On the way home from Washington, D.C. recently, my husband began looking at the road signs to see what kinds of fooderies (my word) would be popping up soon, as it was after six and time for dinner. We'd been on the road for a few hours already and still had a few more to go. He was getting cranky from low blood sugar and we were still an hour outside of Richmond.
Long story short, around the bend we saw Aunt Sarah's Pancake House. My husband clapped his hands together. "PANCAKES! HELL YES! We're going there." He moved into the right lane so he could exit.
Let me pause to say that we have a bit of a commitment to eating local whenever we travel. We only eat chain when we can't avoid it. It's not a hatred of big box so much as a commitment to truly having a travel experience in the town we are visiting. This means that we eat local - "mom and pop."
I check out the decor. Looks to me like an independent pancake house, so I'm already on board. We make the long, winding drive down the back access road to get to the parking lot, and walk inside, where we see that it's like the non-chain version of Cracker Barrel - a miniature General Store on one side, seating on the other, very Southern cabin-style. Out of the 30 or so tables in the place, about 6 are occupied.
The sign asks us to "wait to be seated," which we do, with another couple.
And wait some more.
Another table gets up to leave and heads to the cash register in front of us, where they proceed to wait. And wait. And wait some more.
After the first five minutes, we finally see a waitress walk by. She does not acknowledge any of the seven people standing in a group in the lobby twelve inches away from her. She drops off some drinks and makes her way to the opposite side of the dining room before disappearing in the back.
"I hope she's not the hostess," says the older lady in front of me.
"I hope she's not the waitress!" I quip.
Another waitress makes her way out of the back with two arms loaded down with food. At least the entrees look appetizing. I look around. Every table is loaded down with food. We still don't see the other waitress, and no cashier has yet to approach the cash register. My husband ponders aloud that the folks at the register are trying to pay for their lunch; that's how long they've now been standing there.
An intimidating man walks by us. He's sweaty, unkempt, with a wifebeater hanging off his chest in a way that exposes his chest. He too disappears into the back. The lady in front of me hopes that he isn't cooking her food.
Eight minutes have passed.
Finally the first waitress seems to notice that we are there, and proceeds to seat us all, dropping off menus. I look through them. The menu is four giant pages long, with so many similar items that it's almost impossible to make a decision. Do I want the country fried chicken with potatoes and corn, or do I want the country fried chicken strips with mac and cheese and salad? The last thing we need is to delay things any further with indecision! I was honestly expecting that typewritten, one-page menu with the corner peeling apart. Isn't that the mainstay of the local diner? I admit I'm a bit disappointed with the chain-looking menu - we could have gone to the Denny's across the street for that. I don't hold it against them - it just seems to belie the appearance of the diner outside. We wonder who sold them on this type of menu concept - list the same three items ten different ways in five sections. It was stressful. How about just a good old fried chicken plate?
We order an iced tea and off she goes. It takes six minutes to get the tea.
I look around. "Maybe they are just terribly shortstaffed tonight," I muse. As a former waitress in my younger years, I know what 'getting in the weeds' can be like. "But it would still be nice to have that acknowledged instead of letting things look like it's just bad service," my husband answers. True, true. I know this is true. But I'm trying to be compassionate for as long as I can.
Ten minutes after being sat we haven't been asked for our order, and frankly, we are afraid to place one. We continue to see folks standing at the register, waiting for a waitress to take care of them. They are definitely understaffed or improperly staffed. Service is almost unacceptably slow for only having six tables of customers in your restaurant and two waitresses who are moving non-stop, yet can't seem to keep up with refilling anything or checking on people. I can't figure out why that is.
"Should we go ahead and order something?" asks my husband.
"We can, we probably should since we are here, but just know that what we are experiencing now is obviously what we are in for for the rest of our time here. So no complaining about how slow things are," I say.
As we are about to make our dinner decision, since we are seated next to the register, we get the pleasure of hearing the following conversation between waitress 1, who is finally cashing the folks out at the register, and waitress 2:
W1: "This lady ordered the buffet, but she wanted to switch out the fried chicken with chicken wings, so I need you to go back to the kitchen and check the kitchen drawer to make sure that we have enough chicken wings to fulfill the order. We need at least 8 wings." <--this description of what she needed actually took two minutes and 27 seconds. I wondered why she didn't put waitress 2 on the register and do it herself.
W2: As she turns to leave to conduct the task requested of her, she turns around and says, "You said chicken wings, right?"
We drop our menus and walk out of the restaurant, quickly.
We do not pay for the tea we ordered - we didn't even touch it. Which says a lot - for me to not pay for something I ordered. But I wasn't laying down six dollars for this experience and untouched iced teas.
We got in the car and my husband drove across the street to Denny's. I groaned a little inside. I thought of greasy food and sticky tables. But we almost had no choice at this point; our blood sugar had thoroughly dropped, we were starting to gripe at each other, and we had four hours left to drive.
We walked in the door. Immediately, someone asked us how many were in our party, and sat us. On the way to our table, the manager smiled warmly and asked how we were doing. Within 15 additional seconds of being seated, our waitress arrived to get our drink order. Sixty seconds later, our drinks arrived.
When she took our order two minutes later, she dropped it off within five. Then she came back specifically to check what kind of toppings my husband wanted with his oatmeal. She brought him limes for his iced tea that he requested, instead of the usual lemons, and made sure my bacon was extra crispy as I had requested. When we asked for to go cups for his iced tea, she asked if I wanted my drink to go as well, and brought back very large cups of freshly poured drinks. We were in and out of there in the same amount of time we spent standing at the door and ordering our first drink across the street.
As we pulled out of the Denny's I thought, you know, we could have easily had just as bad of an experience here, and it would have been a wash. But it was the polar opposite. The Denny's was easier to get to, and cheaper, yet we chose to hit up Aunt Sarah's on the back road at higher prices in our commitment to 'local support.'
While it turns out after some research that Aunt Sarah's actually now has seven locations, which I guess officially makes it a chain, too, you sure wouldn't know it by walking inside the store we were at. They are nowhere near the level of a Denny's in terms of franchises or branding or name recognition, so for me, they are still a local brand within a 100-mile radius.
On the way back home, I realized that because you are local or small doesn't mean you can get away with acting that way "just because." The smallest acknowledgement - 'we're understaffed tonight, there will be delays, we understand if you need to go' - really do go a long way in keeping folks from being disappointed in you. We complain often that big box stores should do the same.
Are we letting the locals slide 'because they are smaller?'
We were forced, however, to chalk it up to Aunt Sarah's just not being good at their jobs on any day of the week.
So the life lesson for me as a businessperson when I got back in the car was this: you don't have to act big to get away from being small. Small is great. Sometimes small is perfect. But don't assume that small or local means you are better by default, no matter what kind of 'buy local' movement your town has going.
Sometimes the big box doesn't steal your business - it earns it.
Michelle Gower provides kicka** results for kicka** people at Gower Power Consulting, a WordPress training, mentoring, and assistance authority, in Raleigh, N.C. for the solopreneur, WordPress provider, and small business owner. She can be reached at email@example.com or at 919-228-8450, and of course, her wit can be enjoyed in full glory at http://www.gowerpower.com. She is currently teaching How to Build a WordPress Website course at Wake Tech Community College to small business owners just like you.