Mom’s Magic

When I first arrived at RISD, I was given a book by our talented head of dining and retail, Ginnie Dunleavy, called “Setting the Table” about the concept of hospitality. I always enjoyed the basic thesis of the book – “Is the customer always right?” The answer is no – but, “They must always feel heard.”

Four years later, I became suddenly compelled to read, “The Cornell School of Hotel Administration on Hospitality” – it makes a precise distinction between hospitality and service in a variety of ways. It reads:

“If hospitality is heavily qualitative, then service is more quantitative. Service can be scripted and dictated, mechanical, and drilled. You can evaluate service more easily than hospitality. Service is repetitive, efficient, consistent, continuous, tailored, customized, and sustainable. Unlike hospitality, service is much easier to perfect through training, drill, exercise, and continuous commitment. With such practice, service can be taken to the highest level of technical perfection. But for true excellence, service and hospitality must combine. One cannot exist without the other.”

It goes on to describe hospitality as those qualities that relate to certain keywords like: warmth, friendly, listening, respect, treatment, guest, sensitivity, genuine, memorable, and unique.

As someone who grew up working in a small factory in Seattle and having had the privilege of serving many customers from dawn to dusk, six (and sometimes seven) days a week with my family, I never thought much about what made it a solvent business. Our product was priced lower than our competitors, and yet the quality was much higher. There were no employees besides my siblings and mom/dad, so you could say that labor costs were lower than normal. It didn’t quite make sense to me.

My father believed in the quality of work as something vital to his being – as trained to be someone who makes things exquisitely well. So if he needed to sustain the quality of his product, tofu, at an absurdly high level, he would select the best soybean seeds and the best natural ni-gari that he could procure. And of course, he’d progressively reduce his margins in the process.

My mother didn’t have a business background as well, and yet somehow their little business survived many ups and downs. And their overall “business” goal could be achieved – which was to send me and my siblings all off to college so that we might not have to make tofu for a living.

The Cornell book was useful because it gave me the “aha” I could not articulate for all these years. Dad was service – which was embodied in the product that he made to a high level of perfection. And mom was hospitality – which is the real reason that customers came back.

I recall countless arguments between my parents because my mother would often talk to customers at length – she was from Hawaii and with her inimitable charm could keep customers in our storefront forever. The arguments would be grounded in my father’s silent need to silently make the product in the backroom, and to want her help in that process. Meanwhile in the storefront, because of my mom the customer has lingered for so long that they can’t help but buy a few of the Japanese canned goods (with higher margins) on our shelves. And furthermore, the customer has personally committed to come back again to if at least chat with my radiant mom with her Hawaiian warmth as an antidote to the famous Seattle rainy weather.

The line above from the Cornell book says it all:

“But for true excellence, service and hospitality must combine. One cannot exist without the other.”

Luckily they stayed married all those years, and still are. -JM