Early last March, my hectic travel schedule brought an unexpected reward: a midwinter trip to sunny Florida. Since my home is in the frozen tundra of Michigan, this came as a most welcome assignment!
As I arranged my trip and packed my clothes, I was well aware that I would soon find myself taking my early morning jog without a wool cap and secure in the knowledge that I would not be starting up my snow blower for at least four days. What I was not aware of was the impact that this unit visit would have for me on an emotional level.
The assignment was to work with the production staff of a mental health and behavioral problem facility. This was a new account that had just recently opened. I have gone on hundreds of these types of assignments before, yet each one brings a new experience as far as meeting new personalities and dealing with unique challenges.
In this case, the client explained to me that the diners who would be coming through the cafeteria line were a unique sort, many of them in-patients for the day. They were there for various reasons, reasons that many of us (fortunately) will never experience.
Drug and alcohol abuse had often played a dominant part in the daily lives of many of these individuals. They were here to regain some sense of personal balance in their lives. The fact that any sense of balance might only last for a short time was not the point: in rehabilitative efforts, the ability to minimize a sense of depression—even for a short time— can have a very positive impact on the lives of such people.
As I watched the clients line up at the cafeteria entrance, I was overwhelmed by a sense of obligation to them. At that moment, I suddenly saw our service as much more than just a hot meal.
I was embarrassed by the obvious lack of attention that had been provided prior to our arrival in areas like garnish, salad bar presentation, and progressive cooking. "These folks are customers, just like any other," I repeated again and again to myself.
While they held no important titles and carried no business cards, they still deserved our best. I was also saddened by the apparent level of expectation this group had in coming through our servery. As they went through the line, many of them looking down at the ground, I knew that tomorrow would be a different experience for this group of people.
That evening, I could not get the image of those customers out of my mind. The next day, they would be treated to the best half hour I could possibly give them. They would be the beneficiaries of a re-vamped salad bar, presented with fresh vegetables with color, gourmet brownies and a much attractive and less " institutional" serving line. I found myself as anxious for a positive outcome to that meal as I have ever been for a high-profile, catered event.
The next day was all that I had anticipated, plus more. As the despondent and down-trodden went through the line, they were greeted with sincere "hellos" and wide smiles from our staff. Never in my 28-year career had I spent so much effort on Swiss steak! The brownies were garnished with pieces of candy, and the salad bar looked as fancy as the equipment available would allow. The pizza was cut into sample size slices, and passed out tableside while the guests were eating.
It was obvious by the expressions on the faces of some of these guests that they were not used to receiving even such a modest "freebie" without some ulterior motive. A few were dumbfounded when they realized that their opinion on the pizza was being solicited.
On the other hand, I know in my heart that such attention must have given many of these folks at least the passing feeling that their opinions mattered and of being special in even a small way. One person reminded me that it had been a very long time since he had been treated so kindly.
Can you imagine? To this day, I am very much aware of how that visit reminded me of the real importance of treating people from all walks of life with dignity. Of the impact that we can provide on a daily basis to people who, many times unknown to us, are looking for someone or something to lift their spirits. And I am reminded of how much better I personally perform when I am humbled by both the simplicity and the essential role than is played by our service callings.
Whether dealing with a corporate executive planning a high-profile catered event or a 90-year old slumping over a pureed meal, we and our staffs have a professional obligation to create a dining experience at every meal that leaves everyone feeling welcome and warm.
Treating people of all walks of life with dignity can prove to be rewarding and profitable. It certainly contributes to account retention. But most importantly, it is the right thing to do in a civilized society. To strive to do so instinctively should be on every person's "to do" list on a daily basis.
Bruce Kane is regional director of service and culinary support for Morrison Management Services.