Retail Therapy: Customer Service Is King

Specialty food retailers discuss the importance of keeping shoppers happy, whatever it takes.

The Panel: Kristie Brablec, Zingerman’s, Ann Arbor, MI;  Aaron Foster, Foster Sundry, Brooklyn, NY;  Steven Rosenberg, Liberty Heights Fresh, Salt Lake City, UT


Steven Rosenberg, Liberty Heights Fresh, Salt Lake City, UT

We had a guest who drove 45 minutes, from Park City, to our shop to get good ingredients to build a great sandwich— good farmhouse bread, real Swiss cheese, jambon, condiments, Route 11 chips, Rick’s Picks pickles, etc… you get the idea.

Upon arriving home, the guest discovered that our team failed to put his loaf of bread into his bag. He called and was clearly disappointed, perhaps mildly upset. So we raced to his home in 35 minutes to deliver what he had been expecting to already enjoy, his bread, along with a bar of great chocolate.

Needless to say, he was very impressed that we would go to such lengths to make a bad situation much better, and to do so without his asking. He was happy, and told many of his Park City friends the story. We know because many of them visited our store and told us what their friend had experienced.

It’s what we do when we make a mistake. We apologize, ask guests how we can create complete satisfaction from their place of disappointment, and then spring into action to put a smile back on their faces. “Always eat well!” is our motto, and we will do everything within our power to see that our guests are able to do so. Always.


Kristie Brablec, Zingerman’s, Ann Arbor, MI

At Zingerman’s we measure service as one of our bottom lines; it’s on par with our food and our financial success. Over the years we’ve learned that in order to give amazing service we need to define it. One of the tools we’ve used to help us keep track of our feedback is a system called Code Reds and Code Greens. They are literal forms that we have our staff fill out when they have overcome a difficulty, or are working on an opportunity with a guest, that we can keep for future reference.

In 2010 a long-time guest came to the deli. He was in line for a sandwich and was offered a sample of bread. He remarked how spicy it was, and was told that it was flavored with peppered bacon. He was surprised and angry that we were handing out samples of bread without a warning, in case the person trying it, like him, didn’t eat bacon.

The staffer then let him know that the pretzels he had purchased were made with lard. He was shocked! He’s really sad to lose the pretzels, but the real reason for his disappointment was that he felt our signage was not obvious enough. He was wondering what else might have lard that he didn’t know about. He was even wondering if the pretzels that he used to get in New York might have had lard. He said we didn’t have to involve Ari [Weinzweig], but I asked for his email to be able to follow up.

To address the situation, the Bakehouse & Deli both changed their signage and labels to reflect the fact that our pretzels contain lard (adding the pig face picture, too). Due to our Code Red system and our practice of documenting issues, we were able to reach back out to our guest two years later. We called to let him know about our new pretzel bun, which had no lard. His response was, “This is incredible. I’m just one person, but you took the time to remember and call.”

Opportunities to take that negative experience and turn it into a positive one are everywhere.


Aaron Foster, Foster Sundry, Brooklyn, NY

Our approach is essentially to minimize the importance of a single sale. Instead, we value the customer—the relationship—far more significantly than any particular transaction.

What does this mean in practice? Usually, it means refunding the customer, even if the infraction is minor. We can all agree: the customer is not always right. But it is always right to treat the customer with respect and magnanimity. Our job as store owners and managers and sales staff is not simply to meet the daily numbers goal. We must take the long view and work towards shoring up the longevity and stability of the business.

I train my staff to identify dissatisfied customers, and how to respond to customers that raise issues. The first step is to be generous of spirit, time, and money. Their order came with the wrong sauce? Offer to replace the dish, and refund the entire transaction, whether or not they opt for a replacement. Manage customer expectations at the register. A customer brings a bruised apple or a short-coded juice to the register? Politely let them know, swap out the item for a corrected one, and offer the damaged or short-coded item to them for free.

The question you must ask is: What can I do to make this customer come back? What can I do to make this customer tell her friends to come visit? The cost of a sandwich, a re-made coffee drink—these are infinitesimal sums compared with what a satisfied and delighted customer might spend in your shop over the course of five or 
10 years.

Related: Retail Therapy: Hiring Strategies; Retail Therapy: Employee Motivation.

Responses have been edited for clarity and fit.


Sara Kay is acting content associate for Specialty Food Magazine.