We have been thinking about “comping” at Satchel’s. “Comping” refers to giving something away for free. For example, your waiter might comp you a dessert if you had to wait a long time for your meal. We like to comp. We comp chicken wings, cornbread, black-eyed peas, bread pudding, lemonade, a slice of kielbasa, a rib bone….you name it, we’ve comped it. It’s a nice way to introduce folks to something that they might not otherwise have tried. When done well, it creates a spirit of neighborly generosity.
What we have discovered at Satchel’s is that comping is hard. And we are trying to figure out why that is.
When folks start working here, they are almost always very slow to comp anything. And it’s pretty easy to understand why. The service sector is densely populated with managers and owners who view comping as a variation on throwing money down the drain. And they are quick to reprimand a staff person who is always giving stuff away to customers. So it is understandable that many of our staff, most of whom have worked in the retail sectors for years, might be reluctant to put on the Santa hat and start giving away samples of BBQ chicken.
Once we have convinced our staff that no one is going to lose their job for offering an occasional “freebie”, they are still reluctant. Why? Why is it hard for us to simply give something away, to offer something as a gift to a stranger? Let’s come back to that question.
About a month ago, I had one staff person, a fairly new woman (let’s call her Jill), who had the exact OPPOSITE problem. She was giving things away like it was Christmas. Which is fine and dandy. My only concern was the way in which she would give stuff away. Instead of giving folks a few chicken wings to go along with their half slab of ribs, she would give them an entire pan of chicken wings, enough to feed 8-10 people. The gesture was nice but kind of overwhelming. And a bit strange. My guess is that many of the customers were left thinking, “Why are they giving me so many of these things? Is there something wrong with this stuff?”
Jill and I had a good conversation about this problem and we came up with some simple rules about comping. For instance, think of comping as what you would do in your home if you had guests over. Be generous but don’t overwhelm them. Some folks get offended when you give them a lot food or provide them a huge portion. They see it as a waste….and they may wonder if the implication is that they eat a lot. Another rule we came up with was that when you comp something, it should be a natural outgrowth of the conversation you are having with the customer. Often times, after someone has ordered, they may ask about another item on the menu. That is the perfect time to comp them. It is organic to the conversation. Handing someone some free food, without any logical context, can come across as weird. And somehow unprofessional.
It was a really good and interesting discussion, one that both Jill and I enjoyed. Then, after all was said and done, Jill looked at me and said, “You know, when I work here, I am just trying to figure out a way to make a really great impression on each customer, to figure out how to make their experience here at Satchel’s the best part of their day. So sometimes I might do something goofy or silly. But I am ok with that. I don’t mind exposing myself to a little ridicule. It’s worth it. I think the best way to create a really valuable, meaningful experience with a customer is to be willing to take those types of chances.”
That comment struck me like a stone. Now back to that question about why, despite plenty of encouragement, so many folks are slow to comp. I think Jill gave the answer. To do it, to give something for free, to make that offer with an open and generous heart, you need to be willing to lay yourself bare, exposed and vulnerable, even at the risk of being laughed at or being seen as weak. It takes some courage and some emotional maturity. While Jill may err on the side of being irrationally generous, better that than the opposite. She puts herself out there. She wants to leave her mark.
As you might have guessed, this is about something more than working at a BBQ joint. Putting yourself out there, committing yourself to connecting to someone else, even if it means leaving yourself exposed and vulnerable….man, that’s tough. Whether at Satchel’s or at home or wherever you may find yourself, giving something away for free, with no conditions, takes a rare and valuable kind of courage. But as Jill said, it’s worth it.