When Carolyn Gable was a single mother of two, serving at a Chicago hotel restaurant helped her support her family. She quickly learned that it wasn’t just the level of service she provided that affected how much money she brought home. A botched order from the kitchen or delayed drinks from a bartender could mean a smaller tip from a disappointed customer and subsequently, less money in her pocket at the end of the night. She learned that being genuinely friendly with the staff, telling customers up front about a burnt steak or long wait, and making it up to them with a free dessert or drink when things went wrong, could make all the difference in how customers perceived her service and treated her in the end. The lessons she learned about working hard, treating coworkers with respect, and being honest with customers all formed the way she did business once she became the person in charge.
Gable’s faith guided her on her career path as she made the leap from restaurant server to moving through the ranks at a trucking company, to opening her own business — New Age Logistics — to building her business into a multi-million-dollar company.
Gable founded her company on one basic principle: special attention must be paid to our customers’ needs and goals. That’s a philosophy that came straight from her waitressing days.
“Back then, the amount of tips I made over the course of a night was directly and irrevocably related to my ability to manage the details of every individual customer in my section. Attending to those details was more than crucial, it was my lifeblood,” Gable said in her book “Everything I Know as a CEO I Learned as a Waitress.” By comparison, she wrote, “As a CEO, I might have 300 emails to read and respond to, three meetings to attend, and two conference calls to oversee all before noon. The details that arise from these interactions can literally spell the difference between the success and failure of my company.”
But Gable, whose family grew to include seven children, always knew that attending to details was only part of the puzzle. Just as important was paying attention to people.
As a waitress, Gable understood that making sure the customers she served had a good experience also meant knowing how to deal with her coworkers. Taking the time to get to know them and being genuinely kind improved not only her relationships with them but, in turn, her customers’ end experiences. As a CEO, she continued that practice of reaching out to those she worked with. That included gestures like celebrating each employee’s birthday by hand-delivering a card with a personal note and $50 tucked inside. The employees appreciated the cash, Gable said, but they were especially touched by her kind and heartfelt words.
Gable eventually took that generosity beyond her working relationships to her community. Never forgetting her roots as a single mother waiting tables, Gable founded the Expect A Miracle Foundation, a 501c3 not-for-profit that helps single, working parents provide extracurricular activities for their children. Five years ago, she founded another non-profit, The Believe Project, a charity that bestows $100 bills, along with inspirational messages, on nominated recipients every day of the year. The project has grown from a holiday campaign administered by a local newspaper to a nationwide project that has reached nearly 1,000 individuals. Recipients have included a special education teacher paying for school supplies out of her own pocket and a single, working father worried about providing Christmas gifts his children.
“One hundred dollars isn’t going to change someone’s life,” Gable notes, “but it tells them someone cares, and it may inspire them to keep reaching.”
Although Gable recently sold her business and is now focusing fulltime on her charitable pursuits, everything she has done — from waitressing to being a CEO to administering a non-profit — has been built on what she learned waiting tables. In the early days, she worked on reaching out to her coworkers to create a positive work environment for all. Now, she is still reaching out in a positive way, only these days her reach extends much farther than one single Chicago restaurant.
Joanne Levine has been a publicist for 30 years. Her company, Lekas & Levine Public Relations, is located in the Chicago area. The firm specializes in unique businesses and non-profits.