GULFPORT — This is how crazy it gets when customers jam the Habana Cafe and order hundreds of things.
Servers fly into a sorting area outside the kitchen, where a designated "window person" separates salad and sandwich requests from items that must be cooked. "They might say, 'You've got two number fours, three number fives and six number eights,' " said David Hastings, the owner's husband. On the other side of the counter, chef Horace "Big Dog" Ward juggled incoming orders like a pro: tender ropa vieja with green peppers and tomatoes, chicken with Valencia rice, and breaded sirloin de Palomilla.
All while watching SpongeBob SquarePants.
"He could put out 350 meals watching SpongeBob without skipping a beat," said Jo Gonzalez-Hastings, the restaurant's owner.
Mr. Ward, one of the first chefs hired at the Cuban restaurant, died March 6 at a hospital, Gonzalez-Hastings said. He was 56.
In 16 years, he almost never missed a day of work.
He gave everyone around him nicknames, including himself. Consequently, the Habana kitchen echoed with names like Pokey, McNasty, and, of course, the Dog himself. Mr. Ward referred to Hastings and Gonzalez-Hastings as Chief and Boss Lady. "I don't think he knew my first name," Gonzalez-Hastings said.
He walked into the restaurant on Gulfport Boulevard S 16 years ago after working at Bay Pines VA Medical Center.
"I said, 'What do you know about Cuban food?' " said Gonzalez-Hastings, a native of Cuba. "He said, 'Not a damn thing!'
"I said, 'You're hired.' "
The VA job told her he could handle massive pressures, Gonzalez-Hastings said.
"They put out thousands of meals a day. If he could do that, he could do anything."
Plus, he had a big gut. That meant he liked to eat.
Mr. Ward made himself at home. Gonzalez-Hastings got him a television so he could watch Cops, SpongeBob or, lately, The Vampire Diaries. "If you got in his way and blocked SpongeBob he would say, 'Chief, can you move a little bit?' " said Hastings, 65.
Mr. Ward was also a Green Bay Packers fan, loyal to quarterbacks Brett Favre and "Mr. (Aaron) Rodgers."
"If you said one bad word about (Favre) or Mr. Rodgers, your food would come out at a snail's pace," Gonzalez-Hastings said.
When the rush was over, he took a seat in a purple chair near the front door to rest and bid customers goodbye.
Mr. Ward lived a few minutes away from the restaurant, and enjoyed bowling at Ten Pin Lanes in South Pasadena on his days off.
He was born in DeLand. He was married but had not lived with his wife for at least a decade, Gonzalez-Hastings said.
In 2005 he was arrested and sentenced to probation on a cocaine possession charge. He violated probation in 2006 and served three weeks in jail. "We had issues with him, but we knew a different side of him," Gonzalez-Hastings said. That different side included his reliability and empathy, she said. Mr. Ward was a workplace teddy bear to whom others went for solace.
In recent years he had worked fewer hours due to diabetes and other health problems. Hastings, a CPA who was also his health surrogate, often drove him to doctor's appointments. The burly 6-foot, 250-pound man was terrified of needles. On March 4, a Monday, Mr. Ward told his employers he felt too tired to work. On Tuesday he did not show up or call. Mr. Ward died the next day at Palms of Pasadena Hospital.
The Habana Cafe is not the same without the man who helped shape its personality, Gonzalez-Hastings said. The purple chair where he took his break now bears a sign. It reads "Doggie's chair." For now, at least, it will remain empty.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.