Great Service Is As Gold as Great Food..or At Least It Should Be

I love great food and Italian food is one of my favorites because I have a weakness for pasta and bread – too much sometimes. Growing up on Maui, I hadn’t realize the importance of how service to clients is just as important as the food.

But I learned a lot of this listening to stories my Dad would share with me during his career as an executive chef many years ago at what is now known as the Travaasa Hana Resort. One of the things he would always say is “No matter the trouble, Babe, even if you think you are right and they are wrong, the customer is always right.”

And of course, I always had that in the back of my mind for all these years in the various types of activities I did at fund-raisers, charities, church meetings and of course, work. In over twenty-five years, my occupations ranged in various customer-service related duties in both private and public sectors.

Now I have heard and read of horror stories on social media, television, movies and even in real-life experiences about poor customer service to downright racist-related events that led to tragic events. However, it truly is unacceptable when a new restaurant’s reputation starts going downhill because of staff lacking in professional training and courtesy.

It clearly was something that happened to me a couple times when I was living on Oahu (ironically, an Italian restaurant and a Chinese restaurant) . I experienced obvious racial discrimination while attending a business dinner at a well-known chain restaurant in California. Most recently, it was in the town I currently reside in and I was most disappointed, angered and frustrated that this kind of unacceptable behavior still continues today – doesn’t matter what race, gender or background.

Customer service reigns supreme in all businesses – but especially in a restaurant because people LOVE dining out (at least most I know) on occasion and some of the tastiest food is Italian cuisine. I like most food because my Dad had hotel privileges that extended to sampling some of the best hotel food growing up in Hana. However, he didn’t want me to forget my heritage and Hawaiian food was often frequent in my household. My Mom wanted me to appreciate the “normal stuff” like American cuisine and of course, local food from the farm. Nothing can beat eating food from one’s own vegetable garden, but a meal while dining out should always be a pleasure for all senses.

Regardless of what your family background and origins are from – whether you are U.S. born or from another country, any business that is service-related to the public, especially restaurants should really pay close attention to the importance of how they run their business when it comes to drawing in patrons and ongoing clientele.

Reputation is everything in a business – but especially in a restaurant.

My Dad once had joined a couple of his brothers to start a local Hawaiian eatery on Maui; initially, it was popular. However, lack of financial management and other poor decision-making eventually forced them to close down the business. Whatever took place, I was never privy to the details except that “things didn’t work out because of poor financial planning.”

A restaurant just isn’t about the food because there are so many other variables to running a successful restaurant: type of food, location, leasing the space, conforming to department of health rules and regulations, inspections, contracts, staff training, menu planning, whether or have a bar or not and of course, the investment or capital into starting a venture and so forth.

Having a new restaurant in a small town is vital to the community because it can provide jobs, but no matter how good the food, if there is poor customer service, in my opinion, it is a sure sign that success is already entering a boiling pot of rice about to be burnt!

While it pays to know how to successfully run a food business (not necessarily a restaurant), the clientele or customers are the ones paying for the service and product. It is so key to make sure that getting positive feedback will help not hinder the business. The right kind of staff is key in drawing these clienteles or customers repeatedly back over and over – why?

Word of mouth can glorify or diminish a restaurant’s reputation.

See, there is this thing called “social media” out there that offer these sites where people can write reviews about places like restaurants and whether the experiences these people offer will be a good or bad review. It is very common these days for people who want to try different restaurants to check out places like Yelp or TripAdvisor or even sections on the restaurant’s own website (if they offer it) to provide good or bad reviews.

I always check out reviews whenever I travel or whenever I am in the mood to try a different eatery. I am also a very picky eater and while I enjoy a good meal dining out, I notice the quality of service, how long it takes for the server to bring the food, how pleasant the host or hostess is, whether my drink was done correctly and if the price matches the quality of the food. I even look at the design of the menu. I also like to look at the ambiance or atmosphere – is it noisy, crowded with tiny chairs and shaky tables? Are the surfaces wiped down regularly or are there plates and glasses still sitting at the table from a group of clients who left 30 minutes ago?

