If you believe Keiko King, the secret to a long and successful career is simple: be comfortable.
“If everybody’s nice, it’s a good place and it’s comfortable to work. If it’s not comfortable, I wouldn’t be there,” said King, who recently celebrated her 40th year as an employee of the Pizza Hut in Havelock.
King, who’s known as Katie to her friends and co-workers, should know what she’s talking about. The 82-year-old native of Japan started at Pizza Hut in 1978 as the “dough girl” at the store’s old Havelock location, which is now occupied by Crabby Patty’s.
King said she applied for the job at the suggestion of a friend. “She knew the manager, so I said, ‘OK.’ And I got the job,” remembered King, whose voice still carries the tell-tale accent of her homeland.
During those early days, King would come into the restaurant at 4 a.m. to begin prep work, fixing the dough and sauce fresh by hand each morning.
“I used to roll out the dough by hand, put it in the big mixer and take it out. That was 40 pounds to pick up. I would chop up all the vegetables, do the sauce by hand,” she remembers.
When the store moved to its current location at 1015 East Main St., King followed.
Asked why she chose to stick with the franchise all these years, King said she enjoys the jobs.
“I like to work. I don’t like to sit,” she said. “I had five kids at home, four girls and one boy, so I’m always running around. That’s what I like about this job. You’re always going.”
And, she added. “It’s comfortable here, everyone nice.”
Five years ago, King finally made a few concession to her advancing age. She chose to go part time, taking the 7:30 to 11 a.m. shift prepping the wing and salad bar.
According to King’s supervisor’s and fellow employees, though age may have slowed her down a bit, it hasn’t dimmed her work ethic in the slightest.
“I don’t know what I’d do if she ever retired,” said Manager Chris Wright, who has worked with King for 15 years. “Every time I look at her, I say ‘If she can do it, so can I.’ If she retired, the mornings would never be the same, never.”
According to Wright, other than a three-month period following open heart surgery a decade ago, King has barely slowed down or taken a sick day during their time together at Pizza Hut.
“Now she says, ‘If a hurricane comes I’m not coming to work. If it’s snowing, I’m not coming to work,’” Wright said. “But she still came to work during the last snow storm we had.”
Wright said King has become a sort of unofficial mascot for the store.
“When I come down the street, the first thing I do is look at the parking lot and say, ‘Yep, Katie’s there,’” said Wright.
General Manager Melanie Tapia said King has served as an inspiration for her and other Pizza Hut workers.
“Every time I say I’m getting too old for this job, I think about Katie and I know I can keep going,” she said. “She does all the prep work so we don’t have to. It’s awesome. And she never complains, never.”
King said one of the secrets to her longevity is the easy camaraderie she shares with her co-workers.
“We have fun together,” said Tapia. “This is the morning crew, so we’re taking on the world together every day.”
“She’s very thoughtful and she always brings us chocolates on the holidays. She never forgets about anybody, so that helps too,” laughed Wright.
And how long does the 82-year-old plan to continue seasoning wings and dishing out carrots, cucumbers and lettuce?
“I don’t know. If I can move my body, I’ll work,” said King, matter-of-factly. “No can move my body, I’ll stop.”
When she finally decides to hang up her Pizza Hut hat and walk out the door for the last time, King said she would like to be celebrated in style.
“Everybody bring sake, we all get drunk,” she said, breaking into a boisterous laugh.
“That’s it,” said Tapia. “Sake and pizza for everyone.”