Around midnight tonight, somewhere in Houston an exhausted sous chef will place his last order for the day, while on the other end of the line, Brian Homeyer will punch in his
last order, after more than 30 years with the Chefs Produce Company.
Each workday for years now, Homeyer has been arriving an hour and a half before his 4 p.m shift begins, preparing to receive and log orders for the next day's delivery. From his side of the encased customer service area, he scans upside down clipboards; each one marked with a number correlating to a delivery route.
Like a mantra, he quotes company owner and boss Owen Torres, when he says: "'Give them the best price,' is what he'd say." While Homeyer credits the highest level of management for why he and his co-workers have stayed so long with the company, he's had a part in its success as well.
"He relates so well to the people he talks with on the phone, the chefs," says General Manager Juan Defranco, who has worked there for 22 years. One chef in particular, Jean-Phillipe Gaston of Izakaya, who upon hearing of Homeyer's upcoming retirement, rounded up attention for him via a Facebook post. "I've literally talked to him on the phone since I was trusted to place orders," Gaston says. "Seven restaurants, every position and title, every step of my career, Brian has been there for me."
Like a lot of people, Homeyer took a less than direct part getting to his ultimate career, with stints in the grocery business along the way. As a freshman at Southwest Texas State (now Texas State University in San Marcos), he admits his grades weren't especially high when he was drafted in 1969. Although the U.S. government had already decided what Homeyer would be doing in the near future, his father, an accountant and WWII Air Force pilot, pressured him, "what are you going to do with your life?"
He decided to enter the armed forces early. Having passed his physical, he exited the post office and marched directly to the Army recruitment office with the intention to sign up before his draft date. He was 20 years old and only weighed 115 pounds.
The officers looked at him quizzically, "You want to go now?"
While the Army wasn't ready for him, the Marines next door were. Homeyer emerged successfully with a one-way ticket dated five days later and a two-year contract. A member of Headquarters and Services Company, he served in a reinforcement unit based on Okinawa, which was as he describes, "the safest place you could be. Again, that was God working."
Two weeks into his tour, his staff sergeant pulled him up to train as a mortar man. Homeyer was considered by other mortarmen too small for the job. As he struggled with the heavy equipment his colleagues could only stand by and laugh. But the reality was, too many were getting injured and the position needed to be filled.
"If you're serious about learning, I'll teach you," he recalls his staff sergeant saying. Holding a pen flashlight in his mouth, at night Homeyer practiced wielding the gun until he could move it with ease. He was as serious about becoming a mortarman then as he would later on be about most things that came his way. As Defranco says, "His work ethic is unbelievable, he gives his Marine and grocery background a lot of credit for that."
Toward the end of his time in the Vietnam War, Homeyer was called in by his sergeant. There was a problem and he had an opportunity to be the solution. This sergeant had been signing off on "early outs" for soldiers, and now was threatened to be exposed by a man who wanted to go home early, specifically in Homeyer's place.
Homeyer says he could only laugh. "Is that all?" Content to give up his ticket, he remembers, "I should have offered to stay longer for those that were married."
Prior to the war, Homeyer, who visited his grandfather's farm as a child, had worked at Weingarten's, a southern supermarket chain. Upon returning from overseas, he went back into the grocery business working as the assistant store manager at the original Rice Epicurean Market.
Six years later, he and his wife adopted her brother's three children, and in order to care for them, they spread themselves thin. He made the move to the night shift as produce manager, while she worked mornings. A few years later, they took in another three nieces and nephews, as well as had a child, Isaias.
Don Marsalis, who ran the Chefs' Produce Saturday market saw a desirable candidate in Homeyer because of his extensive product knowledge and understanding of financials. Marsalis recruited him to help out on Saturdays and on May 17, 1987, in the middle of a divorce, Homeyer went to work for Chefs' Produce full time.
He spent seven years managing the market until it closed, and for five years after drove delivery trucks. Nineteen years ago, he made the move to customer service in order to care for his aging mother. Of his two siblings, Homeyer was the only child who lived close enough to drive his mother to doctor's appointments during the day. She died in 2012.
"I like helping people," he says. While never a chef, he worked alongside them. "We bend over backwards because we know there's a lot of stress." Co-workers and customers alike remark fondly on his work ethic and vast produce knowledge. "It's amazing honestly," says co-worker Lupe Gonzalez. "He knows words for vegetables that I've never heard of."
His voice can be heard loud and clear on one-on-one calls or throughout the, give-or-take, thousand square foot office, though Homeyer is quiet in an unassuming way.
His plans to retire already set, he mentions his grandchildren and perhaps exercise as ways to fill the time, while DeFranco hints at him moonlighting on Friday nights. They both smile at the possibility.
Photo by Kate McLean