Friday, June 20

Salute to Servers

I always thought that I'd be really good as a waitress. After all, I like food. I like people. And I have a good enough memory to be able to bring people unsweet tea when that is what they are drinking (a pet peeve of mine...taking a big swig of my refreshing beverage to get hit by the cloying sweetness of southern sweet tea). What could be hard about serving?


I tried it when I returned from my last season at Kings Dominion. I lasted for two, yes...TWO lunches. I didn't even make it to dinner service. I admit, it may have been a mistake to start at a local fine dining establishment. The place was Emil's (where Isabella's is now) and the kitchen was ruled by the iron fist of Urs Gabathuler. A German chef that made Gordon Ramsey look tame. Highly talented, but extremely particular. The server who was "training" me put the fear of God in me. This was not the fun interactive experience that I had expected. Then I was stunned to realize that most diners do not even acknowledge their server is human. Perhaps it was the location. Perhaps it was that particular clientele. But my conversations with servers makes me suspect that it wasn't just me. All of these customers gave their order to the tablecloth and handed the menu AT me (not TO me) over their shoulder. When I showed up at dinner service on my second day with a spot on my white shirt (tiny grease spot...probably from lunch) and was sent home to change...I just stayed there.

My respect for these hard working folks has never wavered.

My goal now is to be their best table of the day. I want them to smile and know that they are appreciated. Maybe I can't do anything radical like Rachel Ray's new show "The Big Tip" - where they give $1000 tips to two worthy servers and one $10,000 tip to the most special one they feature. Find it, watch it, bring tissues.

I have mentioned in this blog before that service with a smile can turn my day around...I'd like to tell you about a couple of the people I regularly interact with in local restaurants that have done that lately. Now you know, I love several local restaurateurs: Rob Pearson at Charley's (not the one with the O') and Uday from the Hot and Cold Cafe'. But they aren't really servers, so they don't qualify.

On the top of my list is my new girl Whitney at Injera on Main Street. Ethiopian food. Whitney greets everyone (but especially me) with a big smile and a welcoming attitude. She is working for a restaurant that features a cuisine that is new to Lynchburg. She recognizes that and takes the time to offer each table more information about the menu. She admits that she is a carnivore, but doesn't stop me if I decide to order one of the vegetarian dishes. She keeps my Coke filled and my attitude light. It all looks effortless - but I know that it isn't. She is pretty to look at, but it is her warm spirit that makes me walk in the door hoping she'll be there to brighten my day. And when she said that one way to remember her name was Whitney Houston, she laughed at my "crack is whack" joke and smiled when I sang a little bit of "and Iiiiiiiii will always loooooovvveee youuuuuuuu..." I should probably leave a bigger tip next time I visit.

Just down the street at Robin Alexander, I can always count on Joanie (as in "loves Chachi") for excellent service. She remembers that I like the chicken noodle soup - so even if I don't ask what the soup of the day is, she'll tell me when they have my favorite. She knows my sister will always order the sweet potato fries with raspberry melba sauce to dip them in. She knows that I think that is grossly sweet. Our drinks never run empty. She doesn't hover. My only complaint is that she is so quiet, I've been startled by her sudden appearance a couple of times. Or maybe that is just my lack of observation... Or maybe my sister (and frequent dining companion) is really loud?

One of my favorite servers is at the Cavalier. Yes, I think that Wells Duffy is also an owner...but he carries a lot of food around there - so I'm counting him in. Not everyone sees Wells as a warm and inviting presence. But they are missing the fluffy bunny within that gruff exterior. He always greets me and asks about my parents. He never fails to get every aspect of my table's order perfect (and some of my people are particular). Drinks rarely find themselves empty. And my favorite line is always delivered with his unique charm - as the basket of seasoned potato wedges land in the middle of the table: "be careful, the fries are hot." He knows that we know they are hot. We've been here hundreds of times. But I still feel cared for when he warns me the fries are hot. I still bite into one while it is the temperature of the sun...but that is not his fault.

