One person can’t change the world, but you can change one person’s world.
That’s how Arlie Sawyer sees it, anyway.
Sawyer, who has been a server with Pizza Time, 208 S. Main St., Ottawa, for the last five years, was voted the 2017 Person of the Year during The Ottawa Herald’s Best of Franklin County banquet Wednesday night.
“I didn’t even know I was nominated until someone told me,” Sawyer said. “I was like, ‘I’m not gonna win it, I’m up against two business people. I’m just a little old waitress.’”
But people in Ottawa and the rest of Franklin County have taken note of her warm personality and always-smiling face. When it was announced that Sawyer was the recipient of the award, Facebook flooded with positive comments and over 330 likes on her photo on the Herald’s page. “I knew it!!! Congrats, beautiful friend!!” one post read. “Way to go Arlie. You do deserve this. We love you,” another wrote.
“I got this award for my personality,” Sawyer said. “I didn’t get it for my achievements. I don’t have a college education or a degree in this or that. I have a degree in people, customer service. That’s my degree. Just giving a smile and always being upbeat. People know when I’m not because it shows. We have a choice to enjoy life or not enjoy life.”
She said having the community that she lives in and loves recognize her work was an honor. Sawyer was also recognized in January at the Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce’s Annual Banquet and Auction with the Favorite Smile award.
“My goal is to serve,” Sawyer said. “I’m not talking about ‘serving’ [at a restaurant], but my goal is to serve, to make people be happy, to smile. Sometimes it just takes a smile to change somebody’s day.”
But it hasn’t always been grins and giggles. Sawyer said she had a tragedy in her early 20s, while she was away from Ottawa.
“I struggled in my marriage and got divorced and moved back home,” she said. “I struggled with a few addictions. To be where I am today, I just posted [on social media] that if God can pull me out of the pit, then he can pull anybody out of the pit.
“It was by his love, his grace and his mercy that I am here today. You don’t think your life is ever going to go in the direction that it goes sometimes, but because of my past, I can go, ‘That’s why I am who I am. That’s why I’m a strong individual.’”
Sawyer said it was God, family and friends helped her through her darkest times.
“I had to go back to the core of who I was and become that person again, and I’m glad I did,” she said. “I try to set an example for others.”
Her waitressing career began when she was 15 years old at a buffet restaurant in Ottawa, and she continued to work at the JB’s Big Boy restaurant as head waitress throughout high school. That’s really where her serving career took off, she said.
“When I was working, I waited on little kids that now have kids that have kids,” Sawyer said. “It’s just so neat to be seeing these people and still waiting on them.”
When she returned to Ottawa over 20 years ago, Sawyer worked at Pizza Hut when the restaurant was still located on 15th Street. After that, she continued serving by working at Applebee’s for 13 years.
“I had this family, they always came into Applebee’s,” Sawyer said. “Well, the little kids called it Arlie B’s, and they didn’t understand when they would see an Applebee’s, they would go, ‘Let’s go see Arlie!’ And the parents would go, ‘Um, she doesn’t work at that.’ It was just so cute.”
When she started at Pizza Time in 2012, Sawyer said she had loyal customers that followed her from Applebee’s, just to be served by her.
“Usually, I have regular customers that come in and I know what they want, so I say, ‘Usual drink?’ and they just nod,” she said.
The key to her success is taking pride in what she does, Sawyer said.
“You don’t have to be the best,” she said. “I’m certainly not the best. I know that there’s a lot of great servers out there. The difference is I show my customers I care, and I try my best. It’s not just them coming in to eat. We have fun, I entertain them.”
What brings people back to the restaurant, besides the “Best Pizza” in town, which they were voted during the Herald’s Best of Franklin County this year, is exemplary customer service.
“We’ve got great customer service, a great product, and we value our customers,” Sawyer said. “Places want to meet numbers. We’re not here to meet numbers. We’re here to make a great dining experience so people will come back because that’s what brings the great ‘numbers.’ [What’s on paper] is great, but a full restaurant is better.”
As for being named the Person of the Year, Sawyer said she’s still in shock.
“You have to chose to be happy, it just doesn’t happen,” she said. “There’s going to be struggles. God didn’t say there wasn’t going to be struggles, there’s going to be. How we handle those struggles is how we overcome them.”