Sometimes, if you're lucky, you’ll have a special meal in a restaurant. The food, it goes without saying, will be delicious, the setting will be warm and pleasant, but the real magical thing will be the server, the person who takes your order, brings you the food and makes sure that all goes well. Without that very personal touch, the magic just isn’t there.
If you’re like me and you prepare most of the meals at home for your family, the delight in being served is especially wonderful. I really appreciate a friendly smile, politeness but never intrusive service, and all the little touches that make a meal flow seamlessly. I’ve been lucky enough to eat in some really fine restaurants. I was even a food critic in the San Francisco Bay area for a fun public television show called, “Check Please.” But this isn’t about one of those fancy places where the wait staff spends 20 minutes telling you the provenance of the chicken you’re about to eat or explains the “journey” you’re about to embark upon.
Instead, this is about someone genuinely pleased to bring you your dinner as opposed to making you feel that you’re not quite cool enough to understand the steps taken to prepare the foam on your food that actually resembles dish detergent bubbles.
Karen Lockwood is such a server.
For 22 years she’s worked at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant and Café. In fact, she was there almost at the same time the current owners opened their doors on Grand Avenue in Los Olivos.
When we moved here 20 months ago, we went to this restaurant and Karen was our server. I remember being tired and dispirited from the move as we sat down. Suddenly, this woman with the bright red lipstick and big smile made us feel welcome. She always seems to be happy to see us — so much so that when we have friends and family visiting, we want to introduce them to Karen, as if she’s an old friend.
I decided I really wanted to get to know a little more about her, so one Wednesday I visited the restaurant at 4 p.m., just as she was beginning her evening shift.
Karen told me she got into serving after working as a buyer in a national department store, but wanted to stay closer to home after having her first baby. Over the years, the flexibility has allowed her to attend school functions and coach sports for her kids as they grew. But more than that, the restaurant is aligned with her personal values: The bosses treat her well and with respect; and the other moms who work at the restaurant have each other’s backs — such as when one has a child needing to go to the doctor or there is some emergency at home.
Karen believes that that is the key to good restaurant service — teamwork. It shows on the restaurant floor, too. If a customer needs some water, the servers don’t hesitate to fill that glass. There is no such thing as “my” table. The wait staff all help each other out. That is also reflected in tips. Karen and all the other staff, share a percentage of their tips with the people that buss tables, hostess and tend bar. Everyone is rewarded for good service.
The other key to a restaurant’s good service is appreciation. Karen, now the senior member of the wait team, thanks the kitchen staff every night. She knows how hard it is to provide flawless food, night after night in a crowded and warm space. She lets the back of the house know that the evening went well and that they did a good job.
I asked Karen how she kept her smile and good nature through the years despite patrons not always behaving well. She says she “kills them with kindness” and usually wins them over.
However, one night this didn’t work. A patron was getting progressively drunk. Karen looked at his pregnant wife. Knowing this couple was going to have to drive the pass down south, she refused to serve him any more drinks. The patron became angry and threw a glass of water at Karen. If there’s a happy end to this story, it’s that Karen later received a letter of gratitude from the wife. The wife said she felt Karen had saved their lives.
Teamwork and appreciation are two important lessons for any business. And since most of the staff Karen works with have stayed over 10 years, it seems to be working. As a customer, I’ll return again and again for good food and a comfortable setting. But a server like Karen seals the deal.