiar pace this morning at the Camellia Grill, under the same pink walls, around the vintage diner counter and with the aroma of bacon and hash browns sizzling on the griddle. But today, when people here said “word,” they were shaking their heads in sadness and surprise instead of beaming with delight as usual.
“Word” was the nickname of long-time waiter Marvin Day. It was his greeting to customers, accompanied by a gentle fist bump, and it became his own audible signature, his handle. Now it’s his tribute.
Day died on Wednesday at age 50. The cause of death has not yet been disclosed. Camellia Grill shared the news on its Facebook page yesterday. Words of condolence have been pouring in from around the world ever since, said his brother, Cornell Day.
The Camellia Grill will honor him with a special day, dubbed “Marvin Day,” at a date to be determined, said restaurant manager Ronald Jaeger. The restaurant, at 626 S. Carrollton Ave., is now collecting contributions for his family to help with funeral expenses.
Hands on hospitality
Day had worked at the Camellia Grill since 1990 and was part of a tradition of outgoing, endearingly welcoming waiters at the landmark Riverbend diner. It’s a rapport with customers that transcends normal restaurant service, and has become as much a part of the character of the restaurant as its chocolate freezes and chili cheese omelets.
Day fully embraced this role, his friends and colleagues said, and he embodied its spirit of hands-on hospitality.
“He was an institution in his own right,” said Jaeger. “The guy never had a bad day in his life. He always just aimed to please.”
This came naturally to him, his brother said.
“It was his personality, he always had that and he never turned it off,” said Cornell Day. “It was who he was.”
Fellow waiter Michael Carbo had been friends with Day since they attended Green Middle School together. When Carbo took a job at the Camellia Grill in 1992, Day was still a relative newcomer but he already had a following.
“He just had a way with people, he always did,” said Carbo. “He was wild and crazy, and he had flair, people responded to that.”
Taught by the best
The Camellia Grill’s distinctive service format helps stoke the particular connection between customers and waiters, who welcome them, take their orders and then take a hand in preparing those meals at the open kitchen just past the diner counter.
Day was known for his engaging banter as he did, sometimes offering to “slap the calories” out of a piece of pie as it warmed on the griddle or singing the praises of his “love grub.”
“The people who get it understand it’s a treat to watch these guys cook and wait,” said Jaeger. “Nothing’s written down, everything is just spoken. It’s part of how they do it, that’s what makes it special.”
Jaeger described the hospitality tradition here as something like an apprenticeship, though more about the approach to serving people than any particular techniques or formalized training.
Day learned from the restaurant’s earlier generation of waiters, he said. That included the late Harry Tervalon, who started at the Camellia Grill from its first day, and the late Wildred “Bat” Batiste, who worked here for 50 years.
“They passed it on to him,” Jaeger said of Day. “And we’re hoping these guys will do the same.”
Tributes on the walls, menu
The Camellia Grill first opened in 1946. After Hurricane Katrina, it remained closed until April 2007. It changed ownership during that time, when local restaurateur Hicham Khodr bought the business. During the hiatus, regulars covered the exterior windows of the restaurant with notes sharing their longing for its return, and some called out their favorite waiters by name.
“Word where are you,” someone wrote.
“Laura says hi + word,” read another
“After Katrina, everyone wanted to know if the food will be the same and where is Marvin,” said Jaeger, who managed the restaurant during the transition.
Some of those notes now adorn a collage on the walls of the Camellia Grill, which is also a gallery of sorts honoring the restaurant’s best-known and longest-serving staff. A mourning wreath and photo of Day are now on display in the dining room, though even before his death Day worked under portraits of himself, Tervalon, Batiste, Carbo and others, recognizing their role in the restaurant’s popularity.
Day even has his own sandwich on the menu, a double hot sausage sandwich called, of course, “Word Special.”
A memorial for Day is scheduled for Feb. 20 at Rhodes Funeral Home at 3933 Washington Ave., with visitation at noon and a funeral service to follow.
The Camellia Grill
626 S Carrollton Ave, 504-309-2679
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.