Family Restaurant -1, Pandemic – 0
Setting the Scene
As mentioned earlier in this space, we took a bit of a regional trip a couple of weeks ago. At our first overnight stop, we went restaurant hunting online. This was not a town known for fine dining, but we found an Italian place that had lots of good comments and hey, good Italian is pretty simple cuisine, so we decided to give them a try.
We made an online reservation, got both an online and text confirmation and we were ready to go. A day or so prior, we received a text reminder and just before our reservation time, we received a text saying our table was ready a bit early and we would be welcome whenever we arrived. All very efficient and friendly, we thought.
We did, in fact, have a fine meal. But we had an even better conversation and a nice Pay It Forward opportunity.
When we arrived, we found one very busy place, although still with good Covid safety measures. We saw the place had a very diverse clientele; lots of young couples, retired people, military families – a bit of everyone. It was obvious most were regulars.
The menu was quite good in its diversity of offerings and the kitchen delivered. We noticed that a lot of the wait staff were really young – some clearly high school age. But they all seemed to work well together. Our waiter was a guy born to do this work. He ran a great table. We enjoyed both his work and his conversation.
The owner stopped by our table to ask how they were doing. That led to a fascinating conversation. We told him all was well. We complemented him on his young and sharp staff and commented on how well they used texting to communicate with customers. He chuckled and said there was a story behind all that.
When the pandemic hit, they lost a lot of business initially and had to lay some people off. They also had to be a lot more distant in how they interacted with people, for health safety. In addition to all that, any missed reservations would mean losses they could not absorb. And so, they adapted.
They starting to get customers back and were hurting for enough staff. Eventually, he began hiring high school kids, some as young as 16. To his amazement, it is working out great. The kids are energetic and eager to do their jobs well.
The restaurant really is a family business, and the kids pretty much joined the family. Everyone wants everyone else to do well. He told us all this was a complete surprise to him and one of the silver linings of the pandemic. He plans to always have teens on his staff.
The older members of the staff enjoy the youthful exuberance of the younger staff members, and the teens have gotten attached to the old hands that teach them how to make everything go well. Can’t have a better outcome than that.
About Those Text Messages
The manager told us that they recognized they needed to use texting to boost the show up rate for reservations, but there were two problems.
One, they built their business on personal touches. They did not want to become some distant business entity that sent out cold business messages. So they worked on the wording of their messages that communicated what needed to be said, but always with a gentle welcoming remark. They did well.
But the second problem was the big one. When all this started, they did not even have a computer in the whole restaurant. Not one. And no one knew how to do anything on a computer beyond email. Enter those kids mentioned a bit earlier in this blog. They grew up with computers as a part of their DNA. And those kids led the way in figuring out how to set up a text system and trained the rest of the staff in how to use it. Nice.
What is the Lesson Here?
I think there are at least three.
One, businesses that survive hard times most often do so because of a bit of luck and a lot of adaptability. They don’t give up, they change. Small businesses are often run by heroic people. We are lucky to have them among us.
Two, everyone can bring something to the table for making the world work. The mixed age crew that was running this place all brought something to each other that the whole needed. Neither group could have done it alone.
Three, keeping focused on what is important can be a lifesaver. This owner was determined to provide a quality experience and to maintain the connection with his community. Those goals drove all the other good things that followed.
The Pay It Forward Story
Unrelated to the rest of this post, but a nice story to share. We noticed an attractive young couple dining in a booth close to us. They were dressed to the max and seemed a bit giddy. We overheard the waiter ask them if tonight was a special occasion. They had just gotten married.
They were dining alone. He is a young soldier and we speculated he could not get a lot of time off for a long wedding trip, so they married where he was stationed, likely with few or no family members present. As we were leaving, we told them we heard their good news and wished them well.
Before we left, we called the waiter over and asked if they had finished ordering their meal. They had and so we gave him back our credit card to pay their bill but made him promise not to say anything to them until we were gone.
Doing this was my wife’s idea. It reminded what a smart lady I had married. I have little doubt that we got more out of that little gift than they did. Sometimes one can forget what a great joy giving a gift can be.
And we like to think about them seeing some newlyweds 30 years from now and thinking, “Hey, remember what those people did for us on our wedding night? Let’s pay it forward again now.”
And So It Goes
Life goes on, pandemic or no. Look around. Celebrate those who hung in there and lead by example. And look for a chance to pay it forward – just for the heck of it.
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