Bob Brown’s service column this month got me thinking about how we evaluate excellence in exceeding customer expectations. In our Mid-Atlantic region, the growth in restaurant openings is proof that the game is on … differentiate yourself from the competition or you will suffer from a lack of filled seats and the business that comes with happy guests. He leads with a Ritz-Carlton story that you can read … it scores a 10 for service.
But the parts that make up a 10 can come in a less spectacular fashion and be just as impactful … I took my high school friend who was visiting from Macon for a wedding at the Mayflower to Casa Luca. He takes iced tea over wine and after looking at the sugar bowl with sugar and a stevia derivative for his sweetener option, asks the server for Splenda. After the server leaves, I convince Sam to try the stevia-based substitute and he does so. Moments later the manager TJ comes to the table with some Splenda … it seems the server had gone to her with the request and it just so happens she is a user and always had some in her purse. She offers Sam her personal packets. Small, maybe … but a 10 in my books.
Russ Vernon: My Food/Hospitality Hero
It’s funny how sometimes it appears that the keen interest in high quality foods and outstanding service was invented in the last five years. Social media helps to spread the news of every discovery, every taste and every wow moment. The news is dominated by the sense of today without much concern for the past, the foundation.
My inspiration for discovering a world of fine foods, wines and cheeses combined with unmatched service was Russ Vernon, proprietor of West Point Market in Akron, Ohio. In my opinion, West Point is the finest grocery I’ve ever shopped in, a market like no other. In the mid-seventies and early eighties when I was food and beverage manager at the Hilton Inn West and Quaker Square Hilton, I got to know Russ Vernon and he may not realize it; I studied him and listened to him and watched how he conducted business. Did I tell you the store carries 350 varieties of cheese, 3,000 different wines, and 8,200 international gourmet items into 25,000 square feet of retail space? At one time before the store had one of its several expansions, he held the local Les Amis du Vin wine tastings at my hotel. He introduced me to Zabar’s, Balducci’s (we’re talking New York at 6th Ave. and 9th St.), the old Sutton Place Gourmet and in 1979 to the Monterey Wine Festival which I attended and saw food celebrities like Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, Kevin Zraly, Louis Martini and more.
He was the ultimate retailer with a boundless sense of taking care of the customer with unmatched service, the finest foods and a relentless drive for excellence. Russ Vernon is retired now and I hadn’t seen him in at least 25 years. At the recent Fancy Food Show, Russ Vernon was awarded one of the first five Lifetime Achievement Awards given this year by the Specialty Food Association in New York. I was leaving before the awards Monday evening, so I didn’t expect to see him. I couldn’t learn his schedule for when he might come to Javits. That Monday morning after being on the show floor less than 15 minutes I ran into Russ in one of the busy food aisles (the show takes place on three floors). I was able to thank him in person for being one of my heroes and that I hoped that I lived my life in some measure as a passionate, committed person in a pursuit of excellence that could have lasting mark in the world … even a small one … like he had shown me. Thank you, Russ Vernon.