Wow, That Blew My Socks Off

When was the last time you had your socks blown off in the service department? I’m talking about customer service where you’ve walked away from spending your hard earned dollars on something you’ve waited a long time to buy, where you’ve saved diligently for something special and the service you received was so exceptional, memorable and entertaining that you just smiled and had to tell someone? It doesn’t happen very often but when it does, you remember it and want to share it.

My wife and I recently took a trip to Napa Valley to celebrate a milestone anniversary and explore the wine culture for a Bulldog innovation project. Included on our list of must-dos was a trip to Thomas Keller’s world-renowned French Laundry. We had high expectations for an amazing experience, but we both had very little idea of what to expect in terms of the details.

The mystique is fueled because they make it almost impossible to get a reservation, a brilliant tactic to drive demand. They open their reservation line on a Tuesday for reservations two months later, and it’s still virtually impossible to get a table. Well, we were fortunate that our hotel booked our table in advance, but to my surprise the reservation was for 11am, a wee bit early for lunch, I thought. Nevertheless, we jumped out of bed, dressed to impress, hopped in the car and made our way to the restaurant with plenty of time to spare (you don’t want to miss your reservation time). As luck would have it, we got caught behind the stragglers from the Napa Valley Marathon, and we moved painfully slowly toward our culinary destination. Bugger, we were going to be late. I called, no answer of course, and I began to panic. This is a place you just can’t be late for! I called my hotel, “You need to call them to tell them about the marathon, we didn’t mean for this to happen, tell them how sorry we are!” Tension was running high in the car, but it got worse when we finally reached the right street and I couldn’t find the actual restaurant. Stressed, my wife insisted on getting out and asking for directions.

We finally pulled into the intimate gravel parking lot and it felt like we were the first ones to arrive. The charming brick cottage on the outside was abuzz with organized activity, and had the most sophisticated of settings on the inside. It reminded me of the home where I grew up in England. We were greeted by an immaculately dressed staff member who requested our names, and then out of nowhere, a purposeful man glanced at my attire which, on reflection, was highly questionable given the rules. My large scarf made me look like a member of the PLO and my jacket was not a blazer or a suit, but a Chris Evans on-stage rock star blazer. His very clear instruction was, “Sir, please do keep your jacket on in the dining room”, and I have to say that rattled my cage a little.

He seated us and left us in the hands of our main server, who made our entire experience a pleasure from the minute we sat down. She made us feel comfortable and at home. We described ourselves as casual, rather than hard core, foodies and she artfully served with a careful balance of total conviction about the food and an approachability in her service and conversation about life and the details. The sommelier was just as skillful in designing our wine journey for the day, laughing with us and educating us about his choices. While the food was everything you might expect and more, the wine pairings expertly matching each course, and our intimate time together over almost five hours of world-class culinary art will be remembered for the rest of our days.

For me there was a real WOW beyond the culinary adventure in the middle of this wonderful event. On arrival I’d spent the first ten minutes joking and stressing with our server about my rock star jacket, concerned I was inappropriately dressed. But my jacket was a very expensive Paul Smith limited edition. With a subtle, out-of-sight explanation to the dining room commander, Lawrence Nadeau, the Maitre d’, soon appeared tableside and effortlessly topped off our glasses of champagne. With a slight grin and Seinfeld delivery, he said, “And Sir, that is a fine jacket”, and then he was gone. Brilliant, subdued and artful expectation management. I wasn’t a celebrity and I wasn’t dripping in billions—I was just another customer. But every aspect of our experience was managed with grace, subtlety and personality. These people are serious about the food and the service, but don’t take themselves too seriously in the process. Masterful.

On the way out I complimented Lawrence on the whole experience. He’s been the Maitre d’ since the restaurant opened 18 years ago. He gave huge credit to Thomas Keller’s amazing leadership qualities. That was a wow experience we will always remember.


  • Be serious about your product but always put the customer first
  • Your reputation is everything
  • One person can spread bad news (or good news) fast
  • Excellence takes the commitment of a whole team
  • Allow your people to be people

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