Sharing Success

Learning From a Cup of Coffee

On behalf of Stanislaus and Corto, Maureen and I thank many of you who shared condolences and memories upon the passing of my Uncle Dino Cortopassi in February. Dino treasured warm, personal relationships with our restaurateur customers and would have been moved, as we were, with your love and support!

Before Dino’s untimely passing, I had just finished a La Trattoria column about how the pandemic has strengthened the importance of personal connections. We held off printing this column in favor of a tribute to Dino’s career. I still feel strongly about the relevancy of this message, and hope that it resonates with you. Enjoy!


Beyond the pain and hardship it has caused, the continuing pandemic has brought what is most important in life, especially meaningful relationships, into sharper focus.

I believe that this “sharpening” is actually strengthening the strategic advantage that many Independents have over larger, cheaper, less-personal competitors – focus on reinforcing meaningful relationships with their regulars, day after day, year after year.

I recently saw an example of this Independent advantage firsthand. Just before the holidays, Maureen and I celebrated our anniversary in California’s Napa Valley. At the recommendation of a friend, we stopped by their favorite local coffee store – the Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company – to get our morning cup of coffee.

What struck me during our visit, besides the warm aroma of freshly roasted beans and the cheerful, energetic staff, was the line out the door of regulars patiently waiting their turn.

Meanwhile, the well-known coffee chain directly across the street was less than a quarter full. In the past, I have purchased coffee from this chain and can attest that it has pretty good coffee and their employees are usually pleasant and professional.

So why was one place full and the other nearly empty?

Beyond the fact that the coffee was outstanding, the next obvious difference was the attitude of the employees. Rather than ringing anonymous transactions, I watched team members smiling, making eye contact and greeting arriving regulars, asking guests about family (or even pets), or making newcomers like me feel welcomed and appreciated. You could tell this team loves their craft and sharing it with customers.

There is an old Italian proverb popular with restaurateurs: “L’occhio del padrone, ingrassa il cavallo.” (Under the owner’s watchful eye, the horse adds weight.) Literally, when the horse’s owner is nearby, farm hands keep it properly fed.

While some take this to mean “When the cat’s away, the mice will play,” I believe that for Independent businesses like yours and mine, it has a much richer meaning.

I believe the reason that many Independent businesses enjoy extraordinary customer (and employee) loyalty is the presence of handson leaders who actively model the importance of connecting personally with every customer, every visit.

Like the team at the Independent coffee store, in my experience, most employees actually prefer working where the quality of their contribution is measured, recognized, and rewarded. Their satisfaction is even higher when surrounded by like-minded team members focused, not just on “doing business”, but on making a real difference in the lives of their customers.


The reason that “building customer relationships” remains a competitive advantage for Independents is that chains don’t have an owner running the place. Being present gives hands-on leaders the continual opportunity to:

1) Personally model for employees through their own actions exactly how they want each customer to be treated every time.

2) Constantly remind each individual employee how consistently exceeding customer expectations keeps customers coming back, despite whatever challenges the business might face.

3) Provide regular feedback to each team member about why and how their role directly impacts customer expectations.

4) Observe employees performing their jobs at a high level and praise their efforts. A well-deserved “pat on the back” is a reward that is often appreciated more than money.


On the other hand, if you think about it, big chains are built around uniformity, efficiency, and impersonality. Not only do they lack the power of “l’occhio del padrone” onsite, their cultures are actually impersonal by design.

By the way, the coffee was so good that we stopped in all three mornings of our trip, and I truly felt like a “regular” before finishing my second cup!