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Sunday Brunch in Heaven

When I was but 21 years old, I lived in Austin Texas, attending university there. I paid my own way through college and worked in bars and restaurants to make ends meet. Fonda San Miguel was a legend even back then, already among the best Mexican restaurants in the world. When I got a job as bartender at Fonda, I really had no idea that I was stepping into a relationship that would change my entire adult life.

The crew was young, lively, and really, really good. The ownership was made up of Tom Gililand and Miguel Ravago, who were very active in every detail of the place. Both were smart, experienced, and focused on a complete experience complimentary to the amazing food. The continuity of cuisine, personnel, service, decor, and energy is still with me to this day. I have been fortunate enough to dine at some of the best restaurants in the world, and none are any better at overall integrity of the experience (yes, that's my plug to high tail it to FSM should you ever find yourself in Austin). At the time, of course, I was oblivious to how difficult this can be for ANY business, let alone one that caters to the individual whim of every customer.

It was the first place that I worked that garnered me a "Wow!" when someone asked me about my job. Consequently, it was also the first place for which I developed pride, even as a lowly cocktail slinger and occasional busboy.

Not long after I started working there, the kitchen staff discovered exactly how "gringo" I really was (mucho), and proceed to make a mission out of hiding hot chilies in my employee meals just to blow me up. Miguel, though he did find it amusing, took pity on me and convinced me that there was an option besides just surrendering - I could learn about the food and learn to appreciate the heat.

This conversation migrated over time into discussions about other ingredients and then to cooking. My grandfather was a darn good cook and some of what Miguel told me resonated and I began to get interested in food. I didn't know it at the time, but it was the ignition of two fires that are still burning to this day. First was a love of food and the culinary arts. Second, and today's topic, is the ability to take our career beyond duties and chores and into its own nobility. Yeah, I know that's kind of a funny word, maybe even hokey. Still, my time at Fonda San Miguel with Chef Ravago did initiate change in me that has served me well as a human being and as a competitor.

In real estate, we know that the outcome of any deal is really what matters, and that it goes beyond just getting the damn thing closed. We know that we can have what we consider to be a flawless deal that moved heaven and earth, secretly giving ourselves high-fives, only to have the client seem unimpressed and disengage from us. We also have deals that most closely resemble a derailment of a steam locomotive, but the client yells "Dude, I love you! Let's barbeque!" Clearly there is something more at work here...

Over the past 3 decades of interviewing agents, I always ask what they consider to be the parts of a deal. The answer rarely varies much, with the following two components offered up in one way or another:

  • Transactional Excellence - the movement of money, documents, and information

  • Great Customer Service - wherein all of the deals constituents enjoy communication in the quantity, quality, and timing that they reasonably expect.

But as above, these two by themselves make a great start but do not guarantee anything in terms of final outcome. The missing component? The experience. It's correlated but not caused by transactional excellence and great customer service. It is its own thing and must be crafted and managed on its own. Think of Fonda San Miguel, whose food is divine and whose service is world class - with just those two elements, they would still not be the legendary establishment they are known to be. Its the overall experience that makes them so special.

Creating such an experience takes thought, time, experimentation, a great team, success, failure, and a special kind of leadership that brings a steady hand, a warm smile, a sense of humor, drive, and passion. In our transactions we are not the chefs, servers, bartenders (though it seems that way sometimes), or hosts, we are the restauranteurs. We must be able to deliver transactional excellence with great customer service while keeping eyes on our clients' experience. Doing business with us should be like entering a restaurant that exceeds expectations, encourages exploration, and delivers surprises. People should leave more than satisfied; they should leave already yearning for their return. They should remember (or discover) what it feels like to be truly taken care of.

I learned this at a Mexican restaurant in Texas, but it didn't really occur to me until much later in life when I realized that I often asked myself "What would Miguel do?" He was one of the people I most wanted to be like, embodying a warmth and elegance I have rarely seen since. His success, no one would argue, was deserved. He and Tom and all who have worked at Fonda San Miguel have made a difference. For us Realtor-types, that's our challenge - committing to be all we can be, not just what we need to get by in this industry. If we do, there is no telling who we might influence to also raise their game...

Miguel Ravago passed away at age 72 on June 24th, 2017. The best meal I have ever eaten was cooked by Miguel and I remember him every time I cook or eat something spicy. I am certain that Sunday Brunch in heaven just got a lot better...

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