And one more mention (though I could literally write this post all night long...there are so many extraordinary servers that I have encountered) - Nicole at Depot Grille. I wrote about a month ago about the train derailment that I was on the front lines for. I mentioned in the post that the derailment happened just after my table handed off our credit cards to pay our respective checks. What I didn't mention was that in the midst of the chaos of people streaming out of the area - Nicole found me (crouching behind a car) to let me know that she had our cards and would keep them safe. While there were train cars on FIRE less than 100 yards away, she wanted me to know that she was watching out for us. Yes, Nicole always smiles - like Whitney. Nicole is pretty familiar with my ordering habits and will point out specials that she knows I like - like Joanie. And just like Wells, she would probably warn me not to put blistering hot fries on my poor tongue. But I have to give a special nod to anyone who would stop running away from a very dangerous situation to reassure me that she would take good care of my credit card. I'm very glad that both of us survived that experience. She is pretty darn special.

To everyone who puts up with customers - thank you. A lot of us are so wrapped up in our stuff, we forget to acknowledge your service.

To anyone who does it in the food service industry - you amaze me. You do something I have found that I just can't do. I appreciate you very much.

Friday, June 13

Shop Local, Eat Local, Have Big Fun!

Tomorrow at 10:30am will be the convergence of three of my favorite things.

#1 - shopping local. My family is very aware that I abhor the giant stores like Target and Walmart. I know you can find lots of different things under one roof. I can get a snow shovel, cat food, a new DVD, cord for my phone and a bean bag chair. I'm just not sure that is a good thing. It may be a huge variety, but I know how those stores treat their vendors because a company I worked for had a client that produced a popular hunting video series that was sold at Walmart. They dictated the price point and the terms - the vendor just had to make the budget fit. And when I say they dictated the terms - they routinely demanded up to 120 days to pay. And if the hunting dudes didn't get paid for 120 days, you can see how that rolls downhill.

So I prefer to buy local. I'd rather spend a couple of extra bucks to get my snow shovels and cat food from a business owned by a guy who actually lives in the area. Does that mean there aren't going to be mass-produced goods? No. Does it mean that I can count on the factories producing those goods to treat their workers fairly? No. But I think that the likelihood increases.

#2 - being part of a cash mob. I wrote about my first experience "in the mob" when the cash mob visited local grocer Anderson's Market. The concept is simple: a group of people show up at a pre-arranged time/place to shop with $20 (or more...!) to bolster the community spirit of shopping with a local store. It is fun and has given me a reason to stop in at places that I might not have shopped at otherwise. Our last cash mob was at Virginia Garden Center where I found wonderful and healthy plants. I also discovered knowledgeable and caring staff. I plan to return there for more stuff. On another occasion I ended up downtown at a little artistic place called Pastiche. Totally cool - completely off my radar! I am quite pleased at the variety of places our mob has visited. I can't wait for tomorrow's (Saturday, June 14) spot.

#3 - hanging out in a hardware store. Oh my goodness - I do love a good hardware store. Sure, I make trips to Lowe's from time to time. Actually worked for a Lowe's vendor for about a year and spent a LOT of time in the Lowe's stores in the great state of West Virginia. I was setting new displays in the faucet repair section. I learned one thing - customers in the Lowe's stores in WV are so desperate for assistance, it wouldn't matter if the vendor vests said "Inmate" across the back, they would ask me for help anyway. Regardless of the downsides of being in a big box store (and being in increasingly random places in WV...ever heard of Logan, WV? Had to drive through the back parking lot of the liquor store to get to the Super 8)...I loved all the little boxes of connectors and washers and nuts and stuff.

I have always loved hardware stores. The smell draws me in - a mixture of lumber, metal, fertilizer and rubber. I delight in discovering all the weird little things that a hardware store has to offer. Sure, you got your bolts and nuts and screws; hammers and screwdrivers and staple guns; seeds and plants and plant food - but then you turn a corner and find kitchen tools like meat thermometers and turkey basters - turn another corner and you find plungers and brooms. It would be the best possible place to have a scavenger hunt. Where else could you possible find a step ladder, garden hose, mop bucket and replacement seal for your granny's pressure cooker?

Tomorrow's cash mob will be at Lynchburg's True Value Hardware. I haven't been there in years! I'm looking forward to finding the perfect Father's Day gift. Something like an axe handle or hummingbird feeder or pocket knife...the possibilities are nearly endless! Come join me in the adventure!!

Then perhaps I'll EAT LOCAL and make a quick stop by Anderson's for some cheese and those marshmallows that are like having Lucky Charms without the pesky cereal part!

