Forever Young

BY NICK IRONSIDE // MAY 4, 2012 // 

One takes sandwich orders at the register. Another picks up the yellow Post-it note/order slip and starts putting turkey, provolone cheese and tomato on white bread. The third is wiping down tables.

Although they’re usually on their feet, preparing and organizing food or cleaning the seating area, there’s an ever-present smile on each of the three ladies who run the Hafer Café. They love their jobs and enjoy talking with students.

The trio will ask about classes, the weather and if a customer’s day is going well. Being around people is why Irene Whooten, 65, enjoys working at Curry. Joan Bukuras, 81, feels younger when around students. And Barbara Burke, 72, who opens the Café at 7:30 each morning, says she’s fascinated by many of the people she serves. None of the women attended college themselves.

The ladies of the Hafer Cafe—from left, Irene Whooten, Joan Bukuras and Barbara Burke—make it their job to greet all customers with a smile, because it’s those customers who bring a smile to their faces.  // PHOTO BY NICK IRONSIDE

“I like it here,” says Burke. “You get to meet different students.”

Each lady hails from Boston. Bukuras grew up in Boston’s South End, while Burke lived in Dorchester during her childhood and Whooten spent the beginning of her life in Hyde Park. They all currently live in the area and say they work at Curry—they’re employed by the college’s food services provider Sodexo—because the commute is “convenient.”

Yet, clearly it’s more than that. Behind the trademark smile of Burke, the efficiency of Whooten and the soft-spoken nature of Bukuras is a sincere kindness. They don’t just serve customers. Rather, they joke with students. They truly know the faculty. They respect the often-unheralded staffers.

On a personal level, Whooten and Burke also share a love of animals. “I would have a hundred cats if I could,” Whooten says with a laugh. She owns three Maine Coon cats—Whiskers, Tara and Clohe— while Burke loves dogs. “I have a chocolate lab named Chloe,” she says beaming.

In this regard, Bukuras stands apart. “I’ve always been afraid of them,” she says of cats and dogs. “I think it’s how I was brought up.”

Bukuras says she has stayed close to her Lebanese father’s roots, cooking Mediterranean food in her free time. She has also traveled throughout Europe, enjoying trips to Greece, Italy, Turkey, England and France.

Whooten and Bukuras, both widows, joined Sodexo within the last eight years and are great-grandmothers. Burke, who celebrates her 50th wedding anniversary on May 5, has been working at Curry for 30 years.

“It was just that room back then,” says Burke, motioning toward the small room that houses the F’Real milkshake machine, kitchen and cash register. “They didn’t have this (seating area) when I started working here.”

Burke came to Curry after spending some time as a secretary at the John Hancock insurance company, but found the work “boring.” Before joining Sodexo, Whooten mainly worked in Milton, although her food services experience can be traced back to her first job out of high school: at a McDonald’s in Hyde Park. During the summer, Whooten usually works for Sodexo in the Student Center. Burke does, too, while Bukuras will sometimes take the summers off.

Whooten says she has always liked working around food because it creates more opportunities to interact with people. “I’m a very sociable person,” she says.

It’s almost a requirement for the job, whether serving students or sharing small working quarters with one other.

Says Burke, “I couldn’t ask for better co-workers.”

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