Kenny Lawson waited tables at Hamburger Mary's on Wednesday, wearing a baseball cap backward. He offered customers Queen Mary burgers and Love Me Tenders chicken strips, fielded reservations for drag queen bingo and served an elderly woman a drink in a cup shaped like a curvy leg in fishnets.
Lawson, 26, has been homeless and without a car for the past year. But, all of a sudden, things have changed. The Clearwater restaurant where he works is expected to be featured on CBS's Undercover Boss this Sunday, said franchise owner Kurt King.
And special attention may go to Lawson, a server and drag performer.
"Everyone had to sign confidentiality agreements," King said. "But all I know is, he's driving a new car."
Undercover Boss slips high-level executives into the rank and file of their own organizations. The show is spotlighting the national chain of gay-friendly burger restaurants that started in San Francisco in 1972. Hamburger Mary's has 13 locations in the United States, including stores in Clearwater and Ybor City.
Melanie Minyon, the day manager and drag queen who leads bingo games with lots of innuendo, said it's no surprise the young man who recently started driving a new Mitsubishi drew attention from producers.
"I've always wondered why that child had to have so many rough spots in his life," Minyon said. "Resilience," she said, is the perfect word to describe him.
In most episodes of Undercover Boss, the CEO struggles to catch up with seasoned workers. Workers are told the cameras are there for a documentary. The episodes often end with a tearful reveal and some employees getting an unexpected bonus.
Though he couldn't talk about the show, Lawson did talk about how rough his past year has been. He was kicked out of his Texas home for being gay, he said. He spent almost every cent buying a plane ticket to Florida, where he had a friend. In August, he got a job at Hamburger Mary's.
He has been living with a series of friends, he said, moving seven times in the past eight months and bumming rides to work because he had no car.
"But I've never been late to work, ever," he said.
What he has found, he said, is a family.
"We're a close-knit group," Minyon said. "Plus he's cute as a bug. That always helps."
The Hamburger Mary's episode is the premiere of the Emmy-winning CBS show's seventh season. Twin brothers Ashley and Brandon Wright, the co-owners of the flamboyant franchise, will serve burgers and cocktails "with a side of sass," according to Undercover Boss materials.
The Clearwater and Ybor locations have regular drag shows. King, 48, who opened the Ybor City location seven years ago, was the grand marshal of the 2015 Tampa Pride parade.
It will be gratifying to see the Clearwater location featured prominently, he said, because he was nervous about opening a Hamburger Mary's in an area with few gay bars. Even the corporate headquarters had doubts, he said.
"They thought I was taking a really big chance, but it was the best opening store ever, saleswise," King said.
Drag queen bingo three times a week is regularly sold out, he said, and raises $1,000 to $3,000 a night for a local charity.
"I always tell people Hamburger Mary's isn't for the faint of heart," said Lawson, who majored in musical theater at Drake University, where he honed his drag act as Juno Vibranz in Iowa nightclubs. "If you can't be open-minded and ready to have fun, then you might as well stay home and eat takeout."
He is nervous about how he will come off in the show. But he can't help but notice how every bad thing has led to something good. He has saved money and said he is close to getting his own place.
"Things happen for a reason," Lawson said. "What if I'd stayed in Texas? What if I hadn't gotten a job here? But I did.
"I moved here and everything fixed itself."
Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at [email protected] Follow @SharonKWn.