JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Waiting tables helped save Stacey Spiehler's life.

She had been homeless, sleeping on friends' couches for a while and later staying at a shelter for three months in 2015.

"When I desperately needed a job, the restaurant industry welcomed me with open arms," Spiehler says.

Last week, Spiehler, 37, who works at Fine & Dandy in Jackson, received a surprise she still can't wrap her mind around: She was voted the Jackson metro area's best server in the Clarion Ledger's recent online poll.

"When I got the call from work saying that I had won, I was really excited . kinda stomping around," she says, laughing. "I'm still processing it.

"The whole part of being a server is representing a restaurant well. To your guests, you are the face of the place. I'm happy for myself, happy for Fine & Dandy and I can't wait to tell the world."

"For us to have the best server in Jackson is quite the accolade for us, and we're happy for Stacey," says Marisa Marino, Fine & Dandy's director of hospitality. "We're a fresh company here in Jackson, and we are trying to take service to a new level. Stacey winning only helps people understand the kind of servers we have here.

"Stacey builds relationships with her customers. You feel like you know her after she's served you. And that's not an easy job from a server's standpoint, but it's very important to us. We want people to feel like they are guests in our home. Stacey makes sure we do that."

'I learned humility'

Spiehler (pronounced SPEE-ler) grew up in Newburg, Indiana, and first waited tables at age 16.

"I worked at the (American Legion Hut) as a way to make some spending money," she says. "That's where I had my biggest nightmare as a server. I had this big tub of ranch salad dressing and was filling up the container at the buffet. It slipped out of my hand, and my heart dropped just as fast as that tub did.

"Ranch went everywhere . down the back of a woman's dress. I was in tears. Thank goodness the woman was nice about it. My dad was the assistant commander at the Legion, and I was able to pay for her dry cleaning. I can still see that tub of ranch heading toward the floor."

Spiehler eventually married, moved to New Orleans and worked as a server at Steamboat Natchez, which includes a two-hour cruise with a meal.

"I remember telling the man who hired me that I could handle the job, no problem," Spiehler says. "But I really struggled. I had trouble talking to people, getting the orders correct. It was a lot different than my job as a teenager."

She and her family moved to Jackson in 2004. She was a stay-at-home mom for nine years. The couple had a son, Ace, now 11. He suffers from cerebral palsy and is autistic.

"I went through a really big personal life change (in 2015)," Spiehler says. "I became addicted to drugs and alcohol. My husband and I separated in a pretty dramatic way, and I was forced to leave my home and my son.

"Being homeless will make you take nothing for granted again."

After months of struggling, Spiehler was hired as a server at Mellow Mushroom in Flowood.

"Everybody there who trained me and guided me (was) so patient," she says. "I was able to learn and grow."

But she was still battling her demons.

"I felt for a long while like nobody loved me, but they did," Spiehler says. "The problem was I didn't love myself. I was killing myself with every drug and every drop of alcohol I was putting into my body."

She went to rehab in January 2016 and returned to Mellow Mushroom eight months later — clean.

"On Jan. 22, it'll be two years since I've touched a drop of alcohol or a single drug," she says. "While I was away, I learned humility — and I think that's one of the things that allows me to be a good server."

"We related a lot as far as difficulties go," Marino says. "I've been through some tough times, too. So it's been great being able to train Stacey, watch her work with such passion. She's on a journey, and I feel like I get to go on it with her."

Spiehler and her husband are divorced. Ace lives with him in the Jackson area.

"My ex-husband is my best friend, and we do everything we can to co-parent and make Ace's life as easy as possible," Spiehler says. "Ace has a huge support system, and my ex-husband is one of the biggest parts of that."

Amazing grace

Spiehler wound up at Fine & Dandy with the help of what she calls "a God moment."

She was working the afternoon shift at Mellow Mushroom. "It was a slow day, just a few customers," she says. "I was actually serving and bartending."

She struck up a conversation with two visitors. They turned out to be Marino and her bar manager.

"They asked me about all the beers on the wall," Spiehler recalls. "I told them about them, and then I asked what they did for a living. Marisa said they were opening a new restaurant. They weren't head-hunting for servers, it just sort of worked out that way.

"I prayed about it, talked to a friend and my mom about it and decided to apply. Sure enough . "

Says Marino: "She greeted us, seated us, was our server. She was also handling the bar. It really impressed me that she could handle all that with such ease. And she was really easy to talk to."

Spiehler was hired before Fine & Dandy opened Dec. 11 in The District at Eastover development. The restaurant offers various burgers, catfish, snacks and cocktails in a fine dining atmosphere. The head chef is Jesse Houston, formerly of Parlor Market and Saltine in Jackson.

"It was really fun having the opportunity to get on board before the restaurant opened," Spiehler says. "I got this from the owner, Ray-Scott Miller, who said that most memorable experiences in a person's life happen at a table — a kitchen table, dining room table. People celebrate birthdays there, holidays. They eat at tables at their favorite restaurants. And that really hit home with me.

"It really made me focus on being exceptionally gracious to our customers, which doesn't cost me anything. Most people are incredibly gracious. And even if someone isn't, I find it too exhausting to change my behavior by getting angry.

"The one thing I know is, God did me so right by bringing me to this restaurant."

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Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, http://www.clarionledger.com