MVP: RJ Burtt Is Saratoga’s Late-Shift Hero

If you’ve ever been hungry in Saratoga at 1am on a Saturday night (technically Sunday morning), you’ve likely found your way into Esperanto, which has been a late-night mecca for Caroline Street patrons for more than a quarter century. And while owner Will Pouch is surely deserving of our collective gratitude for opening a grab-and-go restaurant in the middle of the city’s drunkest street, it’s the man on the ground—honestly, in the trenches—whom we’ve named this issue’s MVP.

“I prefer the late nights because I’m a mover,” says RJ Burtt, who has been working at Esperanto since he was 16—some 17 years. “I like having five things to do.”

For those who’ve never experienced Esperanto after midnight on a weekend, picture dozens of food-deprived, alcohol-soaked 20-somethings clamoring for a slice of pizza, burrito or a chicken-and-cheese-filled Oboy—the restaurant’s claim to fame. The only thing standing in their way? Burtt.

“I’ve seen dozens of fights,” Burtt says of the unfortunate side effect of having swarms of drunk people in a confined space. “We have a secret highlight reel of security camera footage.” One recent magazine-appropriate encounter involved a customer accusing Burtt of stealing his wallet…while he was holding said wallet. “He goes, ‘Yo, give my wallet back,’” Burtt says. “I was like, ‘Oh, my man, it’s in your hand.’ And he wouldn’t drop it. He was like, ‘Stop trying to rob me.’ And I was like, ‘I’m not robbing you—your wallet’s in your hand.’” Next thing Burtt knew, the man was on the phone. “He’s like, ‘Yeah, is this the Department of the Treasury? I want to report a financial crime.’ And the woman on the other end goes, ‘Sir, whatis your emergency?!’ And I was like, ‘Oh, man. Did you just call the cops on yourself, dude?’”

It takes a special person to work in any restaurant, but this particular posting requires next-level customer service. So how does Burtt do it? “I’m able to turn on disassociation,” he says. “Just like tunnel vision—I listen to whatever song I put on and just try to be polite.” Indeed, talking to Burtt in the middle of the afternoon (he does work the day shift, too), he’s much more animated than the stoic, unflappable Saturday night version of himself many of us have come to know.

So, after everything he’s seen, is Burtt himself still able to let loose every once in a while? “Working around drunk people for a long time will put you off booze, and if you spend enough time on this block it just becomes the office,” he says, before pausing and then admitting, “But I still went out last weekend.”  

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