For the 81 years Piccolo Pete's Italian steakhouse was open in Omaha, Nebraska, it was a neighborhood restaurant where families came to eat heaps of pasta with red sauce and 16-oz. T-bone steaks, served by a staff of locals. Above the tables in the wood-paneled dining room, a sparkly crystal ball hung as a relic from the restaurant's days of hosting ballroom dancing with dinner.
Then, in 2005, something quite exciting happened at the family-run eatery: A billionaire came to dinner.
A very important customer
Warren Buffett, "the oracle of Omaha," first started frequenting Piccolo's in May of 2005, according to the restaurant's former general manager, Scott Sheehan. That winter, he decided to have his company Christmas luncheon at the restaurant.
Waitress Ellen Augustine, 43, remembers arriving for her shift on that afternoon in the winter of 2005 — she could sense excitement in the air. "I can't lie, I was a little bit nervous," she tells CNBC Make It. She kept telling herself "He's just a human."
Today, at 87, Omaha native Buffett is one of the wealthiest people in the world, worth over $82 billion. His financial conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway has a market cap of more than $472 billion. In 2005, Buffett was already worth a fortune — and important to woo as a diner.
Buffett's event was a big deal for the restaurant (in addition to the obvious reasons) because back then he was known to be a loyal diner at rival Omaha steakhouse Gorat's, Augustine explains. Now, he was coming to Piccolo's, and the owners had high hopes he'd become a regular.
The service needed to be perfect. But it didn't quite turn out that way for Augustine.
"They have this luncheon, there's about 25 people," Augustine remembers of the fete. "I come in to wait on them, and [Buffett] wants his Cherry Coke, of course. Mind you, this is set up [with] all white table cloths, just beautiful.
"I go to set down his Cherry Coke, and the darn cup tips over, and our white table cloth is now all brown. I know I was 20 shades of red."
Augustine began apologizing and blotting the table with napkins, but Buffett laughed it off. He told her, "It's fine, you're going to make this a party I'll never forget," she remembers. "He was just so nice about it."
Although the rest of the meal went well, Augustine followed Buffett to the door as he left to apologize once more. "I would love if you would let me be your server again next year," she said.
As the saying goes, you won't get what you don't ask for. That luncheon led to a decade-long relationship between Augustine and Buffett — she served him at Piccolo's dozens, perhaps even 100 times before the restaurant closed in 2016.
Talking business over lunch
Augustine says Buffett's favorite dishes were veal with no gravy and a side of lemon, or chicken Parmesan for lunch, or chicken noodle soup. Or, he might order a T-bone or fillet of steak. Most meals came with a , and a root beer float for dessert (which Piccolo's reportedly added to the menu after Buffett's second wife Astrid mentioned he liked them).
But over the years she wasn't just witness to Buffett's eating habits. Often her star customer would bring to dinner other high profile guests, like billionaire and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, and they would talk business.
"For some reason, Bill Gates being present made me way more nervous," Augustine jokes. "I'm taking their order, I go to put it in the computer and I just hear them talking about moving millions of dollars from here to there ... I was just flabbergasted."
Buffett also brought famous friends from General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt to former New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez.
He even started conducting job interviews with Berkshire Hathaway executives at Piccolo's: Augustine served up lunches and dinners for Buffett's sit downs with Todd Combs and Tracy Britt Cool, both now high-ranking employees of the company.
She was the waitress for Ted Weschler's first meeting with Buffett too, after Weschler won the billionaire's charity lunch auction in 2010. Weschler donated $2,626,311 to charity to eat with Buffett, and he asked that the meal be held somewhere low profile.
"My boss calls me, and she's like 'Ellen, we've got this guy coming in and he paid $2 million. Can you please come wait on them?'" she remembers. "My first question was, am I going to get tipped off a percentage of the $2 million or a percentage of their total bill?"
The financiers (who ordered chicken Parmesan for a total of about $34) had lunch again after Weschler won the same auction the following year, and Buffett offered him a job. As of February, Todd Combs and Ted Weschler each controlled more than $12 billion in investments for Berkshire Hathaway.
Lessons from a legend
According to Piccolo's former owner, Donna Piccolo Sheehan (mom to former GM Scott), Buffett's famous patronage helped save business, which had slowed in the early 2000s, to keep the generations-held restaurant running.
But Piccolo's and Augustine weren't the only ones who benefited.
Augustine had started waitressing in 1999 while finishing up an associates degree in business and then a bachelors degree in secondary education, but she continued to serve Buffett's lunches and dinners even after she became an economics teacher at Omaha South High School. Since then, she has shared Buffett's wisdom and wit with hundreds of sophomores she teaches, she says.
In Augustine's class, students get a whole course on Buffett's philosophies.
"I love to talk about Warren and his story," she says. Every year after Berkshire's annual shareholder meeting in Omaha, her students complete a research paper on Buffett and investing, and Augustine shares research she's done from reading about Buffett's strategies for investment.
"Saving and investing, that's huge," she explains. "I teach at a high school that is 85 percent poverty [level] so some of my kids don't even know who Warren Buffett is, which is kind of shocking.
"We talk about how Mr. Buffett was a paper boy and he saved his money so he could invest it," she continues. "I teach sophomore economics, so they’re just right about the age they start working, 15 years old, 16 years old, so the saving and investing is key. They get their first paycheck and go spend it on one pair of tennis shoes. What are those tennis shoes going to do for you for the rest of your life?”
Augustine uses her decade worth of anecdotes overheard from Buffett to illustrate his ideas about frugality and long term thinking. She says a favorite is a story Buffett shared at a Piccolo's dinner party about his trip to the White House to visit President Barack Obama in 2010. At some point during the meeting, Obama noticed Buffett's tie was frayed, so the president went upstairs and returned with a gift-wrapped tie for Buffett to wear instead.
"The kids really get into that, and it helps when I can tell them stories that I've heard him tell," she says. And, she also encourages students to think about buying stocks as buying a small piece of a company you believe in — a long held tenent of Buffett's philosophy.
“I think one of the most important things that I’ve learned from Mr. Buffett from reading [about him] and talking with him is making sure that whatever you’re investing in aligns with your values, " she says. "You don’t want to invest in a business that’s doing things you don’t believe in.”
Augustine, a mother of four, says her 11-year-old son has already started investing. "Of course, I share my stories with my son," she says with a laugh. "He's kind of a nerd."
Although Piccolo's has closed, Augustine is waitressing part time at Gorat's, which Buffett still occasionally frequents. Augustine now shares her stories with patrons there. Outside of his investing tips, Augustine tries to pass along Buffett's practice of authenticity.
"Mr. Buffett is always himself," she says. "I've waited on him with big head honchos ... and he acts pretty much the same exact way as he does when I wait on him and his family."
But, there's one lesson she isn't listening to: "The only thing I don't take his advice on is his eating habits," she laughs. "You have to eat those veggies kids."
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