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A Burger to Die For: Self-Empowerment and Customer Service

October 3, 2010

Updated August 30, 2011

Sue (my wife of 33 years) and I are not vociferous carnivores. I state this as an admonition as you begin to read this post because you may very well conclude that we thrive on red meat. Au contraire; we seldom eat it. However (there’s always a qualification, isn’t there) we do greatly value a fantastic hamburger, and through our travels in Canada and America we’ve had some fun determining who has the best burger. But with that “best burger” comes service.

The irony behind “dining out” is that there seems to be an inverse correlation between the type of food and atmosphere and the quality of service provided. In other words, as you climb the ladder of more sophisticated dining, don’t expect the service to automatically improve in tandem.

Our quest for the perfect burger started just a few years ago by chance. For some bizarre reason, country folk know how to cook AND how to provide top service. For a while the top burger went to the Junction Restaurant on Route 15, half an hour north of Kingston, Ontario. They are what Gen Y would deem “awesome!” That first prize ribbon held until September 2009 when Sue and I were in Eastern Maine on Route 9 steaming towards the province of New Brunswick to visit her folks. We stopped at a little restaurant called The Hilltop Diner half an hour from the border. The elderly lady who was the owner did all the cooking.

We asked if she used fresh ground beef and made the patties (a necessary condition in our ranking scale) and she replied of course. After one bite into an incredibly juicy burger we looked at one another with juice-induced grins and gave simultaneous two-thumbs up. A new winner!

Over the past year, no one has been able to come close to The Hilltop Diner In fact, on our 3,700 kilometre trip this September through New England and New Brunswick we made a point at stopping at the Hilltop. We ordered our burgers, and did they ever reinforce the number one status. When I told the owner, who had been asking us questions about Canada, that her burgers were number one, even better than the burgers at the Owl’s Head State Park in Maine which claims to be the best in America, her face lit up. We could tell that she cared about the quality of her food and service.

Well, on our return trip to Ottawa, Canada, last week through New England, we decided to stop for lunch in Montpelier, Vermont, a spectacularly beautiful state capital, which boasts not just a gorgeous legislature building but also the longest functioning one in the country. We had received a tour two weeks previous by two wonderful older women. They focused on Sue and me as if we were the only people in existence.

Back to the burgers.

When we arrived in Montpelier, I suggested to Sue that we eat at the Coffee Corner, a small restaurant where we’d eaten breakfast back in September 2009. I recalled that the food had been excellent and that the service very good. Sue’s reply was, “Yes, but I want a good chocolate milkshake and a hamburger.”

The Coffee Corner has been in existance since 1959 in a building built in 1900. The diner has cycled through a long line of owners. We timed it right since the morning breakfast crowd had just left. The waitress (server, for the politically correct) who seated us was the one we had the previous year. However, our primary waitress was a young woman who exuded friendliness and politeness. She explained the best way to order from the menu in terms of pricing and paid close attention when Sue explained her food allergies. Meanwhile, the first waitress jumped on the milkshake order, producing a work of art. I had forgotten how a REAL milkshake tastes. Oh, yes, when we inquired about the beef used, we were told it’s locally raised organic.

And then the feast arrived.

Now Sue and I have a problem.

Who’s number one in North America? The quality of the food, service and atmosphere are tied. Perhaps this helps some of you, since for those closer to Eastern Maine, you can enjoy a heart-warming experience. Or for those closer to Vermont, you can have a similar experience. Unfortunately for those of you much farther away, you’ll have to have a vicarious experience or call UPS or FedX and see what they can do for you.

I recount these stories because we too often forget that customer service is not just about the quality of the product (whether food, cars, electronics, furniture, etc.) but the TOTAL experience. The night before we arrived in Montpelier we stayed in Center Harbor, New Hampshire, and ate supper at a very good restaurant, called The Canoe, next door to the motel. The food was excellent and service very good. But then so too were the much higher prices since it was a more upscale place. However, it lacked the human touch of the Hilltop and the Coffee Shop.

You may recall my recent post about Matt Fusco, owner of The Rugged Mill apparel store in North Conway, New Hampshire. That’s passion and customer care in action.

You simply cannot put a price on the human touch, where the person serving you (whether the owner or a server) really seems to care about exceeding whatever criteria you have set. The point is not what you are serving or selling but HOW you go about the process of interacting with another human being. It’s always about the total experience. And people who succeed in providing that experience have made the conscious decision to empower themselves to exceed the expectations of those they serve. The 20-something waitress at the Coffee Shop in Montpelier is an employee, not an owner. But she has decided that she will provide the best-quality service possible to customers. And the cooks reciprocate by creating mouth-watering meals. And everyone has fun along the way.

Sue and I will definitely stop at the Coffee Corner and the Hilltop Restaurant next year when we travel through New England to visit family and friends in New Brunswick. I can hardly wait.

There are no traffic jams along the extra mile.
Roger Staubach


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4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 4, 2010 1:59 am

    Indeed, Susan. And it’s inspiring to experience situations where those in service occuations empower themselves to make the difference.

  2. October 4, 2010 1:11 am

    How nice that in this world of McDonald’s and Burger Kings on nearly every corner, you’re still able to find restaurants where hamburgers are cooked to tasty perfection and presented by servers who make you feel like a welcome guest to their home.

    Your post proves the point that no matter what business you’re in, whether it’s selling Leer jets or serving hamburgers, good leadership makes for a quality organization where customer care is the priority.

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