March 30, 2013 was a sad day for Ralphs supermarket in Malibu. That was the day Debrah Caraway, the Singing Grocery Store Clerk, retired.
Caraway wasn’t anxious to leave, but a car accident last year left her with injuries too debilitating to overcome.
Generations of Malibuites will miss Caraway’s unique customer service mojo. She was known for greeting shoppers (all of the regulars whom she knows by name) with an infectious, “Good morning, Beautiful!” or “How you doing, Handsome!” and serenading them as she scanned their items at the register before bagging.
Motown, pop – you could tell what era it was by the tune she would croon to you during her 36 years at Ralphs. Her contralto voice, and the appearance of a clerk singing as she worked, like a modern-day Mary Poppins, was so engaging, it would spur customers to wait a little longer to check out, just so they could pass through Caraway’s register.
“There are people who really represent the spirit of Malibu,” ‘Fireball’ Tim Lawrence, a regular customer, said of Caraway. “She brought camaraderie and freshness and joy to the whole experience of shopping. She just had this joyous swagger that would lift your mood, no matter what. Debrah is a lesson for all of us.”
Caraway didn’t start her career at Ralphs thinking she’d end up known as such. Thirty six years ago, she was a student at Pepperdine studying business management, and looking to pay off her student loan with some local gigs. She took the job as box girl, thinking she might last 10 days.
Eventually, she became pregnant with her son, Tresbien (it means “very good” in French). When he was born several weeks early, she had to quit school to look after her new baby. She rose through the ranks, working the service deli and eventually the registers, sometimes bringing her son to work with her.
“I didn’t get into singing till Tresbien was born,” Caraway said. “I would sing him to sleep, and I found I would calm down. So I started singing around the store. It seemed like it helped people who came in looking stressed.”
Caraway has seen a lot change in Malibu over the past three and a half decades. The good part was watching local children grow up, then inviting Caraway to their own baby showers. Soccer moms would bring Tresbien to their children’s practices at Bluffs Park. But she says that mostly she noticed the change in the business climate of Malibu.
“This really used to be more of a beach town where you knew everybody,” Caraway said. “Now, it’s more competitive, like Manhattan Beach or Beverly Hills. You used to walk into a business here and know the owners. Now, they’re from some big chain.”
When Tresbien was born, Caraway moved to Inglewood, then bought a house in Gardena. It would take over an hour for her to drive to work each day.
“When I am at home, I am all about my child,” Caraway said. “When I am at work, I am all about my customers. So my drives to and from Malibu are when I sort out my mind. It’s Debrah time.”
There will be plenty of bereft Ralphs customers with Caraway’s retirement. Mary Gonzalez nominated Caraway for her Dolphin Award a couple of years ago.
“I’ve known Debrah since she started at Ralphs,” Gonzalez said. “You could stand to the side of her line and watch how her customers would smile and laugh. Nominating her for a Dolphin Award was the best thing I ever did in Malibu.”
‘Fireball’ Tim’s wife, Kathie Lawrence, has similar fond memories.
“I remember coming into Ralphs one New Year’s Eve and Debrah was working,” Lawrence said. “We ended up staying till midnight there with her and we all celebrated. She’s always just so upbeat.”
Art Postajian was a Ralphs manager for 26 years and worked at the Malibu Ralphs for six or seven of those years. He said that when he first saw Caraway singing at the register, he was taken aback.
“It was unusual at first,” Postajian said. “But I watched how customers reacted and then I just let Debrah do her thing. We have lots of training programs but Debrah never needed them. Customer service just comes naturally to her. Dick Van Dyke would wait to get in her line and sing along with her.”
In retirement, Caraway plans on sleeping in a little, working at her church and looking after her newborn grandson, Roman Tresbien Caraway.
“It’s time to get to know me a little,” she said. “Malibu made me a better person. If the Lord sent Moses to the desert, he sent me to Malibu.”