Now usually foodies will mention that if there’s a long line outside a restaurant, it must be worth the wait. Well, if I am hungry and grouchy and want certain food cravings, I will not wait. I will go elsewhere to similar restaurant or decide to try something familiar that I have not eaten in a long time.

I have noticed the older i get, the more persnickety I can be at times – so I really try to plan in advance the timing and logistics of where I want to eat to ensure a positive outcome. The last thing in the world I do not like experiencing is being stressed out just to find parking to reach a new restaurant. If my appetite is squashed because I am ill-tempered, it is difficult to enjoy the dining out experience. It is even worse if the service at the restaurant is like waking up to a pot of burnt boiled eggs (but that’s another story for another blog).

I am an aging woman, so humor me and read on.

If it isn’t clean (doesn’t have to be like “ocd” clean) or tidy in my opinion, I already feel uncomfortable. It makes me wonder when was the last time the table surface was wiped down?

If the server doesn’t come by within 5-10 minutes of being seated, I notice how crowded it is and if it isn’t, it makes me wonder if the staff care enough to want to service their clientele efficiently and courteously.

Are they even keeping in mind that customers bring in the revenue and in turn, the revenue is what pays their wages, not to forget tips (if applicable based on the quality of service). If the answer cannot be adamantly, “yes” – well, it definitely tells me I won’t be returning ever again.

As I get older I admit, I get more finicky about the quality of service. In the last 3 decades and even now, I have been in various occupations where customer service was so key to providing quality and satisfaction to the consumer.

Granted, I have never worked in a restaurant (I probably would get fired for sneak-tasting all the food), but given that my Dad had a food career that spanned an exclusive resort on Maui, to preparing food for cruise ships to even working at local, popular hang-outs on Oahu, his stories and experiences helped me define the type of places I enjoy dining out and writing reviews on.

It also helped me figure out what kind of places I would be willing to pay top dollar on or if I simply heard (by word of mouth) what cheap eats served great food, pleasant service and prices to match like the numerous bento box lunches I used to procure at Shirokiya at Ala Moana Center, or Nuuanu Okazuya or Fukuya’s Delicatessen…ah, my next trip back to Hawaii to visit my folks will definitely remind me to stop and get me a bento box lunch with chicken katsu, rice, daikon, shoyu chicken and maybe even a spam musubi.

So the next time you decide to venture to a new place or perhaps go the same restaurant you have been going to for the last 20 years and decide to order something totally different from your “usual” order, keep an eye on the service that is provided to you. Great service is indeed gold to a customer, and the restaurant being represented surely will reap profits in loyalty and a reputation that can be treasured for many years to come.

 

Astoria’s Scandanavian Festival (Oregon Coast) forgot about Estonia!

One of the great things about visiting the Oregon Coast is during the summer there are all kinds of various events held depending on where you decide to visit. The coast itself is lovely though the drive on Hwy 101 can be a bit maddening at times (just depends on where you go and what time you get there) with summer traffic in full bloom for the next few months.

But traffic congestion notwithstanding, every June in the picturesque town of Astoria, a Mid-Summer Scandinavian Festival occurs which you can check out at www.astoriascanfest.com. The event was held a couple weekends ago and while it had been a few years since we last visited, it was still worth a drive up to Astoria to spend time learning about the five main countries which the organization proudly represents through the various artisan booths, vendors and activities displayed and open to the public over the weekend of June 21 – 23 of this month.

While the main countries covered were Finland, Norway Sweden, Iceland and Denmark, I felt a bit insulted that the country where my husband is from was not included and has never been included: the country of Estonia. While people may argue that Estonia is not just a people of Scandinavian heritage, history has clearly shown that this small, independent country has been plundered and invaded by countries such as Sweden, Poland, Denmark, Germany and most recently, Russia. So while there may be a mixture of various Caucasian ethnicities, it with the Vikings that Estonian bloodlines are most notably related.

