It’s quiet in the International House of Pancakes when Rosetta Patterson stations herself at the reception counter. Her eyes are bright, her short hair coifed. Her studded earrings sparkle against the morning rays.
“Good mooorning,” Patterson, 39, says to a group coming through the door. At 9:14 a.m., her cheery tone is unexpected. The customers look up from their phones and smile faintly. Minutes later, as she leads them to their seats, she has them chuckling.
The single mother of two has worked at the IHOP on Alabama Avenue in Washington, D.C., since it opened seven years ago and at the one in Marlow Heights since before it burned down in 2006 and was rebuilt.
“I’m the face of IHOP,” she says unabashedly. Anybody who knows her would point out that she’s its voice, too.
At the breakfast food franchise, where meals blur together in a medley of waffles and sausage, a comfortable lull settles over the crowd.
When Patterson hums the first note of the Rev. Paul Jones’s “I Won’t Complain,” the conversations stop. Her eyes close, she holds an open palm up to the ceiling, fingers curling as the notes leave her lips, and heads lift from their sausage links to watch her serenade two women in a booth.
“All of my good days
“Outweigh my bad days
“I won’t complain.”
There’s light applause, but mostly people just stare and smile, transfixed. Patterson’s voice reverberates through the room, quelling the ambient blues songs playing from the speakers. The pancake house is no music hall, but she makes the acoustics work with an alto sound that fills the empty tables.
Howard Franklin, 45, the leader of a D.C.-based professional music ensemble, shakes his head appreciatively. “Oh, she can sing,” he says.
At a booth by the window, Pastor Ricardo Payne, 57, and his friend, Deeohn Ferris, are finishing up a three-hour meal. Payne comes to the restaurant at least three days a week, and he still remembers the first time he heard Patterson sing years ago.
“Boom, boom, boom,” Payne snaps his fingers. “It was an out-of-body experience. You forget that you’re in IHOP, and you go back to where you were when you heard this song.”
The song was “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” a black spiritual ballad celebrating the birth of Christ. The place was a church in Little Washington, North Carolina, where a 12-year-old Payne listened raptly to the choir. Now when he feels burdened by the pressures of his job, he eats at IHOP to return to his childhood.
This location is a popular gathering spot for professionals like Payne who work in the area. D.C.’s first IHOP is one of the only sit-down restaurants in Ward 8, the city’s poorest neighborhood. Patterson had been hesitant when she received her job offer. A self-described “country girl” from Ladysmith, Virginia, she had been scared by tales of rampant crime.
After some prayer, Patterson decided to take the leap, and she immediately fell in love. Her co-workers were impressed by the way she interacted with customers, who affectionately dubbed her “Miss Rose” -- a nod to her rural roots, as Patterson hasn’t been able to shake her habit of calling people “Sir” and “Ma’am.”
Her childhood was idyllic. Her father, a police officer and native of Ghana, built a trail and a treehouse in their backyard. Patterson and her siblings spent their days racing go-carts and dune buggies around a makeshift racetrack. Her dad taught her how to drive and work under the hoods of cars.
All this time, she was also singing -- for the school choir, the church choir and the neighborhood girl group that she started herself. Patterson grew up listening to Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin and Mariah Carey on repeat, scribbling their lyrics in a notebook and trying to mimic their voices.
They still figure prominently in her repertoire today, alongside gospel songs such as Jason Nelson’s “I Am.”
Harboring showbiz dreams, she started waitressing at H.I. Ribsters at 17. “I thought, ‘Wow, I can make all this money by myself,’ ” says Patterson, who also did a stint selling cars. “That messed me up from going to college. I got comfortable.” Meanwhile, she auditioned for singing competitions such as “American Idol” and “Sunday Best” to no avail.
Her latest try brought her to the second round of auditions for “The Voice” in New York two years ago. But she hit a wrong note in Etta James’ “At Last,” and she hasn’t stepped onstage since.
“The spirit told me, ‘That’s not where I want you to be right now,’ ” Patterson says with a shrug. For now, she’s content to stay at IHOP, where her singing often brings people to tears.
The customers generally don’t make requests; they’re glad to hear Patterson when she’s moved to sing, which happens at least once a day. “This is my ministry,” she says. “I listen to God when he tells me to bless them with a song.”
Many are regulars who have known her for years, who have her number in their phones and have introduced her to their families.
These are the ones who linger as Patterson’s shift draws to a close at 4 p.m. Sisters Cheryl Weeden, 49, and Teresa Gadsden, 50, are longtime fans. “She is truly a rose by every letter of the word,” Gadsden says, recalling when she came in last fall feeling downtrodden. Gadsden had been diagnosed with a growth in her abdomen, and a surgery awaited her. Patterson recognized that she was feeling troubled and began to sing “I Won’t Complain.”
The melody made Gadsden’s eyes well up. “Leave it to Rose to feed me some goodness,” she says.
IHOP has become Patterson’s church and stage. She calls her performances “ministering.” She tells customers on their way out, “You have a blessed day.” To a woman pushing a stroller, she exclaims, “Bless the baby with some pancakes!” Patterson is a “willing vessel”; she likes the idea that God speaks through her songs.
When Ferris and Payne get up to leave, Patterson rushes over to invite them to her wedding at the end of the month; she met her fiance at the Marlow Heights IHOP. “Y’all going to be available?” she asks. Patterson has been working seven days a week to save up for the event, where she’ll be flanked by a party of IHOP-employed bridesmaids and groomsmen.
No, they won’t be serving pancakes at the reception, Patterson says with a laugh as she watches Ferris and Payne leave. Her shift is over, but she lingers to pick up a few more dishes. While she ambles from the dining area to the kitchen, Patterson hums softly to herself. A new song is just on the horizon.