PASCAGOULA — A first-time diner at Bozo’s Grocery would notice things when walking in the door — the smell of seafood and a long line of hungry customers crowded around a small table where Anton Kihyet is seated.
The setup is simple: a stack of paper bags, a permanent marker and Kihyet. It’s been that way for 15 years now, owner Keith Delcambre said.
“He came in here for lunch one day and hasn’t left,” Delcambre said. “Without him, I don’t know where we would be today.”
Kihyet gets to Bozo’s every morning at 6 and begins his routine of labeling white paper bags from one to 70.
“It starts my whole rhythm,” he said. “It’s like having a cup of coffee.”
His responsibilities include answering the phone and taking food orders in his special way.
His desk is directly in front of the kitchen and even though customers can peer into it, the only communication with the cooks is by the secret language Kihyet writes on those paper bags.
“The hardest thing for new employees to learn is reading what he writes,” Delcambre said. “They have to learn, though, because he definitely isn’t changing it.”
A menu hangs on the wall next to Kihyet, but it is for the customers. He answers every question without hesitation. He never looks up from the white bag the order will soon be packed in.
It’s easy to identify regular customers. They begin the ordering process halfway to Kihyet and by the time they reach that tiny desk, they have passed the flurry of questions that will net them food from the restaurant named America’s best seafood dive in 2012 by Coastal Living Magazine.
“It takes a few tries, but once you figure it out you’re in a special club,” Delcambre said. “People take pride whenever Kihyet remembers them.”
Kihyet, who is called “Grumpy” by the employees, has become a sort of celebrity in Pascagoula.
“People have recorded his voice and set it as their ring tone,” Delcambre said. “He is the Ronald McDonald of Bozo’s Grocery.”
For being described as grumpy, Kihyet may be the friendliest grump on Earth.
He sings Happy Birthday to customers, tells jokes and even built a stand to hold the lollipops he gives to kids.
“Parents bring kids in here on the way home from school and don’t even order anything,” Delcambre said. “They just stand in line to get a chance to talk to Kihyet and get their sucker.”
So how did this seafood Santa Claus come to be? It all started when Delcambre’s father became ill and Kihyet was working at Ingalls Shipbuilding.
“Kihyet and my father grew up as friends,” Delcambre said. “Dad couldn’t work anymore, so Kihyet just started showing up and took over his duties.”
When Delcambre’s father died in 2002, Kihyet retired after 36 years at Ingalls and immediately started working at Bozo’s full time.
“He was there for me when I lost my father and did more than he will ever know,” Delcambre said. “I consider him family.”
Kihyet works six days a week and never calls in sick, Delcambre said. He has never been late or left early.
“I’m afraid if I stop, I’ll die,” Kihyet said. “And I’m damn sure not ready to leave this place.”
Kihyet said he is proud of what Bozo’s has accomplished and is honored to have had something to do with it.
“I love it,” he said. “I love walking through Wal-Mart and people recognizing me.”
Being the mascot of Bozo’s is something he never imagined would happen, but he said that’s what makes this “dive” so unique.
“If you come in here more than once, you are basically family,” he said. “If you don’t believe me, just call on your birthday and I’ll sing to you.”
Kihyet said Bozo’s has never been a job, but more like spending time with family.
“Home is a place where you feel loved,” he said. “That place for me is Bozo’s.”
— JAMES SKRMETTA, The Sun Herald