The mayor of Publix steers her overloaded cart down the soda aisle, searching for Diet Dr Pepper. She's shopping for the imminent arrival of country star Kellie Pickler, she of American Idol and Dancing With the Stars fame.
"Hey, Harry!" Sally Milano barks at a startled guy stocking bottled waters. "How are you? You look tired!" Over in dairy, Milano, the woman in charge of feeding the famous at Ruth Eckerd Hall, scribbles a note to a deaf grocery clerk about why she's here, one of myriad pre-Pickler runs she'll make.
"I was here the other night, 9:57 p.m., the place was about to close," says Milano. "I was pounding on the door, begging the manager: Please, I have to get something for Jeff Beck!"
What did the guitar god need?
Pickler, who is arriving the next day, has a hankering for hops, too: Bud Light, Miller Lite, Coors Light. The singer's most highfalutin' demand is Tito's vodka, the hip, Hollywood booze of choice. Mainly, though, it's all easy: Red Bull Sugarfree, Kettle Jalapeno Chips, Power Bars.
Oh, and Fruity Pebbles.
Do not forget Pickler's Pebbles.
Milano has a story for every aisle; this is her domain, her brief chance to be a star herself. "See those Cracker Jacks over there? That's a Meat Loaf thing. He always asks for Cracker Jacks, but never opens them!"
As each Pickler item lands in her cart, Milano crosses it off the singer's backstage rider, a.k.a. the litany of rock-star demands.
It's Milano's job to fulfill every one, with a smile.
"Kellie's easy," says Milano, bringing her cart to an abrupt stop, dropping her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "I once had to get underpants for Kid Rock. No, really. Gray boxers. Medium."
To say Milano will go-go-go the extra mile for a rock star is an understatement. She once used a pedometer to measure how far she walks on show days at Ruth Eckerd — shopping for stars, prepping for stars, cooking for stars, fetching for stars.
Total distance? Nine miles.
Now multiply that by more than 700 shows over the past 10 years.
All that laborious mileage to please people who won't even learn the name of the St. Petersburg native tending to them.
Such as Diana Ross, who once asked if Milano could paint her dressing room white. Forget Fruity Pebbles; the Supreme wanted remodeling! "We hung sheets and brought in extra lighting," she says with a polite smile.
Besides decking out dressing rooms and decorating the rather utilitarian dining room and the small buffet area, Milano plans the menu for just about every pop and rock star who plays at Ruth Eckerd Hall. She does research. She'll talk to a production manager about likes, dislikes. "Carrot Top's rider said 'No carrot cake — it's not funny!' "
She gave up cooking every single thing awhile ago, but she still insists on making dessert. Her rep is always on the line. "Amy Grant played here because of the food. (Her husband) Vince Gill went home and raved about it ... . Engelbert Humperdinck loves my lamb chops."
Milano refuses to serve "Sharpie chicken" — meat with grill marks painted on. She avoids generic. Instead, there was a White Wedding cake for Billy Idol; a Union Jack cake for Ringo Starr. Pickler, a vegetarian, is getting tofu kabobs, a Dancing With the Stars sheet cake and Milano's specialty: Mountain Dew Apple Cobbler.
"A country girl who likes country stuff," Milano says with a nod.
• • •
With a slightly tamer version of Phyllis Diller's hairdo and a compact stature that befits her momentum, Milano is vague on her title and her age ("starts with a 6"), but this much is clear: She's a big reason why Ruth Eckerd is considered a hot national spot for rock and pop stars to play.
The touring life is city after city, cold-cut platter after cold-cut platter. Milano also deals with repetition, "always on to the next meal." But a great performer makes each show a unique experience for the fan; Milano, in her own way, strives for same.
Eli Grady, the executive chef at Ruth Eckerd, calls Milano "the Peyton Manning of backstage catering." Chief programming officer Bobby Rossi, the guy who lures the big names, dubs Milano the venue's "den mother," albeit one unafraid to speak her mind.
The talent loves her, too. "This food is the top end," says Jay Gorman, Pickler's bassist, adding that the backstage spread at most touring venues "sucks."
Milano, as Milano is wont to do, waves off the compliments: "A home-cooked meal. That's basically what I'm trying for."
But it's more than that. Not every backstage manager would special order a balsamic vinaigrette for picky crooner Harry Connick Jr. Or holiday-theme her food, such as the Children of the Corn Bread for Halloween.
"I make them feel at home, comfortable," she smiles.
"I'm a diplomat."
• • •
Before Ruth Eckerd, Milano was a party planner, organizing local NBA star Matt Geiger's millennium shindig, entertaining at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. In between serving VIPs, she tucked in five marriages, four kids.
Messy life, clean kitchen.
Her relationship with her kitchen staff is a love-hate thing. "She always expects more, a perfectionist," says sous chef Rich Widmer. "She can be intense."
"Intense is a good word," Milano agrees.
If you want to tick her off, I mean really get her going, then just take her cart, her wheels, her main transportation in the venue. "If you don't have a good cart here, your life is miserable," she says. "I clean it, take care of it, put WD-40 on the wheels."
Milano understands the rather cold law of backstage. "You have to know your place, stay out of their way," she says matter-of-factly. But she appreciates when the rock stars reciprocate with care. In the end, amid all the trappings, it's still human nature. "The best thing I hear is when I call the tour manager after the show and he says, 'Sally, I've been in this business a long time, and you do a great job.' "
There was also that time when Ringo Starr asked for a picture with her. "He never does stuff like that," Milano says, still in awe.
As for Kellie Pickler, well, she never leaves her tour bus.
At least not to eat.
The famously ditzy blond from North Carolina signs autographs, plays her show. What she doesn't do is come into Sally's kitchen, see the cobbler, the kabobs.
"It doesn't bother me," Milano says rather quietly.
Pickler's band, however, devours Milano's food as if they haven't eaten in weeks.
"The collard greens are on the money, I'll tell you that," Gorman, the bassist, says. "I've never had butternut squash soup that I liked, but that is incredible. Let's pack it up and take it all with us."
Comedian Larry the Cable Guy is coming to Ruth Eckerd the next night. In a rare occurrence, Hooters will be providing the food, mostly wings. So Milano gets the night off — or not. "I'll still do a few little things," says the Peyton Manning of backstage catering. No doubt about that.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.