Kerbey Lane Cafe waitress spreads joy, draws personalized caricatures

Morgan-Taylor Thomas

With a stack of pancakes and design sketches sitting on the restaurant table, Harri Horsley was suddenly interrupted by the arrival of their receipt. On the back, their waitress had drawn a smiling caricature of them. The resemblance was uncanny.

“She drew my big locs in my hair and the beret my mom gave me,” said Horsley, a theatrical design graduate student. “It was nice for a person to see me. So often we’re caught up in ourselves … so it was nice to do, especially in times like this.”

What started out as a way to pass time during her slow shifts serving tables at various restaurants across Austin quickly turned into a way for Wanwisa “Aye” Sanguanrueang to show her personality and connect with customers. 

“(Drawing caricatures) really changed my serving life from being more quiet to getting to laugh at the table,” Sanguanrueang said. “It’s like my theme to make my guests laugh and (be) happy before they go home.”

After moving away from Thailand in 2007, Sanguanrueang finally landed in Austin in 2015 and applied to work at Kerbey Lane Cafe on Guadalupe Street that December.

Samuel Garcia has been Sanguanrueang’s coworker at Kerbey Lane Cafe since 2017, and he said he knows when Sanguanrueang is doing her thing when he hears echoes of joy booming through the dining room.

“She has this very distinctive laugh you can hear from the other side of the restaurant,” Garcia said. “Whenever you hear it, you just want to be near her to see what the joke is.”

Garcia said he asked Sanguanrueang to draw caricatures of his mom and aunt for Christmas. He said she took the time to fill in any empty white space with sketches of their favorite interests and hobbies. 

After spending time with her long-distance boyfriend in Austin every month, psychology junior Sarah Jarrett said the couple goes to Kerbey Lane Cafe for a breakfast of pancakes and queso before saying their goodbyes. When Jarrett saw the caricatures on the back of their receipt one Sunday morning, she said she was overwhelmed with gratitude. 

“At the time, I didn’t have any physical pictures of (us) … because I was waiting until I got paid so I could develop more pictures for my bulletin board,” Jarrett said. “It’s the first picture I ever put on my bulletin of us.”

Kerbey Lane Cafe managing partner Jon Haben said the unique bond between the UT community and the restaurant's location on Guadalupe Street began over 20 years ago when the cafe opened. He said Sanguanrueang’s caricatures and caring demeanor only strengthen that bond. 

“If you were to come into (Kerbey Lane Cafe), you could see she has (drawn) pictures of the whole team on the chalkboard,” Haben said. “She’s the visible heart and soul of the team.”

Haben said the staff gets a kick out of watching Sanguanrueang regularly glance around the corner to get a mental picture of the customers at her table before returning with receipts. Because she does so much behind the scenes, he said no one minds covering for her for a few minutes while she makes the magic happen. 

Without the support of her coworkers, Sanguanrueang said she wouldn’t have had the courage to start drawing personalized caricatures on the back of customer receipts. She said she hopes to continue to brighten people’s days and learn new drawing skills.

“Right now, I can do the face but (not) the body and the fingers,” Sanguanrueang said. “I want my guests to have the fingers, but nobody has fingers!”