A wise man once said, “Three is the number, and the number shall be three.”
That wise man would have liked Laura Harbaugh.
Harbaugh was one of the first people who piqued my attention when I moved to Carbondale, Illinois to attend Southern Illinois University.
She was a waitress at Quatro’s Pizza who always made remarkable eye contact, who always seemed – what’s the word – genuine, and never seemed to be in a rush or stressed out – which is atypical for young servers in busy restaurants.
Laura went on to achieve the American dream.
In the late 90s, she opened a restaurant of her own, and Harbaugh’s Café was born – not far from Quatro’s pizza.
She has many secrets I’m sure, but there are three things that have always impressed me about her and the way she runs her business.
The first secret is that Laura seems to understand what matters and what doesn’t. She focuses on what matters. That’s easier said than done, isn’t it? I find it interesting that her coffee cups are a collection of donations, thrift shop pickups, and apparently whatever she had lying around her house when she opened the restaurant.
I think it’s perfect. It communicates a language about the feeling of the restaurant. So often business owners leave things to chance and don’t consciously make decisions about lighting, staffing, decor, or parking spaces. These, too, are part of any business’s brand.
The second thing Laura does that impresses me so deeply – and she must have learned this from watching so many servers over the years – is that if you want to work at Harbaugh’s, fine. The second secret is requiring potential hires to audition.
You want to wait tables? Audition.
Show us that you’re capable of handling a shift. There’s no more evidence we’ll need that you’ll work here. Okay, sure, you have to fill out an application, and we have to check your references, but the best reference of all is you demonstrating your ability in the context of a working day.
I think that’s probably it the third of the three that impresses me most and is the best lesson for anyone reading this.
Laura may not even remember telling me this, but it’s something I’ve used for more than a dozen years. She told me once when I was working on a project for her television ad, that her third secret – a secret she passes on to her staff – is that when you’re talking with the customer you must give her your full, undivided attention.
This is easier than it sounds in the course of a busy day with many tables and other customers to remember.
Laura said to me – and I remember it like it was yesterday and not the summer of 2001:
“Even if it’s only three seconds with a customer, for those three seconds that customer is the most important thing to me in the world.”
In this day and age of smartphones and Twitter and text messaging, where we’re all a little twitchy to see what else is going on – that might be the most important lesson of all: