A few weeks ago Zach Geballe wrote a short piece in the Seattle Weekly about the Best Neighborhood Bar, featuring my very own neighborhood bar, Solo. As one of Solo’s regulars, I was excited to see the review and it was quickly passed around all the usual social media channels. I believe the author meant to praise the bar as a place that welcomes people in and will, in time, “make you one of their own.” He even goes out of his way in the comments section to clarify why you can’t compare a neighborhood bar to other establishments, but he kicked off with a couple of statements that are still niggling at me and I had to address:
- Regulars will get served first
- Regulars may get charged less
Actually, to set the record straight, the regulars routinely get served last when the bar is full of theater-goers or other outside groups. In fact, I’m as likely to waive the bartender off to take care of the other guests before attending to me or my husband. And I know I’m not the only regular to do this. We’re not rushing in or out from a show so we can and do happily wait for a moment’s lull in the activity to get our drinks.
As far as getting charged less, that may happen occasionally, and the bartender may even buy us a drink once in a while, but that is hardly the norm. Besides, we are bringing the bar a lot more of our business over the long haul than is the random person stopping in one time ever. It’s not so different than the “frequent shopper” cards you get for any business you frequently visit. But more importantly, I think, is the true regular is a supporter of the business. We don’t want all our drinks to be cheap or free – we want the business to succeed so we can keep coming there.
However, neither of these points has anything to do with how the bartenders treat newcomers. I haven’t been a newcomer at Solo in awhile, so it’s hard for me to comment on that other than to say that I was new there once myself and felt welcome enough to keep coming back. My husband and I visited quite a few local Queen Anne places and while we enjoyed the service we received at those places (except for Pesos – never go there unless you are 21.0 years old, attractive, and looking for a hook-up), none of them became “home” like Solo.
There is something special and different about being a regular. So, yes, it’s true, there are some perks to being a regular at Solo that the casual visitor doesn’t receive from the bartender or the other regulars:
- You will be greeted by name when you come in and usually with a hug, or hugs, depending on how many other regulars are there. You’ll get and give another round of hugs when you leave.
- You know the bartenders by name. All of them. (Val-Michael-Elizabeth-Meredith-Allen-Dustin). If the bartender happens to be new, they will get introduced to you. You also probably know their dog’s names, and you’re friends with most of them on Facebook. And you’ll have exchanged cell numbers with a few as well.
- You get invited to birthday parties at their home.
- You’ve had them over to your home.
- You may have gone bowling with some of them.
- They will come and cheer you on when you run a half-marathon.
- They will invite you to their wedding.
- They will help you celebrate your own birthdays, anniversaries, first days, last days, hard times, happy hours, and even a few New Years. They will be a safe place for you to meet and repair fences with your ex-husband whom you hadn’t seen in over 10 years. They will let you sit quietly in the corner using the wireless because yours crapped out at home.
- You will have brought every visiting blood family member to meet them because they are part of your “other” family.
Before Solo I had never been a regular at a bar, or any other business for that matter. In fact, I probably has some preconceived notions about what being a regular at a bar meant and it wasn’t necessarily positive. What I have come to learn is just like everything else in life, it’s all about relationships. I suppose the alcohol amplifies and intensifies that in some ways, but we regulars are not a bunch of drunks elbowing first-time visitors out of the way. We are just people – people who enjoy each others company and care about each others lives, and we’ll care about yours, too, if you hang around a bit and get to know us.
Throughout my career, my work has always involved customer service in one way or another. The opportunity to help someone is the most rewarding aspect of every job I’ve held. In fact, I am sometimes stymied by how often customer service is so lacking when the real solution to most any company with service issues is to simply focus on helping people. I guess that is easier said than done, but I have found good service in some places where you might otherwise not expect it. Because I am so focused on the subject, and because it is my essentially my job to be a student of good service, I try to pay attention when I myself am the customer to learn what exactly “good” looks like.
Most days I ride the bus to work in Pioneer Square, south of downtown Seattle. The bus may be the last place to expect great customer service, but over and over again I blown away by the level of service I see there on a daily basis.
On one occasion I jumped off the bus and realized I had left my soda at home in the freezer. Not only did this leave me without my vital supply of morning caffeine, it also represented a huge mess in the freezer if left there for the rest of the day. As I crossed the street, a bus was pulling up to the stop going the other direction. I thought I could very easily hop on, go home, grab my soda and make it back to work in time. However, the bus I picked unfortunately made a right turn where I expected it to go straight and was obviously the wrong route. I walked up to the driver and asked where the next stop was and it was even more unfortunately WAY farther away than I expected to go. I asked if he would let me off on the street. This was a busy street and he said there was no way he was letting me off in the middle of traffic. Fair enough. I resigned myself to figuring out how to find my way back home, but he made another turn onto a slower street, pulled up to the curb (no bus stop in sight) and asked me if letting me off there would help and I was able to walk the rest of the way home. I was impressed that he said “no” when it wasn’t safe, but also took the initiative to offer me an alternate solution when he could. In fact, since being the recipient of that kindness, I have seen many a passenger be let on or off the bus outside of the regular stops when it is clear they have gotten themselves in a jam. I have also seen countless drivers tell a confused patron to jump on the bus and ride a few stops and have the driver give them detailed instructions about how to get where they are going, which includes not only which bus route to ride but also how to get there once they get off the bus.
Although Seattle has a high number of professional workers riding the bus, the buses going through downtown are all ride-free, so it has a fair number of homeless passengers as well. This last week I was on the way to work and a homeless gentleman in a wheel chair, along with several milk crates containing valued possessions got on the bus. This meant the driver had to lower the ramp to the curb, fold up the wheelchair accessible portion of the seats, and secure the passenger’s chair with two seat belts designed for this purpose. Not only does this take a considerable amount of time, but this particular passenger was in desperate need of a shower if not at the very least a toothbrush and some deodorant. The driver was extremely patient and before she took off the emergency brake and started the bus confirmed the rider was in fact secure.
You might think with all these lost and confused customers getting on the wrong bus or off at the wrong stop, combined with what most of us would consider less than savory clientele would put the drivers in a perpetually bad mood, but here again the opposite seems to be true. The drivers themselves get from stop to stop to switch drivers by riding the bus and they always seem extremely glad to see each other. In the few moments between transitioning between drivers I often seem them swapping stories and quickly catching up on the latest tidbits of gossip for the day. They also clearly get to know some of their regular customers and exchange friendly greetings when they see them entering the bus. I don’t know how it is in other cities, but the custom in Seattle is for riders to greet the driver with a “good morning” or “good afternoon” as they enter, and to leave them with a “thank you” as they depart, and I am always greeted with equal if not more enthusiastic responses in reply.
What can the rest of us learn from the King County Metro system?
- Happy Employees provide better service
- Empowered Employees will make better choices about how to best help your clients
- Compassionate Employees not only help people but make your organization look good
- Foster a culture of saying “thank you” which leads to more compassionate, empowered, and happier employees
Brian’s grandmother passed away on October 16 after 98 very full years in this world. I won’t recount her history as there is already a very good description in her obituary, and I’m in awe of all she accomplished. We only shared about 14 of those 98 years together, after Brian and his extended family entered my life, but they were certainly memorable years nonetheless. Probably the traits that stood out most for me were her extravagant welcome and acceptance of people, and her natural ability to exaggerate the facts to fit how she felt about us.
From the moment Brian introduced me to Grandma (and I always called her Grandma), she immediately accepted me as part of the family. I recall some family function that Brian took me to in those early days of our dating. We had been together long enough to meet the family, but it can’t have been more than 3 or 4 months into our relationship. I had met Grandma and Grandpa, as well as his parents and brother and sister-in-law, but I had yet to meet many of the cousins and other extended family. As was the case in most those family functions, there was a cacophony of kids squealing, parents hollering, people talking, sports on the TV and a density of bodies in the family room that would most certainly have blown the fire code by a substantial margin. Amongst all this noise, Grandma silenced the room by yelling out, “Everyone, everyone, Brian has an ANNOUNCEMENT to make.” I could see Brian’s mother’s eyes widen and the room went dead silent and I think there was a collective inhale as folks started to suspect an engagement was about to be announced. This was equally surprising to Brian and I as there was no such announcement coming and these things were not even in our consciousness at this point. Brian rallied and said, “Everyone, this is Lyda. Lyda, this is everyone.” Folks quickly went back to their conversations at hand and perhaps more used to Grandma’s typical pronouncements were less thrown by this outburst than I was. Of course, in retrospect, perhaps Grandma indeed saw something in the cards that Brian and I just hadn’t figured out yet, as we were engaged before the end of the following year.
Another time, I was training to run a 10K and my training came up in conversation while we were out having dinner out with Grandma and the rest of the clan. Brian’s cousin Lyndsey showed up after us and Grandma pulled her aside and said, “Oh Lyndsey, did you know Lyda is running a marathon?!” Not sure how we got from 6 miles to 26 miles in the course of a single conversation, but by this time I had come to realize if Grandma liked you all stories got enhanced in the retelling. And again, in the end, she may have just been ahead of her time as I did indeed complete a marathon many years later.
She also told Brian and I how Brian’s cousin Brent had just taken a new job after college. According to her, he was so good with computers that after less than a week at the job, they asked him to run all the computer systems for the company. According to Brent, he was just doing inside sales and didn’t have any better computer skills than anyone else there. At this point knowing Grandma’s track record, I would say Brent’s got a bright career coming somewhere in his future.
Even when she got to the point when her memory struggled to hang onto the details of day to day life, she was always extremely glad to see Brian and me. She would tell us what a wonderful couple we were (to which Brian still maintains, “Hey, Grandma speaks the truth.”) and to come visit anytime. One more poignant episode took place when we were starting to first see signs of her impending dementia. Brian and I were staying over at their house for the weekend and I was chatting with Grandma after dinner. She looked at me and said, “Listen, you can’t stay in the guest room because Lyda and Brian are staying over tonight, but we’ve got plenty of room so please make yourself welcome.” Even in that diminished state, her sense of welcome and hospitality kept going strong.
At the time I met Grandma, I had already lost all of my own grandparents, and she took me in as if I had always been a member of the family. Brian and I chose early on not to have any children of our own and I have always been extremely grateful we never got any pressure or guilt from family about that choice. One mother’s day weekend, Grandma decided to buy geraniums for all of the mothers in the family. She just could not bring herself not to get one for me as she felt like that would have left me out, so in the blink of an eye she handed over the flowers and told me they were a gift in honor of my mother and that was that.
Grandma’s presence in my life was the true gift and I hope I can extend even a fraction of the welcome and hospitality to others that she showed to me.