When I was 14, I worked as a caddy at the local country club. After carrying the golf bags of some rich folks through a gritty summer day, I’d bike home tired and hungry. On the way, I’d often stop at a place in the middle of my hometown to grab a bite.
Little Louie’s was a “hole in the wall” hotdog place. It was, in essence, a small room within a rundown wooden building across from the town park. When you walked in through the creaky screen door, you found yourself in a claustrophobic, crowded space that was noisy, too hot and a little confusing. Claustrophobic because the room would be too small for two people to lay end-to-end.Crowded and noisy because, well there were always customers waiting to grab a bite, regardless of the hour of day. Too hot because the rattling air conditioning unit was usually blowing out hot air. And confusing since people didn’t really line up in an orderly fashion to order their food. Instead it was almost a little mosh pit in front of the old wooden counter.
On the walls were a strange mix of photos and signs, along with an array of menu items written for some reason, on paper plates that had been stapled up sometime in the last couple decades. God help you if you were a newcomer and ordered a Rueben sandwich; they probably sold two a year.
The ordering process instilled fear in first-timers. For as I said, there was no line. Instead, it was a small mass of hungry people, who would look up expectantly, like baby birds, at one of the two big guys behind the counter in the white, slightly stained aprons – Lou or Eddie. Both were happy enough. But each had an edge to his personality. They seemed to delight in making people uncomfortable. Behind them were the deep-fry vats and several harried high-school kids who slaved their summers away in the heat and steam.
When either Eddie or Lou would point at you, in no particular order, you needed to have your request ready. If, as many found out to their detriment, you were to hesitate for a second or two, the pointed finger would quickly move to another, more prepared patron.
For my part, I’d yell out “hot dog, no celery salt, fries and a coke.” Keep it simple and project your voice if you wanted your food. With that, a scoop of French fries, dripping grease, would be flung into the bottom of a plain brown paper bag, a quickly wrapped hot dog would be unceremoniously flung directly on top. The coke would be dispensed into a cup bearing the name and logo of any of a number of fast-food restaurants, but not Little Louie’s. They didn’t see much need in branding themselves, and would purchase overruns from other establishments.
With that, I would stroll with my grease-stained bag across the street, sit under the large oaks in the park and enjoy my meal.
One might wonder why this place was so successful, a constant flow of customers throughout each and every day. What was the secret? Well, the food was good; that always helps. And it clearly wasn’t the ambience of the place, or the high-touch, caring service.
The secret, I believe, is that it was real. There was no pretense. They didn’t try to project an image that they were anything more than what they were. It’s not a reality that would work for many businesses, but it worked for Louie and Eddie.
The lesson applies to every business. Whatever face you present to the world – the ultra-personal service and elegance at a Ritz-Carlton, user-focused products of Apple, or the quick, honest hot dog and fries of a Little Louie’s – if it’s part of who you really are, you have a chance to become something special.
Try to fool your employees and customers that you are something you’re not, and your business will suffer the consequences.