Amid the much-deserved plaudits heaped on doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers during the pandemic, fast-food workers were a somewhat over-looked subset of those deemed essential.
With indoor dining curtailed or prohibited, drive-through restaurants became the go-to source of sustenance for many, including those same doctors, nurses, and other more high-profile heroes of the crisis.
At Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen in Newark, Delaware, John Washburn served throughout the pandemic, as he had been doing since 2010. A 1995 graduate of what was then Wilmington College, Washburn is a valued member of the crew at the fast-food favorite on Kirkwood Highway.
“John opens for us five days a week, works the cash register, and expedites food orders,” says General Manager Awais Cheema. “He is always on time and he’s a hard worker.”
A 1988 graduate of Mount Pleasant High School in Wilmington, Washburn has autism spectrum disorder. Formerly known as Asperger’s, it is a neurodevelop–mental disorder characterized by difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. It was not, however, an impediment to his pursuit of a college degree.
After high school, Washburn enrolled at Widener University and earned an associate degree. He then spent a brief time at the University of Delaware. However, he says, “UD was way too big for me.”
But he quickly found a home at a small school — Wilmington College. In 1992, he enrolled in the Aviation Management program and joined Alpha Eta Rho aviation fraternity.
“The fraternity members took John in and made sure he went on all the flights they took, they came to his graduation party and his birthday party, and they really were amazing at how nice they were to him,” says his mother, Lois Lipton Parker. “He would kind of try to stay by himself, but they would talk to him about flying, sports, and other things so he wouldn’t be alone. I was really impressed with them.”
Says Washburn: “We flew to various small airports in the area and went to the Air & Space Museum in D.C. It was a lot of fun. They were a great group of guys and gals.”
After three years, he found himself one class short of a degree in Aviation Management, but the class he needed would not be offered until the following year. He was informed, however, that at that point he had completed the requirements for a Business Management degree. “So,” he says, “I said, great, and I took that degree.”
Looking back on his Wilmington College experience, he says: “It was what I needed. It was a small school, so I was able to get the attention and help that I needed through classwork and friends.”
His mother says Washburn “has always gone to work every day since he graduated from high school.” He worked 15 years at Burger King in Concord Mall when he and his mother lived in North Wilmington. Then, when they moved to the Pike Creek area south of Wilmington, he got the job at Popeyes.
While 2020 was a challenging year for the nation, stressful times for Washburn and his co-workers actually began months earlier — on Aug. 12, 2019 — the day Popeyes introduced the crispy chicken sandwich. Social media immediately erupted with a favorable comparison to Chick-fil-A’s classic chicken sandwich, and lines formed at every Popeyes in the country.
“We got so busy we were running out of filets and buns,” says Washburn. “And not just our store, all the stores in the area.”
Then, of course, in March of 2020, COVID-19 struck. “Thankfully, my boss was proactive and closed our lobby right when it first hit,” Washburn says.
His summing up of 2020: “This whole year has been an adventure.”
In his spare time, Washburn plays video games to keep his mind sharp, and dotes on his 10-year-old rescue cat, Merry, which he and his mother inherited when his step-sister moved to Texas.
Pre-pandemic, he had been helping his mother when she hosted monthly brunches for area musicians. Parker, a 2019 inductee into the Delaware Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is founder of Luray Productions, which has brought top-name musical talent to the Wilmington area for several years.
“John always was a big help,” she says. “He has been ServSafe certified for years and recently took the test to become an instructor and to administer the certification test.” (ServSafe is a nationally accredited certification program on food safety designed by the National Restaurant Association.)
Washburn is enrolled in a program with the Columbus Organization in Newark, a group of caring professionals whose mission is to assist children and adults with physical and intellectual disabilities to achieve independence. Isheta Smith, community navigator for the organization, has come to know Washburn. “John has a great personality and is very motivated, and he handles responsibility very well,” she says, “especially during the pandemic. He’s a good citizen, and I think he’s living his best life.”