While Estonia may never ever be considered part of the Scandinavian Festival held in Astoria each year, we did find a lot of interesting booths to look at and appreciate such as lovely hand-crafted pottery, hard-carved wooden sculptures and every day household items like cookware and kitchen utensils. There were also vendors who sold clothing items, fun collectibles and throughout each day, the organization scheduled various activities throughout the weekend like a Queen’s Coronation, Icelandic Horses display and of course delicacies of sweet treats, delicious meals like the Midnight Sun Breakfast and a Viking Dinner event.

We visited on a Saturday morning but it was about a 2.5 hour drive since we reside in the Willamette Valley. By the time we got there, we missed out on the Midnight Sun Breakfast but it was OK – we had that on our first visit four years ago. This time, we wanted to browse more through all the vendor booths and discovered that there were some things my husband was able to find that normally he could only find back in Estonia: like European chocolates. Yum!

Chocolates weren’t the only kind of sweet treats there, but I was more interested in the food – the real food that they were serving. There were booths with homemade cookies, breads, crackers and other great snacks but the food plates being sold were pretty good as well. They had pastry snack “pies” which basically were like Cornish pies or similar to piroshki, the Russian equivalent except these Scandinavian pies were savory fillings like smoked salmon and cream cheese, ham and cheese or even a vegetarian option of spinach and feta cheese wrapped in a pie crust dough. Looked scrumptious. Forgot the Scandinavian word for it but they were like meat pies such as the ones pictured below.

However, we opted to share a lunch plate called the Viking Plate: Swedish meatballs, small potatoes, red cabbage with a roll. Below is kind of what we had for the Viking plate (they gave more meatballs) and they gave us two tiny little potatoes (mashed would’ve been better) however, the whole thing was quite generous so it was perfect for the two of us (besides, we pigged out on the other goodies too).

I also indulged in the Swedish pancakes – which were fluffy crepes stuffed with a choice of ligonberry, strawberry or marionberry (hey, this did take place in Oregon) preserves. Then topped with whipped cream and powdered sugar. Since we walked around for at least a couple hours, I justified enjoying this sweet dessert with much satisfaction.

These photos are included here to give you an idea of what I had since I was so enjoying the food, the sites, the music, the dances…I completely forgot to take pictures with my phone. If you have ever sampled Scandinavian fare, it is really quite simple and not too fancy like French cuisine is but the flavors are either sweet, savory, salty or starchy. Estonian food is similar which is why we wanted to return to visit this festival and experience it one more time.

Now there are several other cities in Oregon that hold their own Scandinavian Festival but the one in Astoria is quite memorable and people from all over, including overseas, will attend such an event as this – and why not? It is a cultural display of the Scandinavian heritage that came upon the Pacific Northwest shores decades ago to establish themselves in North America and set roots on new land for their families and generations ahead.

Traveling up and down the Oregon coast will bring you delightful sites and scenery not just in the various towns but in it is people, it is various cultures and of course, the sampling of fantastic food (which I confess, is always my favorite part of attending an event like this) because it makes it worth a round trip of 5 hours – which is a pretty good way to spend a day with my own Estonian Viking.

So if you have a sense of adventure, love to explore, have a sense of curiosity that needs to be satisfied, then take a trip this annual festival next June and go visit Astoria – even if you’re 50 or older, be a kid again and take time to explore the world around you – it is worth the trip.

Ham Radio, Pad Thai Scallops and Seaside, Oregon

The city of Seaside in Oregon has become one of my favorite coast destinations since I live in Willamette Valley. It was established in 1806 when a group of men from the Lewis and Clark expedition developed a salt-making cairn in this area later developed and known as Seaside. Its name was taken from a historic resort built in the 1870s by railroad magnate Ben Holladay.

