Tony always hugs my wife first. Then he gives the boys a high five and hugs my daughter. He always calls her ‘beautiful’ and, every once in a while, he adds in ‘princess.’ He slaps me on the shoulder, asks how me how work is, chastises me for not coming in enough. My wife brings the kids for lunch sometimes when I’m at work. He notices when I’m not there.
We’ve been going to Aponte’s Pizzeria – ‘Tony’s’ as my kids call it – for the better part of a decade, since he was just starting out and it was in a smaller, dingier location. He makes Jersey style pizza – big, flat, the kind with the floury crust that you have to fold to manage. At the time, it was a novelty, something different from the massive chains to which we were accustomed. Eventually, the novelty of the style of pizza wore off, but we kept going back. Why? Because of that moment, when we would first walk in and Tony would make us feel like his best customers; when he would remember us, treat us like we were special.
He treats everyone who has been into his place more than once that way. To watch him work the room, greeting guests, slapping backs, shaking hands, kissing cheeks, is to see that, for Tony, there is no line between being a business owner and being a person – a member of a community he loves and which loves him back.
He reminds me a lot of Tom.
Tom was a barber my dad would go to when I was a kid. His shop was in a small town a half hour from where we lived but near where my dad worked. Sometimes, on Saturday mornings, I would go to work with my dad. His office was in an old school building that still had a ‘Hoosiers’-style gym. I would shoot baskets or whack a tennis ball against the wall while he got caught up on the paperwork he neglected during the week. My dad’s style of management was to deal with people and their needs during the week and catch up on the things he could do alone on the weekends or in the evening. He has never been one to close his doors at work when there might be someone who needed to come through it.
When he was done, we’d go visit Tom for a haircut. I don’t remember ever having to wait too long. It always seemed like Tom had a chair for my dad and I. And when dad sat down, it was as if they picked up the conversation where it had been left the last time they met. Tom remembered things about Dad’s life. He remembered things about mine – a tennis tournament, a basketball tryout. He wanted to know how things were going. He seemed genuinely to care.
Freshly trimmed and shorn, we’d go to Nancy’s, a diner on the other side of the small town. I remember her. I remember looking at the menu once and lighting up when I saw she offered a fried shrimp basket. Then I remember her asking if I wanted the shrimp every time I walked through the door and bringing Dad a cup of black coffee without needing to be asked.
Rose was the woman at the men’s store. She knew dad would come in twice a year for suits. By the third visit, she had things waiting behind the counter. She helped me pick out my first sport coat for the homecoming dance freshman year and every year after that. She came to my high school graduation and kept my picture – and those of dozens of other young men that she had dressed into maturity – on a board in the back room. I even invited her to my wedding.
Mom used to love talking to another woman named Nancy. She was a retiree who worked the morning shift at McDonald’s. Sometimes mom would take me there early before school for breakfast. Nancy knew all about me when I walked in. She hugged mom. She stood by our table and talked for a few minutes at a time, telling us about her family, asking about ours. Mom would walk the dog to McDonald’s in the morning after the kids were at school for coffee, yes, but also just to see Nancy.
Frank- not his real name – is a flight attendant who works the flight from Cincinnati to Paris, the only daily direct flight to Europe from where I live. We got to talking the first time I took that flight alone. He remembered me a month later when I did it again. Last time I flew with my boss, he poured us Champaign to toast her birthday and told us all about how he spends his layovers in Paris, Amsterdam, New York. He remembered our business, asked about our kids.
Tony, Tom, the Nancys, Rose, Frank, dozens of other people who could go about their business, who could look at customers like cash registers but choose a different way of doing things; who choose to make business personal– these people understand that it doesn’t matter how many customers you have, what matters is the one standing or sitting right in front of them. It breeds a particular kind of loyalty, one built on connection and empathy; one that weathers the tests of prices and discounts choice and distraction. For them, loyalty is the natural result of treating people with dignity and respect, with humanity and compassion. It makes me want to be their best customer. It makes me want to eat their food, buy their clothes, take their flights and go out of the way for a haircut.
We have an artificial line in our minds; a line that separates work from friendship, business from personal, 9 to 5 from things that matter. But when was the last time you wanted to go back to a place that treated you like revenue? When was the last time you felt loyal to a company that wanted your ‘engagement’ instead of your life story?
Normal Maclain, author of A River Runs Through It once wrote: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”
Well, for me, there is no clear line between business and people. Treat me like a person and you’ll get my business. Treat me like a business and I’ll find other people.