WADSWORTH: The Valley Cafe, smack downtown on the corner of Broad and High streets, is a cozy diner that serves breakfast and lunch on bright yellow checkered tablecloths amid colorful paintings of dogs on the wall.

It’s the kind of restaurant where friendly wait staff know the faces, jobs and perhaps a bit of the personal lives of their repeat customers, if not their names.

That warm, homegrown style appealed to Rick Denlinger, a 41-year-old New York City transplant who followed his girlfriend home to Akron a couple of years ago.

He became a waiter at Valley Cafe the week before last, and that’s why he was in a position to save a customer’s life.

The incident happened so quickly and without fanfare, the staff never bothered to ask the diner’s name, although they know him as a regular at the counter.

The man stopped in for his usual breakfast on Wednesday, a “nice, older man” who often chats with the staff, Denlinger said. It was about 7:30 a.m. and the diner was sitting alone when Denlinger, several steps away, turned in time to catch a strange look on the man’s face.

His eyes were bulging. When he saw Denlinger’s gaze, he pointed to his throat, his face growing red, and began pounding on the counter in a panic.

Denlinger had never given someone the Heimlich maneuver before, had never even seen it done in person. But every kitchen he’s ever worked in has had a graphic posted on how to do it.

“The way it works is really just kind of common sense,” Denlinger said later.

So he ran from behind the counter, approached the man from behind, wrapped his arms around his abdomen and sharply squeezed once. Twice. Three times.

A piece of food was dislodged. It might have been toast or maybe potatoes, Denlinger said. Whatever, it was no longer a threat.

The man breathed heavily, offered profuse thanks, then returned to his meal. A couple of customers congratulated Denlinger on a job well done, fellow servers clapped Denlinger on the back, and the restaurant returned to its routine.

Denlinger said he felt fairly calm during the whole incident, focusing on the process. It only occurred to him later how badly things might have turned out.

“It was an intense 30 seconds,” he said. “I don’t know what we would have done if it hadn’t worked.”

Denlinger had come a long way to be in the right place at the right time.

A Philadelphia-area native, he’d spent a decade or so in New York City pursuing an acting career, though restaurant work is mostly what paid the bills.

“I was an actor-server, mostly server,” he laughed. He did a handful of murder re-enactment shows for the Investigation Discovery channel — once portraying the killer, once portraying the victim — as well as some television advertisements and a short film here and there.

But juggling two careers in a city that big can “kinda wear you down a little after a while,” he said.

When his girlfriend, Nikki Sawhill, wanted to move back home to Akron, he was ready for a change of scenery.

He tried a couple of odd jobs in the area, but they felt temporary. He decided to fall back on what he knew: Serving.

“One of the things I was tired of, maybe because I’m getting older, were the late nights. The morning hours here really appealed to me. I checked it out and I like the way they do things,” Denlinger said of the cafe.

Fellow server Amber Bradley said there’s never been a choking incident in the restaurant’s two-year history on the corner, but everyone’s thrilled it ended well.

“We all work together as a team,” she said, so Denlinger’s quick action reflects on the restaurant overall. “I think it just shows we’re a community and we treat our guests like our family.”

Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or pschleis@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/paulaschleis.