Let your eyes adjust to the darkness inside Federico's -- a little Mexican bar at Eighth Street and Broadway in south Phoenix -- and the first thing you'll wonder is, how does anyone get a drink around here?
The waitresses are all on the dance floor, shaking it with the patrons.
You might think the boss would want to have a chat with these ladies. But that's exactly what Federico Villalon did eight months ago. Villalon -- a white-haired gent pushing 70 who looks more like he should be running a bingo parlor than a popular hot spot on Broadway -- wants his girls to serve in more ways than one.
(No, no, not that way. Everything about this place is strictly PG.)
Dance with them, Villalon told the waitresses, and they will come. And they did. Thursdays through Sundays, the place is filled with mostly men in norteño uniform -- tight jeans, cowboy or baseball hats and boots. They drink lots of Bud Light and sing along to popular rancheras, but mostly they like to hit the spacious checkered dance floor with the pretty girls in the tight clothes. It's a fun and almost formal affair, with the men thanking the ladies after each dance. They tip them, too, and the girls dance with their arms around the guys' necks, clutching wads of dollar bills folded lengthwise.
The mood setter is a husband-and-wife duo called Maria Luisa, Orlando y Tecla-dos -- a clever name since all the music comes from the teclados, or keyboards. Orlando Hassard and his singing wife are eerily like a Latin version of the SNL middle school music teacher and his wife played by Will Ferrell and Ana Gasteyer. Maria Luisa sings standards designed to get the men in a drinking and dancing mood, while Hassard is a one-man band, pounding his keys to produce a full band sound. "I play them with feeling," he says.
The pair have had the Thursday to Sunday gig for a year now and have seen the rise in business since Federico gave the girls the nod to trip the light fantastic with the customers. "This is a different kind of bar," says Hassard. "The owner says, You can dance, don't be bored.'"
And the girls dance, although it's not always a good experience. Some of these guys might want to pay a visit to Arthur Murray. Others need to learn more basic manners.
"I don't dance if they are too drunk. They're too heavy," says Alejandra Nolan, one of the more popular dancing servers. The 19-year-old had a baby two months ago, but you'd never know it. One evening she receives gifts of roses and a teddy bear, compliments of three admiring, but very shy, customers. They giggle when their identity is revealed.
One short fellow in oversize clothes keeps dragging waitresses to the dance floor. "He learned how to dance here. He used to dance like a robot," says Hassard.
"Oh, he likes to dance," says Rosa Sanchez, an attractive 41-year-old who looks a lot younger, "but he doesn't tip." She has been dancing at Federico's since a breakup with her husband. She says she has bad luck with men. She still dates, she says, but she never goes dancing.
"I dance enough here," Sanchez says.
On the job, Sanchez and her co-workers like to keep moving. When the girls aren't dancing, they hover in a corner of the bar, waiting to pounce. There aren't any stations to cover, so every Joe is fair game, which means the dancing waitresses get a lot of "No thanks."
Federico's never charges a cover and is expanding (for the third time) by knocking down a wall in the small building on Broadway. Outside, the windows are filled with neon beer signs, and the flat rooftop is lined with red chile pepper Christmas lights. Inside, the place is pretty stark -- it's not even smoky.
Joe Gonzales has watched the changes. The 30-year-old lives just a few houses away and enjoys the new setup. "I like the place. The women are beautiful. If they dance, there's nothing wrong with that."
And there's something right about the poignant moments on the dance floor.
"Sometimes an ugly mo-fo comes in here. He's got no chance to score and the waitresses have to dance -- it's part of their job to make him happy. And that brings in more money," Gonzales says. When asked why he's not dancing, he shows his ring finger and says he can't.
Every Thursday and Sunday, Evelyn Diaz fires up the backyard grill and has her girls walk around the bar offering free tacos to everyone (Fridays and Saturdays are too packed), but she credits the increase in business more to the dancing wait staff than the free food. "I make sure they are working, moving," says the house mother of sorts.
You'd think with this kind of service, the staff would also be happy to wipe your chin, dust off your barstool, pat the dew from your beer bottle. Not even. Oddly enough, one thing the two female bartenders and waitresses won't do is open your beer. With twist-offs it's not such a problem. But you'd better bring your own opener.
"Those, they can do themselves," dancer Candelaria Burciaga says of the beer. Or they can pay.
"I pay a dollar to have them open my beer for me," says Gonzales.
Even without the "service charge," these beers aren't exactly cheap. Mexican beers are four bucks, and domestics, which are more popular, will run you $2.75.
Federico's is packed most nights, and it's no wonder why. The music is great and no one ever gets shot down. You'd be hard-pressed to find another place like this in town, but with the success this one is having, it might just be the new rage in customer service.
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