Meals in Motion: 'Add plates and you're off'

BOISE, Idaho (KBOI) -- At Rockies Diner, Elvis hovers over customers and not just in spirit. A mannequin in a leather jacket and a mean wig rides through a cloud of neon just out of reach. But it's hardly the first thing you notice when you walk through the door.

Blink and you might miss the chief attraction at one of Boise's oldest eateries: the girls on roller skates who glide silently around the two-level space in a kind of choreographed floor show.

Theresa Sanchez is one of the so-called skate-tresses, a job she's held for about seven years.

"You go in, strap on your skates and you're ready to go," she says with the confidence of the pro she is.

Being a waitress is tough enough, but imagine doing such a demanding job on skates. It's the definition of really fast food.

Or meals on wheels.

Owner Rocky Paflias has been watching over his girls for nearly 20 years and he still marvels at their ability to multi-task while in motion.

"They're carrying five or six plates," he says, shaking his head in wonder. "Fearless, fearless."

Server Suleyma Calvo describes the system, one honed to perfection.

"From our window, you pick up the food, go up the stairs and down the ramp."

Yup. The girls climb a short flight of stairs, plates in hand, and then glide effortlessly down a ramp and back to the serving window. (For safety's sake, it's never the other way around.)

"I wanted to make it seem like a circus," says Paflias, "so there's action going at all times."

Calvo says her trademark table service draws mixed reactions.

"Regulars are used to it," she says, brushing long, dark locks from her face.

"Sometimes, it's, 'Wow, how do you guys do that?' And of course the questions: 'Do you guys ever fall? Do you guys ever crash into each other?'"

Well, do they?

"Yeah," she says, grinning.

But they do have a system of checks and balances, with balance being the operative word.

"It's just like driving. You stay on the right, unless you're going to turn to your left."

She pauses and then adds, "Then you kind of signal each other (nodding her head) if you're coming by."

A table of three 20-something customers orders lunch.

Calvo whips out her order pad and before you can say "Chocolate Oreo Shake," she's off.

Gliding toward the ramp, she calls back, "I'll be right back with that."

Watching the staff work their magic, you begin to suspect waiting tables this way might in fact be easier than it appears.

Paflias is quick to point out that the answer is a firm "no." And he says many have tried. Interviews with prospective skate-tresses, he says, follow a wearisome pattern.

"Within 2-3 minutes, I'm good enough to say, 'Hey, we can keep this one.' Some are like, no, no way."

Occasionally some show enough promise that he'll send them off to a local skating rink for a refresher. After all, he demands the best for his theater in the round--and round.

Sanchez says, matter-of-factly, "After you get it down, you just add on the plates. Then you're off."

She admits, though, in a moment of candor that, yeah, they do take an occasional spill.

"It's not so much it hurts. It's a little embarrassing."

As crazy as it looks to have the skate-tresses traverse a room on two levels atop roller skates, there's a method to the madness.

Paflias is eager to boast, "As fast as the girls are on skates, cooks gotta be just as fast."

"I'm about speed, I'm about quick, " the veteran business owner says. "I want to be able to turn my tables within ten minutes. I'm not here to keep my customers a half hour."

Yet no one feels rushed.

New regular Mary Rigby, who moved to Boise from Arizona, likes the low-key lunch hours and offers two reasons for coming back.

"Mother-daughter time and the onion rings," she says between bites.

Paflias, though, is a man on a mission. His aim is to maintain high volume and low prices.

"You're here. You eat. You go."

"And that's what helps me," he says, "survive in this economy at this moment."

So at Rockies, you go for the chili-cheeseburgers and stay for the show.

Occasionally, that show includes the "Johnny Be Good Challenge." Consume a three-quarter-pound burger, cheese hot dog, pastrami, chili, a side of chili cheese fries and a milk shake, all within 30 minutes, and you win an electric guitar.

It's a belly-buster once featured on the cable TV show "Man vs. Food."

And Paflias makes good on the guitar offer. He says 15-hundred customers have tried but only about 20 have succeeded, one just a few weeks ago.

A replacement guitar is on order.

Rockies regular Robert Pankowski has been eating here since he was a kid, and sums up the experience between mouthfuls of a chili cheeseburger.

"I think it's pretty amazing."

His dinner companion, Megan, is a fan of the malts, also a house specialty.

But it's the wait staff whizzing by tables that continue to impress even the locals. They appear at your table as if by magic and disappear just as quickly.

And it makes you wonder: is there a speed limit?

"No," says Suleyma Calvo with her trademark smile, as she glides briskly to her next port of call.