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Omaha Magazine

Still Taking Orders

Sep 24, 2015 02:28PM ● By Carol Crissey Nigrelli
The year: 1955.

Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower occupy the White House, gas costs 22 cents per gallon, “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” hits the top of the record charts and Donna Malone greets the very first customers at the Pink Poodle Steakhouse.

Time has a relentless way of relegating things to the past, but both the waitress known simply as Donna and the Pink Poodle have outraced the last six decades. They have persevered through fire, flood, five owners, and an uncertain economy. How? With affordable prime rib and, in Donna’s case, a strong work ethic.

Excitement came to tiny Crescent, Iowa, in May 1955 when Jake Brummer, a local developer who owned three other restaurants in western Iowa, bought an establishment at 633 Old Lincoln Highway called the Black Glove and gave it a new name with a quintessential ’50s flair. The Pink Poodle served up a variety of steaks, chicken, and seafood, providing a quality entertainment venue across the Missouri River from north Omaha and a source of income for a teenage farm girl from just up the road in Honey Creek.

“The Brummers were real good friends with my mom and dad, and I’d known them forever,” Donna recalls. “Jake asked me if I wanted to work at the restaurant and I said, ‘Sure.’ I was 15.”

The new restaurant drew crowds immediately. Donna started out as a cashier and hostess, carefully observing how others did their jobs. One night Brummer asked her to fill in as a waitress. With her characteristic “I can do that” attitude, Donna found she liked waiting on tables—and the benefits that came with it.

“Back then, if you got a quarter per person per table it was a heck of a tip; a dollar from four people,” says Donna, 75, shaking her head at the thought. “One Saturday night I remember making $32. The other girls just couldn’t believe it, absolutely unreal. Of course, a lobster dinner back then was $7.95. Things have changed. But I still make real good money.”

It’s hard to pinpoint when Donna became as sought-after as the Pink Poodle’s signature prime rib (introduced to the menu in the early 1960s). The ease with which she talks to customers vanishes when asked to talk about herself. A private, humble person by nature, Donna will only credit “great food and a wonderful clientele” for the restaurant’s continued success. Current owner Doreen McNeil, who began as a waitress in 1983 and worked with Donna in the party room, shows no such reluctance in focusing the spotlight.

“A lot of people come in here because of you, Donna,” McNeil tells her friend. “People who were children when Donna first waited on them now bring their grandchildren to meet her.”

Even first-time customers like Marianne and North Witcher of Omaha find themselves easily drawn into Donna’s orbit.  “She’s fabulous as a waitress, very knowledgeable and courteous,” says North. “She got our orders exactly right, knew the specials and their prices by heart. We were floored when we learned how long she’d been there.”

Donna’s journey to a 60th anniversary hit a roadblock in January 1972 when fire ravaged the Pink Poodle. “One of our regulars spent too much time at the bar late one night,” recounts Donna in her slow, deliberate delivery, “and a lit cigarette got away from him and fell in a booth. It started smoldering. By 3 in the morning the place was on fire.”

In the four-year interim it took to secure the cash to rebuild, Donna worked at another Crescent establishment where she ran into Kenny Malone, a trucker she had met years earlier. They married in 1974. With no children of her own to raise, Donna continued waitressing at night in addition to her day job as a legal secretary.

“I’ve worked for the same lawyer in west Omaha for the past 45 years and one before him for 10,” she says, matter-of-factly.

Donna’s knowledge of Omaha came in handy during the Missouri’s record flooding in 2011. McNeil decided to keep the restaurant open despite closures from June to November of the Mormon Bridge leading into Crescent and sections of I-29. McNeil says whenever a customer from Omaha called asking for a way to get to the restaurant, “I’d just give the phone to Donna. She’s our resident GPS.”

A solid regular customer base that includes Chip Davis of Manheim Steamroller and KMTV meteorologist Jim Flowers helped keep the restaurant afloat during a tough time, one of many Donna has faced. Tall and thin with porcelain skin and blue eyes, Donna shows no interest in slowing down. “Not unless Doreen fires me,” she says, half seriously.

“Oh, Donna, I’ll never do that,” McNeil quickly responds. “I wish I could find 10 more of you.”