Service with a SMILE

April’s MVP: EARL “HAPPY” MITCHELLAt 8 a.m. on a recent Friday, the sun was just coming up over Harbour Town Golf Links. While the rest of the world was yawning and coming to life, one man was already up and facing the day with a smile that has become his trademark. Despite the hour, Earl “Happy” Mitchell already had a table of early risers at The Harbour Town Grill, in The Sea Pines Resort, howling with laughter, whipped into a chuckling frenzy thanks to his infectious energy.

The joke that started it all ended up lost in the laughter, but the punchline had something to do with an egg white omelet that had to be precisely cooked. They were the only people in the entire restaurant, but Happy had them laughing hard enough that Chuck, his co-worker behind the bar, was having a hard time hearing the phone call he’d just answered.

It’s hard to imagine so much energy coming from one man, much less one man who has been dazzling customers in Sea Pines since the very first Heritage tournament teed off in 1969.

Monthly caught up with Happy, The Harbour Town Grill’s iconic mainstay, a month after he was recognized as the South Carolina Hospitality Employee of the Year, an award he received from the SC Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism, and immediately upon his return from a well-deserved vacation.

Hilton Head Monthly: It’s surprising to hear that you even take vacations. Where did you go?
Happy Mitchell: My wife and I celebrated our 37-year anniversary in New York City. We had a wonderful time taking in all the sights. But, everyone was waiting for me back here, asking ‘When will Happy be back?’

HHM: And, judging by your one table so far, you’ve jumped right back into it. (The table of four is still buzzing with energy).
That’s pretty typical. That’s what motivates me. It helps to have the gift of gab. If I see someone coming in, and they don’t seem to be feeling well, I get them talking. I ask, ‘Do you golf? Play tennis? Do you fish?’ and, generally, through talking to them, I can see them start to loosen up. It’s great when I do that and they tell me, ‘Happy, you made my day.’

HHM: How long have you been in hospitality?
HM: I’ve been with Sea Pines for 44 years. I was born and raised on Hilton Head Island and started out at the William Hilton Inn. I came to Harbour Town in 1986. I’ve got people bringing their kids in to see me who came to see me when they were kids.

HHM: And who was the first to coin the nickname “Happy?”
This was back in the early ’60s, at the William Hilton Inn. We used to do oyster roasts on Friday nights to welcome the guests and show them how to shuck oysters. One couple saw me joking and laughing with everyone, and when they introduced themselves to the general manager they told him, ‘that guy’s name is happy’ And, it stuck. (At this point, Happy excuses himsef to go check on his tables food. When he returns with their breakfast, including the meticulously ordered omelet that had set off the earlier commotion, a fresh crop of howling laughter issues from the table. He returns, still chuckling.)

HHM: Tell us about your family.
HM: My wife Brenda is an RN at TidePointe. She has a lovely staff there who look up to her as a mentor. We have four children, two girls and two boys and seven grands. I’ve also got a great mother-in-law, Pauline Holmes, and my wonderful mother, Evelina Mitchell.

HHM: What was it like to win the South Carolina Hospitality Employee of the Year?
HM: I got a nice surprise at the awards ceremony. I was told that my daughter Janine couldn’t make it, but as we’re getting ready for the presentation they tell us ‘ We need two more seats at this table’ and my daughter pops up.

But as far as the actual award, I have to thank a lot of people for helping me along the way. John Curry is the one who recommended me for it. Also, I have to thank the staff at Parks and Recreation, the Frasers for letting me work with their family, the Goodwins who have stepped into that role, John Monroe and Steve Wilmot.