It is popular with Oregonians as well as visitors that flock up and down the Oregon coast, especially during the summer months. Most recently, my husband and I made our annual trek there every first weekend in June to attend the annual SEA-PAC Ham Radio Convention which is the largest in the Northwest region that is part of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) Northwestern Division’s Convention. This association allows ham radio operators to connect with each other across the United States in learning about amateur radio, resources and information.

My husband is a ham radio enthusiast for the last 30 years and I didn’t find out much about it until a few years ago when I first attended the convention with him and took my exam to be licensed as a Technician, the first level of 3 licensing levels. I will admit, I didn’t find the convention all that interesting because ham radio is not a passion of mine. I found it interesting as far as communicating over the radio but all the technical components and electronic “shop-talk” that hams love to discuss was not my speed or style. However, for the sake of natural disasters and communication fall-outs, he suggested I learn it given where we live.

It was interesting to meet so many age groups from children to young adults, women and men who enjoyed this hobby and past-time interest. The second year we went, I got my General license and told my husband that was as far as I was going with the licenses. I wanted to explore more of the area and check out the promenade, the aquarium and of course, all the shops and eateries.

Yellow Curry Cozy Thai restaurant is a cute little corner eatery in downtown Seaside that I ordered take-out (pad Thai with scallops instead of shrimp) and had lunch at with my husband last weekend. I love Thai food because of the flavors, textures and the fact that they always use a variety of vegetables and rice noodles, depending on the dish. The service is prompt and courteous and when we first discovered it when we attended our first convention.

This time around, we also visited the Carousel Mall where they featured various shops, snack eateries and even an actual carousel for kids to ride on as well as a Chinese restaurant called New Garden Asian Cuisine that offers take-out, an arcade, leather goods store and other fun shops for residents and visitors alike.

We even tried a new seafood restaurant called Doogers Seafood and Grill in the heart of downtown Seaside. They were pretty crowded when we got there on Saturday night but a lot of ham radio people also stayed in and around Seaside to attend the convention, so many of them greeted my husband affably when we entered the restaurant. Their menu of extensive seafood dishes were generous in portion and their scallops (yes, I’m a big fan of scallops) were to die for!

The great thing about Seaside is that it small enough people are friendly and helpful. There are tons of pet walkers, families, couples and walkers who stroll up and down the sidewalks and famous Promenade that is about a 1.5 mile concrete walkway in length that spans the beach side. It is a relaxing, enjoyable environment where the atmosphere is laid-back. I definitely felt quite sad leaving it on Sunday wishing time had not gone by so quickly.

We stayed at Rivertide Suites which has a fantastic view of the Necanicum River and is less than a five-minute walk to the Convention Center, so it was easy for my husband to come and go to the hotel whenever he wanted. The suites were comfortable with amenities like a full kitchen, jetted tub and balcony with a view of the ocean and river alike. Seagulls were constantly heard daily and a rooftop access of the hotel allowed guests like us to enjoy a panorama view of the entire downtown Seaside. It was sheer heaven and bliss to feel the salty air and hear the ocean surf again. Reminded me so much of Hawaii back home.

Activities at the convention included lectures, a flea market and exhibition, luncheons with special speakers, raffle drawings and an antenna party on Friday night at the beach. There was plenty to keep my husband occupied and plenty for me to check out in downtown Seaside such as booking a wonderful pedicure at a new business called Salon on Broadway. Two young men named Will and Keegan are the owners that are kept busy lavishing their expertise in hair, skin and nails to women like me. I hadn’t had a pedicure in several months and found this was the perfect time for pampering myself with a foot massage and shellac pedicure.

Although travel is exciting and rewarding, it is even more important to ENJOY the experience of visiting a place, even if it is one you have been to before or enjoy going again for a mini-vacay or an extended week or longer. Ironically, had I not moved up here to Oregon, I probably never would have discovered the unique, inspiring and captivating beauty of the Oregon coast.

