At least once a month, my husband Joel, my son Noah and I have lunch at the Skyport Restaurant on Freeman's Bridge Road in Scotia, NY after we attend Sunday services at The First Unitarian Society of Schenectady, where we have been members for several years.
It's the type of diner where my father, a career salesman, would buy me breakfast as a treat in Queens, NY when I was a little girl. Good food at a reasonable price. Run by blue-collar folks just like us. Nothing fancy, but clean, satisfying and good.
Each time we arrive, we're greeted by an upbeat sprite of a waitress who is a cross between Cyndi Lauper and Joyce DeWitt from Three's Company. She is the best waitress I've ever met in my life. I feel like I'm welcomed into her home every time we eat there.
On our first visit, she brought Noah his hot chocolate in a special extra large cup with delightfully too much whipped cream and chocolate syrup flourished on top. She had Noah at hello. She calls us all honey and has a megawatt smile. She's not a normal waitress: she acts like she owns the place. I've been wondering about her status for several months: if she owns the place, why is she waiting on tables?
I found out why today. My good friend Lisa and I both like the Skyport and decided to have our slightly overdue lunch there. We sat for 2 hours catching up.
Our waitress approached us. "Where are your boys today?" she asked me. "Amusing each other at home," I smiled back. "Mine too," Lisa chimed in. She looked at Lisa. "Where do I know you from?" she asked Lisa. They wondered aloud together for a few minutes. As they both caught their breath, I jumped in. "You know, you're a great waitress. You work like you own the place." She beamed. "Thank you, it really means a lot to me, I work really hard at it."
Her name is Joanna. It turns out that her father has owned the restaurant for 52 years. He's 91 years old and sits in the back, chopping the potatoes and onions up for the delicious home fries and the homemade corned beef hash. Joanna's two sisters buzz around the kitchen and cook all the food. A younger brother or nephew always brings our coffee and cleans the tables. "Well, we love coming here and you're a big reason, thank you," I said. Joanna beamed again and bustled to other customers.
Lisa and I closed the diner this afternoon, along with a couple from California, who stopped both Joanna and I. "She's right, you are wonderful," he said to Joanna. "Thanks!" Joanna beamed one last time. We all wished each other a good week.
Now, I've worked with and for family businesses for a good part of my career that employ family members. Sometimes it works, with all of the family members pulling their weight. Sometimes it doesn't work. When family members don't pull their weight, it's painful. Painful in that it's both morale- and soul-sucking. Like working with no-show colleagues. Everyone gets paid, but they don't work, you do. Just because they're family, it doesn't always equate to having skin in the game of the family business.
And I'll submit that employers can't buy that kind of skin in the game: e.g. mitigating an employee's base salary (and more often than not, their dignity) with the carrot-and-stick of the bonus-plan-of-the-month. Skin in the game is the equity of partnership, either through blood, or through investment (financial or sweat), or optimally, both.
At Skyport, they not only have skin in the game: they're all in the roles that play to their respective strengths which in turn support the success of their business. Joanna is the customer service expert / fan in the family, so she waits on the customers. And we customers love it. Her skin in the game is that she does what she loves, partnering with her family to make their living and make us diner foodies happy.
A customer service best practice, great company and a good brunch: business, and life, is good.