Bert Austin serves smiles and good spirits
Though she’d shake her head and argue this, it’s just a fact: Bert Austin is attractive.
So much so that people call weeks ahead to ensure that they’ll be seated in her section when they visit Musette, a restaurant in Cape Porpoise. Patrons make annual visits to Musette, formerly called The Wayfarer, for the sole purpose of seeing this particular server who has been on site for 30 years.
“Bert, alone, is definitely worth a trip down to Cape Porpoise,” says Erin Bremser, administration manager for Musette. “She is fantastic, and everyone in Kennebunkport knows and loves her. She’s one of a kind. We have tons of repeat customers who come here just to see her! She definitely has a following.”
Austin, 65, does stand out. You can’t help taking a second glance at someone wearing two fuzzy hats (neon-blue and neon-green) and full sleeve of rubber bracelets in a rainbow of colors—they’re all special to her, given by customers to mark an array of causes. Austin’s apron is adorned with big colorful pins, including a yellow smiley face that she’s kept since high school. It holographically flips to “Have a Happy Day.” And she’s known for the dangly mismatched pair of earrings—a sunny-side up egg and a chicken with an egg—that she’s worn daily for decades.
“I’ve become the lady with the fried-egg earrings. My son Michael, who is my pride and joy, thinks they’re absolutely ridiculous, but people get excited to see them,” says Austin, who also is in the habit of wearing fun, mismatched socks. “I know the way I dress is kind of silly, but it just makes people smile.”
And that’s really what is at the heart of this server’s attractiveness. She’s warm and friendly—and determined to make sure customers feel welcomed and happy.
As a frequent customer enters the restaurant one early July morning, she rushes to give him a hug and smile—and that’s the norm. She makes her way through the dining room, chitchatting, asking a customer about his day, others about their trip to Maine, another about her kids. She gets to know people.
“A lot of people tell me, ‘Bertie, you made us feel like family,’ and that makes me melt. But I think that’s what you should feel, right? In this day and age, when people can’t seem to put down their devices, I think that little extra is important, not just in the restaurant but everywhere. I think it’s really important to make eye contact, and hold the door and say ‘good afternoon.’ At Musette, I want people to feel good in the short time they’re here. If someone comes in and they’re not in such a good mood, maybe they’ll leave in a lot better spirits.”
Feeling connected with people is important to Austin, who has deep roots in Kennebunkport and has worked for a variety of restaurants there, starting at The Captain’s, which was run for 35 years across from Musette by her aunt, Beryl Bilderback. Austin also has worked as a lunch lady, as her grandmother did, in the Kennebunk-Kennebunkport school system for more than 15 years. Austin grew up in town, as did her mother and grandfather. Her late husband Michael’s family also goes way back in Turbat’s Creek.
Austin, 65, took a little time off work after her husband’s death in December, and when she returned, she cut back on responsibilities to lighten her load a bit. In addition to serving, she had gradually, over the years, managed the dining room, done scheduling, been a hostess, helped with ordering supplies, handled reservations and logistics and a lot more.
Now she mostly focuses on “going in, smiling, being positive and loving the people.”
She tries to spread this attitude among the staff, so that everyone’s on the same upbeat page. “Everyone has a bad moment here and there, and when it happens, I say, ‘Let it roll off your back, sweep it under the carpet, stomp on it, and move on. Go outside, take a breath, and come back in with a positive attitude.’”
Austin credits her mother, Ellie Moulton, and her Aunt Beryl with shaping her colorful personality. “My mother was a big kid at heart, with such a wonderful outlook. She loved life and lived it to the fullest. And my aunt was hard-working and taught me the ropes about working with the public.”
Musette’s co-owner and chef Jonathan Cartwright is a big Bert fan.
“I feel honored to have her here, helping us,” he says. “Bert’s a legend in this place and in this whole town. She’s sweet to everybody, and genuine to everybody—a breath of fresh air. And she’s not fazed by anything. If we’re doing something new, she’s the first to jump on board with it. She’s the best.”
Patricia McCarthy worked for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram for 23 years, was publisher of The Cape (Elizabeth) Courier for five years, and has been a freelance writer and editor for 35 years. She has three daughters, lives in Cape Elizabeth, and also has a photography business (patriciamccarthy.com).