There are lighthouses to see nearby such as Tillamook Rock Lighthouse and even towns north such as Warrenton and Astoria that will make a wonderful day trip on any itinerary. If you prefer to head south, Cannon Beach is a great stop with its boutique style shops and fabulous beaches.

Making a point to travel – whether it is to Seaside or to another place in the Pacific Northwest, take time to enjoy the great outdoors, revel in the towns and cities you stop in and take in the unique community culture that makes that place its own identity.

So no matter your age, make time to visit a place you have never been. The reward of creating fond memories with loved ones during travel is one experience that you can revisit again and again.

Returning Home: Exploring Hana, Maui

I had been away from my childhood town of Hana, Maui for nearly 26 years.  That was the last time I visited back in June 1993 with two of my close friends from church, Eva and Keolani and a close friend of Keolani’s named Evie.  Eva and I were in our mid-20s and starting our careers – for her, it was nursing. For me, I was just starting out as an executive assistant for an up and coming financial advisor.  My second friend, Keolani, was just finishing junior high and entering her last year in high school. She and Evie grew up going to school together, so it was probably good there were four of us in case me and Eva wanted to hang out somewhere that was for 18 and older.

Traveling to the neighboring island of Maui created excitement for all because we hadn’t traveled together like this before, nor stayed away from home longer than an overnight stay, let alone another island.  But I had worked for a publishing company that had a travel section so I was quite familiar how to do research on where to stay for travelers on a budget.  I told my friends that staying in Kahului was very convenient to access everything: the airport, shopping malls, dining, supermarkets and even nearby tourist attractions in Wailuku.  Visits to Upcountry Maui in towns like Haiku, Paia and Makawao were relatively short rides of 20 minutes or so.

The big “road trip” was driving the Hana road and visiting the town as well as other historical landmarks outside the town and great beach sites. So I was not only the designated driver but I was also the travel agent and personal concierge for the other three who said they would leave everything in my capable hands since I was the one that was raised there and knew where to go – but that had been nearly 15 years prior.  I was curious how much it changed.  Ironically, Hana had not changed much in 1993 from 1977.  It certainly appeared the same years later when I visited it again.

Fast-track to 2016 and as newlyweds, my husband and I included a visit to Maui during our two-week vacation in Hawaii in the month of November.  Like my friends, he lay everything in my hands to plan out an itinerary for us to explore as much of the entire island in the six days we were there.  So once again, I used my travel skills and researched the internet to figure out what activities would spark interest.  What was really nice was that we didn’t need to worry about lodgings. As a honeymoon gift, my Dad had booked our stay at Maui Seaside in Kahului for the entire time we were on Maui.  We just rented a car and would holo-holo (cruise) about the island.

Hana is a rural, coastal town of about 1300 in population since it happens to be one of the most isolated communities on the island.  But driving into it, I could see there was a newly painted welcome sign that hadn’t been there before when I was a kid.  The roads were the same: one way in, and one way out but it split to a lower and upper Hana road but both lead right back to the main center of town.

Prior to entering Hana, we stopped off at a place not too well-known to the public unless you do some research. Surprisingly, my husband found this natural sanctuary online called Kahanu Gardens a tropical Botanical Garden site that featured a temple site called Pi’ilanihale Heaiu.  It was not only listed as a National Historical Landmark, but it was also the largest ancient man-made structure in all of Polynesia.  An aerial view of the entire park is depicted in the picture above.  I think I was showing my age because I honestly could not recall this place growing up nearby.

Closer to the center of town was the famous Hotel Hana Maui now known as Travaasa Hotel Hana.  To stay there meant a year’s salary to the average consumer.  But if you can afford $400-$500 a night or more depending if it was a standard room or a seaside cottage, you were treated and pampered like the only person in the world.  The renovations were very nice and it was obvious there were major physical changes to the outside property as well.

