Andrea Hallinan: Photographic memory? Savant? Or just plain lucky

“I look at a face and see a lobster roll.”
Posted:  Tuesday, October 10, 2017 - 7:45am
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Andrea Hallinan is a server. She’s been waiting on tables around Boothbay Harbor for over 20 years.

She is now the dining room manager and a server at Robinson's Wharf on Southport. But this story isn't about her years as a waitress or a manager. It’s about her unusual talent for taking orders, including the appetizers, entrees, side dishes, desserts and drinks, sans pen and pad, for parties of up to 30 people.

If you’ve ever been served by her at one of the local restaurants, or at Pepe’s in Key West during a recent winter, you’ve probably noticed this uncanny ability.

She’s not really sure how she does it. Was she a particularly brilliant student in her younger days? Is she a savant? Does she have a photographic memory? Is she just plain lucky?

Thrillist.com offered this insight about servers: “...there are pluses to memorization (more eye contact, personalized service, writing isn't cool), but the reality is that, unless you're perfect, this leads to mistakes. So if you have a savant-like memory, congratulations! Throw your pad in the trash.

As many local diners will attest, Hallinan, 43, rarely makes mistakes with orders. So is she perfect? Probably not, but she's definitely impressive.

She began her career at 20 as a server at the Dockside Galley, later Norma’s Pub & Grub, now Ocean Point Marina, in East Boothbay. From there, she moved onto Wen’s Diner in Boothbay.

George Friant was a regular at Wen’s back then. Hallinan said Friant went in for coffee every weekday morning and shared a table with a group of men including her father, Billy Hallinan, and Chet Rittall, Martin Page, Douglas Carter and Clive Farrin. She called it the table of knowledge. “We didn’t open till 5, but they’d get there around 4:30,” she said. “Wen gave my father a key, and they’d have the coffee going before I got in.

“They all had little quirks. Some of them always wanted their coffee topped off. My father wouldn’t let me refill his cup till it was empty. They’d get mad if the butter was hard. Some of them only drank decaf. Who would want decaf at 4:30 a.m.? It was a bit much at times.”

She said that was the only time she ever drank coffee. “I hate coffee. I just drank it to wake me up.” She prefers “a spot of tea” in the afternoon these days.

She had never been much of a note-taker, and she soon realized that writing down orders was a waste of precious time. When she moved onto Lobsterman’s Wharf in 1997, she started honing in on her knack for memorizing orders.

For one thing, she said couldn’t keep track of her pen. “So I just started doing it, and it became a challenge.”

It also became a betting game with the regular customers. “'If you don’t remember what I ordered,'” they’d say, “'can I get it for free?’ I’d say sure, but if I remember everything correctly you’ll owe me 50 bucks.”

She started making extra money on those bets.

Hallinan scoffs at the notion that she has a photographic memory. “It’s really just a matter of association. I look at every person I wait on, I listen to what they’re saying, and I associate their face to what they order. I look at a face and see a lobster roll.”

Hallinan’s mother, Boothbay Register Sales Manager Kathy Frizzell, believes that at least a part of her daughter's skill, gift, or just exceptional memory, is a result of being observant. “She takes in the whole picture, and knows a lot of her customers. She knows what they drink, and when they want a refill.

“She didn’t really apply herself in high school. She probably would have gotten straight As if she had. She didn’t do a lot of homework, and she didn’t take notes, but she listened, and retained information.”

The largest party Hallinan remembers serving, with nary a glitch, was 31 people. She said they were skeptical when she didn’t write anything down. “People get nervous because they don’t think they’re going to get what they ordered.”

These are some comments offered by people around town:

“I have always been amazed by her!” -Sally Bullard

“She's amazing ... never seen anything like it ... I was part of a very large group. She never wrote anything down (and) knew exactly what everyone had throughout the night.” – Jeff Teel

“She’s incredible – and unflappable – even the huge rude tables of moving target children – and she doesn’t flinch!” – Elizabeth Evans

“Aside from her remarkable memory, her wit, humor and advice, both requested and offered, she makes for a complete dining experience.” – George Friant

“Calm, cool, well-humored and a great memory! Not to mention a great smile.” – Caroline Canning

“She should own her own restaurant because she is amazing at both service and management!” – Sarah Morley

“Now that's a waitress !!!!! the Best of the Best !!!!!!!” – Bet Finocchiaro

Lisa Orne Hallinan’s comment was as short and sweet: “She rocks.”

And Douglas Carter piped in: “When in need, she’s there indeed. And alcohol helps people remember everything.”

Boothbay Register Editor Kevin Burnham had this to say:

“The first time I recognized her skill, we had a table of about 22 family members at Robinson's, ranging from age 4 to 80. When it was time for everyone to order food – with about six separate checks – I noticed that Andrea had no note pad. She wasn’t writing anything down. I thought, 'no way someone's order is not going to be messed up.' But everyone got what they ordered ... I was amazed, and after dinner, I asked her how she does it. She shrugged her shoulders and said, ‘It's just something I can do.’”

“After 20 years of waiting on this community, I know a lot of people and their likes,” she said.