Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 9, 2009

Kathy Gibbons: Worth 1,000 words

By KATHY GIBBONS

It was my last day of restaurant ownership. I'd started the business not quite a year before, full of hopes and dreams and ideas.

My concept was an Italian-themed deli with other European items. The food would be high quality, the service fast and friendly. I wanted people to feel as though they were dining in my home.

It shaped up as I'd hoped. But as time went on, it became clear to me that I was underfunded and overtaxed -- literally and figuratively. As the months went by, I was finding that while I loved the customers and feeding them, and I had great employees, I wasn't very happy. Simply, I was increasingly feeling trapped, too much of the time.

It was freeing to finally admit that to myself and realize I needed to do something about it. My best hope was to find a buyer who saw the value in my concept and would take it to the next level. Someone who worked for me turned out to be that person.

So there I was on the very last day, standing at the counter when a couple walked in who had been in a few times before. During one of their earlier visits, we'd talked at length because they had been to Italy and loved it, as I had. I brought them some of our homemade mozzarella to try, which they enjoyed.

Now here they were again, Paul and Terry Waterstradt. They came right to me, big smiles on their faces. Terry handed me a flat square brown paper-wrapped package. Opening it, I found a framed and matted watercolor of a Venice canal scene. I was dumbfounded..

She told me that they had wanted to do something nice for me. She said they couldn't remember when anyone had offered them anything complimentary, as I had. She also said they feel so at home when they come in -- like they're eating at my house -- and they appreciate that.

Her husband had taken the picture when they were in Venice. Then he did some magic with the computer, giving it the watercolor effect.

It was all I could do not to cry. For one, I have a Venice story. When I was in college, I spent the summer on a foreign study program in Florence with a dozen other students. We became close. But by the end of the summer, the togetherness could be too much sometimes. So when classes were done, they all decided to go to Venice for a day. I, on the other hand, took myself to the island of Elba that day. I don't know how else to explain it except that I wanted to go to the beach. And I wanted to be alone.

So I never got to Venice -- which, years later, I realized was very foolish.

Now, these customers had given me Venice. More importantly, in their wonderful burst of kindness, they had given me some validation.

Maybe owning and working in a restaurant isn't right for me. I'd learned that. But what I'd set out to create, I'd built.

I couldn't tell them then that I was selling the next day and leaving. I was afraid I'd lose it if I did. Instead, I asked for their address and sent them a note later with a gift certificate that I bought after the sale was final.

In the note, I told them I felt like I'd accepted their gift under false pretenses. But at the same time, I said, their timing couldn't have been better.

That picture will always remind me that if my goal was to create a place for people to eat where they feel welcome and at home, maybe I had succeeded. It also reminds me of something I have to do yet.

Go to Venice.

Kathy Gibbons can at gibbonskath@yahoo.com. For more of Kathy's columns, log on to record-eagle.com/kathygibbons.