The town remained relatively the same and even driving by my former childhood home showed some really nice updates to structure and the yard. One of the noticeable changes was the famous Hasegawa General store.  It is reputed to be Hawaii’s oldest general store establishing itself in 1910.  The place had relocated to the former Hana theatre (my first movie I saw there was “Jaws” and that summer I didn’t swim in the ocean) due to a fire that destroyed the previous location.  It re-established itself a few years later to be one of the most popular local landmarks for residents and visitors alike.

The old Hasegawa General Store shown here is where I remember bike-riding to for local style snacks like Maui potato chips and sweet treats like manju, a Japanese steamed bun filled with sweet, red bean filling.  It also had a gas station whereas the new Hasegawa General Store does not.  But the new store has more room though it is filled to the rim with all kinds of products, trinkets, giftables and edible eats.

The new entrance looks like the side entrance to a warehouse, but it had not lost its character or appeal to the first-time visitor or someone who has been living in Hana for years.  Its unique “catch-all” personality will delight those passing through and we spent a good time there re-stocking on beverages, obtaining lunch snacks like spam musubi and teriyaki chicken skewers, futomaki sushi, nuts, cheese and crackers, fresh fruits like guava and apple bananas, trail mix and some candies.

Taking the time to browse through a small town like Hana made me appreciate the place I currently reside in called Dayton located in the beautiful Willamette Valley.  Its population is about twice the size of Hana, but it is still small, quiet and relatively small compared to other towns scattered about the vast state of Oregon.  Hana is coastal while Dayton is in the valley.  One of the things I do miss about living in Hawaii was being so accessible to visit a nearby beach or just take a view of the ocean.  To do that in Oregon, I need to drive at least 2-3 hours depending on the direction I’m heading: Astoria, Seaside, Lincoln City, Coos Bay or even Gold Beach.

Hana Bay is where I first learned to swim and I took my friends there to show them the pier where I was told to jump off the bridge into the water. I was eight years old.  I didn’t know any better and I caught hell from my mom.  Ok, actually my older brother caught hell from my parents.  We just didn’t see the possible consequences – but that’s what it’s like to go head-on into an adventure or an experience.  When we actually stopped at the bay area and walked out to the pier (parts of it were under construction at the time), it looked old, crumbling and unsafe.  Obviously, it was being repaired so we could not walk out onto it all the way to the edge, but viewing it reminded me of more carefree days where I swam and splashed in its waters many, many years ago.

The Seven Sacred Pools in Kipahulu was the place to visit on our agenda.  It would take us another 11 miles outside of town but when we arrived, the views, sounds, and salty air gave us a sense of relaxation and appreciation of real Hawaii with natural beauty still untouched and unchanging from when I first saw it as a child back in 1978.  Even the old bridge remained the same, though the edges were worn and starting to deteriorate.

It was quite a hike to get down to the pools and I felt pretty worn out with all the driving, so I stayed up at the visitor’s center but the place was packed. Fortunately, we found parking and there were a few empty benches outside the center which I happily remained while my husband made his way down to the pools with his camera.  There were many ways to climb up on the rocks to visit the upper pools or go all the way down to the ocean where it ends up, but it is not for the faint-hearted or those with medical conditions.

After spending at least an hour there taking photos, relaxing and trying to figure out where to go next, I told him we would backtrack down to Hamoa Beach.  There is a great website called Hamoabeach.org that shares all about this fantastic, popular spot shared by the Travaasa Hotel though it is a public beach and everyone is welcome to check it out.  There is no lifeguard, so it is wise to make sure you can swim and don’t go too far out because there are strong currents that can easily take inexperienced swimmers to dangerous spots and cause fatalities.

Although there were many other places we visited during our week stay on Maui, going back to my childhood home in Hana created a wave of memories for me that I had not thought about for a very long time.  What was amazing to me is that it had only changed slightly in the last 42 years. Yes, that is how long ago it was when my family  and I first arrived in Hana.  It is definitely a place I will want to return someday soon and definitely a place I will never forget.

Hana is truly one of the last Hawaiian places on earth where time really stands still.