Thursday, November 22, 2007

Sharing a table... Sharing memories...

At the risk of being a me-too on this day, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on meals, emotions, friends and family.

What really got me thinking were two events of the past week… The first that triggered reflection was the passing of Martha Stewart’s beloved mother. Granted – the passing of a 93-year-old isn’t shocking – per se – but this sturdy stalwart was oft at Ms. MSLO’s side and seemed quite vigorous. She also seemed full of joy. Made me pause…

The second event this week that got my gears turning was more sad news I came across online while googling a chef/restaurant I was particularly fond of and learning of his death - too young for a brilliant talent.

Joel and Catherine Findlay owned and operated one of the best restaurants I’ve ever been to – 302 West in Geneva, Illinois. Having left Chicago in 1999 I would occasionally think about the striking, simple room – the restaurant was houses in a vintage bank building – one entered the wine room (if I’m recall correctly) through the bank’s giant safe door. The clean, prairie-inspired, Man-Ray-accented room was soaring and deceptively reserved.

This couple, clearly mad about each other, brought the refined part to diners and caring, involved staff, every day – he - the chef – she - the pastry chef and sexy hostess.

Though I never attended their famous [infamous] sybaritic New Year’s events – Chef several times regaled me with stories of thus lush, joyous evenings.

My mother and I shared a fun, indulgent lunch there that I suspect neither of us will ever forget. MMMM…malted chocolate terrine… They were as passionate about dessert and coffee as they were about every part of the meal. "The last flavor you experience is as important as the first," I recall one of the pair telling me.

Today as I prepare a simple meal in my fab new Atlanta digs, I’m thankful for life, laughter and endless opportunity. I’m thankful for hundreds of beautiful meals with loving friends. Indeed – many of my most treasured memories are of spectacular meals with spectacular company.

A quick – though not exhaustive – list of spots where I’ve shared swell times include: Stein’s in Lyons, The Bakery in Chicago, Come Back Inn in Melrose Park, Barrington Country Bistro in, well, Barrington, Zuni in San Francisco, Chanterelle in New York, Nobu and Hank’s in Las Vegas, Tupelo Honey in Sea Cliff, Bea’s and St. John’s in Chattanooga, and sooooooo many more - all tables of joy and memory. Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Service with a shrug©

Perhaps it’s my Midwestern upbringing…or my years of retail service…that lead me to the brink of exasperation lately.

When did it become acceptable to just bark numbers and instructions at people?

When did it become acceptable for that to be acceptable?

When did it become acceptable to respond to a “thank you” with “no problem?”

I suppose it’s too much to ask that people don’t wear their pajamas to the market. And – I’m sure my father’s lament about “dungarees” on Michigan Avenue is somewhat anachronistic. But – when even basic courtesies fall by the wayside – we’re in trouble.

Over the years I’ve peddled goods and food at retailers and restaurants including:
-a Kimball organ store (Yep – I played the organ in the center court of Springfield’s While Folks Mall)
-Ardan’s (a sort of Service Merchandise knock-off)
-Le Bistro Café (OY – don’t ask about “Le Café Café”)
-Younkers (Iowa’s department store)
-Things, Things, Things (a true Iowa City original and one of the coolest mini-department stores I’ve ever encountered)
-Charmers Market (one of the best gourmet shops I’ve ever seen)
-Von Maur (a small delusional department store company)
-Marshall Field’s
-The Sock Market (a debacle best undiscussed)
-Barneys New York
I’ve mostly given good, informed service. I’ve always worked hard.

SO – I am taken aback when placing a drive-thru order and all that’s barked at me is a number. “One Fifty.” Is the young person on the other side of the talking box guessing my weight? Alas…she’s way off! Is that the total of my purchase? Is it that late already? How much harder would it be to say “Your total is one-fifty, please pull around?”

What’s most troubling is that the fast food service standard is permeating upward. Not that one expects stellar service at mid-level restaurants or stores – but when cashiers at Target are conversing with each other rather than greeting customers – it’s time to rethink.

I am a HUGE Target fan. Their come from is entirely different from the filthy mess that is most K-Mart stores and the maddening monster that is Wal-Mart. I expect no service at the latter two – but – I do at Target.

Target came from department store roots. Dayton’s (Minneapolis’ flagship retailer) has sadly been gobbled up by Federated and been Macy’d. Dayton’s – which when Target really got wings - was dumped along with Hudson’s and Marshall Field’s by the Dayton-Hudson Corporation – now Target Corp. - was a fine retailer. Along they way they decided to delve into a lower-price strategy. Target was the result. But – it was created with a department store mentality and philosophy – which is still evident today. Laura Rowley – in her energetic book On Target tells more about this stellar player in the retail world.

What sets them apart, like Whole Foods Market [though they'd better keep an eye on customer service as the grow so large] and The Container Store – is that though you may be shopping for essentials – you still end up spending more time there. It’s pleasant. Conventional grocer Publix is on this track. Conventional grocer Kroger, however, is not.

But what really sets anyone selling anything apart is service. Period. Anyone can sell groovy goods in a pleasant environment. Unless the service is up to snuff, will people return? I don’t know.

I do know that it seems lately when you encounter good service it comes as a tremendous shock. We’ve become so accustomed to the barking and disinterested indifference (alas – even our local IKEA suffers from this service malaise in most areas) that when someone is polite or even a little professional it’s jarring.

Which is why I’ve been so pleasantly surprised by a couple of experiences of late. One – that with a little thought – makes sense. One that’s a real surprise. I’d forgotten the superb service standards that the American monolith (no, not Wal-Mart – the other one) has when I pulled up to a local [newly remodeled] McDonalds to get a Diet Coke. The “please” and “thank you” responses were like a symphony to my weary ears! So – despite Supersize Me – I will be returning for a beverage now and then and even try their upcoming coffee drinks - AND perhaps a nice salad now and then... AND... can't beat their fries!! The wild surprise was at my local Taco Bell – at the corner of Ponce and Crack – which is indeed whack! What a delightful experience at their drive-thru (yes…I do eat fast food – it’s really handy when you’re just starting a new business and a little cash-poor). The pleasant welcome... The informative recap… The invitation to pull around... I was in customer heaven. Cheers to this particular location for getting it right.

So as we work on our business plans, marketing strategies and all that – remember – it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. Well – you get the idea. Slick packaging and hot store design don’t add up without service. Spend the time and energy to hire service-oriented people and train them. Train them. Train them!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

What I would've said...

SO...I always think of the best things that I'd like to shout out my car window - or bellow at a passerby on the sidewalk... Since the timing just seems to be off... this will be my forum for the occasional outburst!

#1 - HEY ANGRY "PUNK"'re scowl and bravado is hard to take seriously as you speed off in your champagne-colored Buick Century!!!!

There. I feel better.

Stay tuned.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Monday Monday...

just a little light on a crisp Monday afternoon...

"Our deepest fear is NOT that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, NOT our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you NOT to be? Your playing small does not serve the world.

There is nothing enlightening about shrinking so that other people won't feel unsure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory...that is within us. It is not just in some of us, IT IS WITHIN EVERYONE! As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."

-from Nelson Mandela's 1994 Inaugural Address