"So when was it that you realized you were going to be having a really bad day today?" I asked Tony the maitre d' when he stopped at our table at Gibson's.
"Oh, probably about an hour and a half or so ago. We'd done all of the prep work and had everything ready to go, but then..." He gave a smile of weary resignation, but didn't go into the details of the "technical difficulties" that had caused RL to close their dining room for the day and start calling people who had reservations to offer them alternatives.
This was at about 1:30, and we had met Tony half an hour before. What was remarkable about the conversation is that Tony doesn't work at Gibson's, and we hadn't been expecting to be eating there -- he's the maitre d' at RL, where we'd had a reservation for lunch.
The staff at RL had begun calling their customers as soon as they realized they had a disaster on their hands, but I'd missed the call, which apparently came into my cell at about the time I was sliding out of the cab at the Duke of Perth to retrieve the moleskine that I'd left there the night before (another superb service story, by the way). So we had gone ahead on schedule checking out of the hotel, storing our luggage and walking up the street to the restaurant. This is our general pattern when we have a weekend in Chicago -- book a late afternoon flight so that we can take our time and have a good lunch before heading home. Evelyn has had positive things to say about RL, and since she's never steered us wrong on a restaurant recommendation we decided to give it a try and booked a 1:00 reservation.
When we walked in, there were people sitting in the bar and lounge areas, but the dining room itself appeared to be empty, the tables all set and pristine. This seemed odd at what should have been the peak of the brunch rush. I gave my name to the hostess and suddenly Tony appeared, calm and smiling, looking completely unrushed and unhurried, but deeply apologetic.
"I'm afraid we've had a technical malfunction in our kitchen and we've had to close our dining room for the day," he said, and rolled his eyes up with a "these things happen" shrug. "What I'd like to suggest is that you try either Gibson's or Lux Bar -- they have tables just waiting for you, and then I'd like to buy you lunch here at RL the next time you come in."
Of course, we were a bit startled and taken aback, trying to take this information in. We probed a bit about the choices -- Tony described the places and we thought that Gibson's would probably do. "Yes, Gibson's is what I would recommend. John Coletti is there just waiting for you. I can get you a cab or, if you'd prefer to walk, it's just a few blocks up Rush... Now let me give you this gift certificate for the next time you come in and here's my card, with my cell phone number -- please call me directly for the reservation and I'll be sure to take care of you personally."
He pointed us in the right direction, apologized again, shook my hand, and by this time we felt like we were all in this together and were on an adventure, rather than being inconvenienced.
Sure enough, when we walked into Gibson's and said, tentatively, to the maitre d' there, "Tony just sent us up from RL...," he grinned and replied, "Oh yes, we were expecting you. I'm John..." We commiserated about what a lousy day Tony was having. Our coats were whisked away and we were led to our booth.
"Let me see that gift certificate," I said to Lynn once we were settled in. She handed it to me and I opened it up. More than enough to cover lunch for two the next time we were in. Impressive. And as we were sitting there marveling at how they had so smoothly moved us from feeling disappointed that our plans had been knocked askew into feeling that we were being treated extra-special, Tony appeared at our table. "I just had to walk up the street to see how my customers were doing. Is everything okay? Are they treating you right?"
We assured him that we were having a fine time, and were looking forward to coming back to his restaurant the next time we were in town. He shook my hand again, and moved off to the next table of displaced diners.
"Now, that was over the top," we agreed. Hard to calculate the financial hit that RL took that day -- an empty dining room that would usually be packed, all that food that had been prepped and would have to be given away to the food banks, and the gift certificates to the people holding reservations. Many thousands of dollars to be sure. But there was Tony, five blocks away from his own restaurant, as if there was nothing more important in his world than making sure that we were having a fine Sunday lunch.
We, in libraryland, talk a lot about customer service. Oh, that we could be half this good!