It's no secret that customer service in this country has gone down the crapper. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been ignored, insulted, patronized and even lashed out at by various food service employees over the last decade. This is why I had a hard time twisting my psyche around my first 15 minutes at Oak Tree Café.
I ordered my lunch only to discover that I had left my wallet at home. I smacked my forehead, apologized profusely to the nice girl at the register and tried to run out of there fast before anyone noticed my monetary faux pas. But owner Rob Carson told me to go ahead and eat, handed me my ice tea, and told me to just pay my tab next time I came in.
What the ... ?
I told him I couldn't possibly impose like that and offered to leave my purse as collateral, and he insisted that it was no big deal. I stood there for a minute, not able to understand, and then took off toward the door with Rob behind me saying, “Really, it’s OK. I never turn anyone away hungry.”
When I returned I was starving and nonplussed, and vowed to discuss this extraordinary display of generosity and blind trust—after I stuffed my face, of course.
I had the “Calvin” all-veggie sandwich ($6.95) and the “Extreme” roast beef sandwich ($6.95), both with chips and sides of fresh fruit.
The Calvin was layer upon layer of sliced cucumber, red bell pepper, spinach, green leaf lettuce, tomatoes, sprouts, Swiss and cheddar cheese, cream cheese, and sunflower seeds on a toasted sub roll. I was glad it was cut at an angle, otherwise I couldn’t physically open my mouth wide enough to take a bite. It was as filling as a meat sandwich due to its size, and the only thing I would have changed was the thick, unwieldy slices of red bell pepper to a more limber marinated batch.
The roast beef they use is choice top round, slow-cooked in-house, making it juicy and tender, and the combination of beef, mild green chile and gobs of melted provolone on a smooshy white French roll dipped in meaty au jus was tantalizing.
I noticed throughout the meal that the staff seemed abnormally jovial, and there was a nice man in a suit joking with everyone while doing menial chores. Owner Rob was never still; instead, he was darting around the dining room, talking to everyone. The service was so far above par I was honestly bewildered. I spoke to Rob for a few minutes and realized that his secret to success was simply old-fashioned, customer-valued kindness.
“I believe in the old ways," he said. “Every single person who walks through the door is important, and a lot of places don’t get that.”
We went on to decry to demise of basic decency and customer care in the service industry. He mentioned some of the crazy things he did for his employees, such as holiday bonuses, consideration for family matters and making sure his people didn’t want for anything. His employee turnover rate is as low as his customer retention rate is high, and he credits his mother, Sarah, for his exemplary people skills.
The nicely dressed man doing chores turned out to be his business associate, Tom Joule (he has a turkey sandwich on the menu named after him). He apparently mops the entire floor and kitchen while dressed like a Wall Street exec, proving the point that no task is too small, even for the big guys.
Rob hugged longtime employee Crystal and wished her a good day as she was leaving, and told me, “It ain’t me—I’m only as good as my crew.”
Tom hollered back, “It’s none of you—it’s all them.”
Oak Tree Café is the exception to the rule of “butts in seats.” Patrons could save themselves a grip of cash on therapy bills by just having a weekly lunch there, feeling the cynicism drain away and getting more than they paid for—a great sandwich and some honest-to-god fantastic service.
The Alibi Recommends:
• The "Calvin"
• The "Extreme"
• Fresh-baked giant cookies for dessert
Oak Tree Café, 5504 Menaul NE, 830-2233. Hours: Mon-Fri 10:30-3:30 p.m. Price range: inexpensive. Credit cards accepted, patio, daily specials, catering, corporate orders, no booze.