I was working with a client in Alexandria, VA. At lunch, I wanted a simple sample of Old Town cuisine and walked to a small diner a few blocks from the Kimpton Lorien Hotel where we were meeting. The staff was noticeably happy and eager to please. The food was excellent; the ambiance peaceful, and I felt compelled to pass my compliments to the owner.
“He’s back in the hospital,” the waitress told me as if was a widely known fact. “You know he had a heart attack and has been out for the last two months.”
“Well,” I asked, “Could I speak with the restaurant manager?”
“We don’t really have a manager,” she told me in a quiet voice as if she was revealing a secret. “We all get together in the morning before we open and decide what needs to be done and who will do it.” This story was getting better by the minute.
“So, the owner has left employees in charge,” I asked? Her response was a showstopper.
“Well, I am just a customer who volunteers to help out. Most of the wait staff are customers.”
Visions of liability, government regulations, and safety requirements raced through my head. Here was a restaurant with customers so loyal they volunteered their time to help run a leaderless restaurant until the owner-manager could recover from a heart attack and return. What was the impetus for such loyalty? At this point, another customer-volunteer joined our conversation.
“We have known him for years. He’s our neighbor and loyal friend. He has given so much to all of us. He lost his wife several years ago. Then his son, who helped out some, also passed away. The restaurant was about all he had. So, when he got sick, we realized he had given us so much to us, it was our chance to give back to him. Most of us are retired or work part-time so we could help.”
It was a sweet story. One that I stayed with a few months to learn of its outcome. How the story ended does not matter; how the story existed is what matters. If you were this restaurant owner, how would your story unfold?