Brand building through storytelling

The waitress who was glad we came

I was not at all pleased to be dining at the Madison Bistro in desolate downtown Toledo after a long winter day’s drive from Chattanooga. Hungry and peevish, we’d picked this combination bar/greasy spoon from a list offered up by our dashboard concierge, otherwise known as the nav system. It was 8:35 on a Monday night and our first choice, Real Seafood, had delivered on the promise of its name with a lakefront location and an air of cheerful modernity that raised our hopes until we read the sign on the door: “Closed tonight for a private function.” With the clock ticking and restaurants closing for the night, we continued our study of choosing eateries by their name—and proceeded to fail Lesson Two.

I was craving more restorative fare than a burger and fries or grilled American cheese on white. I had hoped for more ambience than a profusion of 70s-style hanging plants, every one of them plastic, and a televised wrestling match that held the grim but rapt attention of a big-bellied oldster in a straw hat as pale as his skin. Every 90 seconds he would slam down his beer (he’d had quite a few already) and snarl, “Kill the sissy!” His first outburst had been “Kill the fag!” but he was of the generation that believes in curbing the invective when there’s a so-called lady present.

I gave the menu one last fretful scan, just in case a navarin of lamb might still appear, before explaining to my husband why I planned to have an omelet. “I figure it’s the one thing this kitchen can’t mess up. At least the eggs are always fresh in a greasy spoon.” Turned out he’d been reading my thoughts. As he put it, “Your views are all over your face.”

One person hadn’t yet noticed. Our waitresss, beaming as if she remembered how I liked my coffee and whether I took ketchup with my fries. Her spotless white sneakers looked brand new (a Christmas gift?); her black T-shirt bore the stains of many orders. She wore no makeup but had dyed her hair the colour of the shirt. Forty-ish, I figured. Serial dieter, getting broader with each failed attempt yet still hopeful. When she asked how our day had been, we trusted her with the truth. “Well, you two just sit back and make yourselves comfortable,” she said. “You’re the folks who called, right?” It had clearly been a while since anyone called to inquire about a table at the Madison Bistro.

I was already starting to soften toward the joint when she added, “I’m glad you came.” I didn’t think to ask her name, but she looked to me like Patty so Patty she’ll remain in my mind. How can I call her “our waitress,” when she instantly connected with us as a person, not a job?

My husband and I have eaten out in many countries. We remember restaurants where a whole line of waitstaff do all but genuflect on your arrival and your purse gets a special brocade stool to shield it from the floor. But not once on these adventures has anyone suggested that our presence at their table was anything special. In close to 40 years of dining out everywhere from oceanfront clam shacks to French country inns, we’ve been informed that the waiter is hung over and shouldn’t have to be working, that the wine cannot possibly be corked, that we must pick up the pace because another party needs the table. How disarming, how refreshing to be told, “I’m glad you came!”

My husband’s fried walleye had a light, toothsome batter. My Greek omelet arrived so abundantly stuffed with feta cheese, tomatoes, olives and salami, I could have sworn it contained four eggs, but Patty said she only used three. Yes, that’s right—she waits tablescooks the orders, answers the phone and tends bar. (things get pretty frantic when the lunch hour crowd pours in). No, she doesn’t own the place. She’s an employee of the kind many claim to be and hardly anyone actually is—an honest-to-goodness people person.

We won’t be returning to the Madison Bistro. There must be lots of better places to eat in Toledo, should we ever again pull off I-75 in that city. But I’m not sorry we stopped by the other night. I was due for a refresher in the art of making people welcome. So before I call it a day in my virtual bistro, I have a few words for everyone who stopped here, be it for a quick cup of coffee or a meal with all the trimmings. I’m glad you came.


Posted by Rona

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