Tuesday, June 10

Saying Goodbye

I recently wrote a post about the "Mayas" in our lives. I have been fortunate to encounter a lot of extraordinary people in my life. One of the first was my mentor Joe Campbell (read my post about him by clicking on his name) - he taught me how important it is to not dismiss people because they are different. He talked with artists, writers, poets, people abducted by aliens, musicians, hypnotists...lots of different people. And yet he still had time for the mental ramblings of a twentysomething.

I have written in this space before about my great friend Kathleen Sihlanick - a lady who broke the glass ceiling before anyone realized it was there.

Today I feel I need to honor another person who has had tremendous impact on my life - my Pastor, Rick Ecklund. It is with a heavy heart, because he is moving to another church very soon. The blessing and curse of being a United Methodist - where pastors are sent, not hired. I read a very amusing book recently called "The Search Committee" about a team of Presbyterians searching for their new preacher. Although I could certainly relate to the personalities of the characters (ALL churches are full of characters), this idea of a search committee is foreign. In the United Methodist denomination the conference bishop, his/her cabinet (yes, we have had a woman bishop in the Virginia UMC Conference!) and the district superintendent make the decision of who goes where.

Bishop Cho, District Superintendent
 Larry Davies and Pastor Rick.
When I was growing up, it seemed like the minister moved about every 4 years...whether that was true of every church's minister or just Madison Heights UMC, I do not know. I do know that I have become accustomed to the fact that pastors leave. There are good reasons for that process - congregations can become too reliant on a pastor, or begin to follow the pastor instead of God, or become so set in the status quo that "we've never done it that way before" becomes an acceptable response to new ideas.

Every minister that I have been blessed with has brought different gifts to the church. Some are incredible speakers, sermons challenging and inspiring the members each week. Some are great theologians, Bible scholars, educators - those have encouraged increasing knowledge of the Bible and church history. Still others bring organization skills or pastoral care or an emphasis on spiritual gifts. Sometimes it is just new blood that a congregation needs to reignite their ministry.

Though I am used to this process - this particular change (after eight years!) is going to be harder than ever. Mostly because Pastor Rick has been the first to encourage me to explore ministry from the pulpit. He and his wife Pastor Liz Ecklund (also a United Methodist minister) have challenged me to look at the possibility of ordained ministry. I am not sure what direction I will go with that calling - I am still trying to discern what path God wants me to follow. But when I mentioned it as something that had been marinating in my mind - Rick was on my side. He did not sugarcoat the challenges that a pastor faces, but he reminded me that if God wants me on that path, I can rely on him to be with me through it all.

Rick popping Jiffy Pop for a movie
night at the church. Note, he is popping
corn ambidextrously!
Pastor Rick is not universally loved by every single person in the church - people who are universally loved by everyone are usually trying to be what every person wants them to be. And that just isn't real. Rick is who he believes God wants him to be - someone focused on making disciples of Jesus Christ - and is completely real about it. When meetings get bogged down with disagreement, he reminds us of what our true purpose is supposed to be as a church: to be witnesses of Jesus Christ's redeeming love in a hurting world. And if the disagreement doesn't have something to do with that, it is petty and should not be what we get focused on.

A new stole to remember Centenary by...
I like that he is real. He is not a repeat of the last pastor, or the one before that...he has confidence in his gifts and uses them to the best of his ability. He is willing to hear new ideas (and float a few of his own) and try new things. Maybe "we've never done it that way before" OR maybe "we tried that and it didn't work." The default isn't "I don't think so" - the default is "let's give it a whirl."

Make no mistake, he is grounded in the core beliefs of Christianity. He believes that God sent his only son into the world - not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved. He just respects that not everyone agrees on some of the details - and that shouldn't stop us from doing what we are supposed to do. Be the light. Love one another. Stop judging...that isn't our job.

Rick is a great minister - I love to hear his sermons (he preaches from the common lectionary - so I can study the scriptures ahead of time! Then I can compare my "take" on the scripture with his.), he is wonderfully caring (I can always count on him for a listening ear), he tries hard to connect our congregation with the mission and ministry of the district, conference and United Methodists around the world. I will miss his leadership. I will miss his guidance. I will miss his friendship. I'll even miss his dry Yankee sense of humor.

I'm ready to embrace the transition. I look forward to what new gifts and talents Rev. Doug Gunsalus will bring. He must be good - his last church kept him for 13 years! And I wish Pastor Rick the best as he settles into a new appointment at Main Street UMC in Bedford. Maybe he won't be universally loved there either, but I am willing to bet that it will be the vast majority that come to love and respect him...just like me.