Recently I was in the UK for meetings and had a couple of hours in Heathrow before getting on my flight to head back home. After catching up on e-mail, I strolled about looking for a place to grab a sandwich. As I wandered through the food court, I spotted a cafe called Giraffe whose motto “live eat live” was boldly posted in multiple locations. Just as I hit the perimeter of the restaurant ,a petite young woman in a bright red Tshirt walked directly up to me, called out a bright sing-song “hello!” and offered a menu along with a huge smile. How could I refuse? She then proceeded to sit me next to an enormous plant.

After a few minutes, my server showed up. Like the hostess, she was short, petite, and with a big smile. She spoke excellent English with the slightest trace of an accent. I placed my order for lunch and she returned momentarily with drinks in hand. I said thanks then asked where she was from. Her name was Anna and she was from Kraków, Poland. She went on to say that Kraków was a beautiful city and that I absolutely had to visit at some point. I told her I was from San Francisco and she said she’d always wanted to go there but it was extremely difficult because a visa was required and that was very expensive. 

Small talk accomplished, she took off for to scour the rest of her station; I turned my attention back to the restaurant at large. The bustling Giraffe restaurant sat at least 120 people, and was an incredibly busy place with an endless stream of singles, large parties, and moms with small squawking kids ensconced in various Dr. Seuss-like vehicles guaranteed to block any and all transit. The turnover was frightening with everyone needing to be served right NOW so they could make their flights. (By the way, why is it that they never post the gate in Heathrow until 10-15 minutes before boarding? To add even more excitement to the travel experience?).

Amidst all this dining frenzy was Anna. After watching her work for a short time, I quickly realized two things: first, she was bionic. Second, and no big surprise, she was a mighty mite (see blog post from May 18th). Anna moved quickly and effortlessly from table to table taking orders, serving and clearing, all the while smiling and conversing with diners as if the whole thing was no big deal and just an easy dance. I had fantasies about cloning her and negotiating a huge contract with a big corporate restaurant group back in the states.  Visions of a massive pile of cash danced in my head. With an army of Annas I could, dare I say it, rule the world.

I sat back and thought about Anna and what made her such an all-star at her job. What made her so great? Why was she so different from most people who work in airport fast food places, who seem like they’ve been condemned to the cocktail lounge in hell with no promise of a return shuttle? The first thing that came to mind was that she was utterly unafraid of hard work. OK, I thought, so a lot of people are that way, but the wrong person in this particular job would end up hating life almost instantly because it was so insanely busy and the pace never let up. Aside from that, what else made her so different from the endless herd I’ve seen working in fast food joints over the years? Why was she such a valuable employee regardless of whether the management was clued in or not? After further observation I came up with several reasons:

First: She made genuine eye contact with everyone she spoke to. She didn’t fake looking at or communicating with anyone. She was, in short, completely HOME.

Second: she really focused and actually listened to what I was saying even after the order had been taken. Even though she was constantly moving like a hummingbird, whenever Anna stopped and chatted with me she came to a complete halt and put all of her attention on listening. Mind you, she probably had a zillion things going on in her head at the same time. At first I thought it was my irresistible charm, but then quickly realized that she did this with everyone at every table. 

Third: really two things, but they are very, very subtle and could the key to Anna’s magic. Every time I asked her a question she smiled in response and leaned in very slightly when answering.  Combined, those two responses gave the impression that she cared about what I was saying. Aha! That last point is perhaps the key. She not only cared about what I was saying, but she probably cared that my experience at the fabulous Giraffe restaurant was a good one. That alone, meine freunden, sets her apart from everyone else and makes her an all-star. Game, set and match.

Not convinced? Allow me to explain via contrast, one of the most powerful tools for learning. Imagine what my experience would have been like had Anna done the complete opposite: not making consistent eye contact, not really listening carefully (itself a recipe for disaster), and not making any effort to smile while moving slightly back and away when answering a question. The difference would be radical as in someone completely disconnected from the moment, the experience, and the job. 

For years I’ve preached the idea of taking care of the table when doing service demonstrations in Master Sommelier Intro Courses. I think the concept of caring and taking care of the guest is what sets great sommeliers apart from everyone else. I go on to tell the students that in an exam—and on the job—if the table catches on fire, you take care of it. If a herd of goats somehow finds its way on to your floor, you take care of it. If the host wants to taste the Haut-Brion out of his daughter’s plastic slipper, then you need to figure out how to make it work (true story). 

Taking care of the guest also presupposes one very important thing: that the sommelier or server is secondary and never the most important part of the dining equation. The very idea of serving requires putting one’s self second to the needs of the guest. Period. On that note, fellow MS Madeline Triffon in a recent conversation spoke to me about the “joy of serving,” literally the times when one is in the zone and having a great time doing the job while making people’s dining experience wonderful. She was speaking from personal experience. She was also describing our friend Anna.

As I left busy confines of the Giraffe I said good bye to Anna and told her that she was doing a heroic job, which elicited yet another huge smile. I wished her the best of luck and hoped that she would someday get a chance to visit San Francisco. Then I tipped her six pounds on a 12 pound check. She was worth every pence and more.