(Blogger’s Note: Every Friday an excerpt from the soon to be published book, Faux Pas is French for Restaurant is published in this space.)
We learn from our mistakes. The costliest, catastrophic delivery mistake ever made at Crocus Hill involved a heavy metal pseudo rock star and a variety of Holiday gift baskets. A strange combination at best. It was Christmas, 1990.
Kranston´s retail and marketing ability, had propelled the market´s lagging gift basket business to remarkably profitable heights. With less than three weeks to formulate a sales campaign, she managed to sell enough baskets to corporations – 3M, West Publishing and Dayton Hudson, to completely pay for store´s remodel. The volume called for needed another delivery driver. Each basket was filled with a selection of edible gourmet products and the new delivery person had to be highly responsible in order to protect the perishables from falling prey to the harsh winter.
Wayne, who was promoted to head butcher once Helfman left had a heavy metal musician friend in need of Christmas cash. The job description was simple- deliver gift baskets from December 15 until New Year´s Eve day. Kranston put all the applicants through a rigorous regiment of questions. The serious interview process for a delivery person, was sure, we assumed, to capture the right employee.
Martin showed up for his interview well dressed and groomed, made good eye contact and had a perfect driving record. He was young enough to be able to handle the hours and the stress, smart enough, we thought, to be able to mark out a route. The three of us, the entire gift basket department, decided to give it a try. He didn´t register on top of the common sense meter but we assumed he would make a phone call if a problem did arise. First mistake – don´t assume anything.
We prided ourselves in our rapid problem solving ability. We thought everyone had a degree of common sense to fall back on in times of need.
Martin managed to change all that. Symphonically ringing phones filled the store as customers placed holiday orders at a feverish pitch. Tension was constant and running high. The staff was aggravated they had to deal with the foolishness of increased business. Nobody could believe that our new advertising campaign – a simple, cost effective post card sent to the neighborhood, was effectively working.
Kranston´s gift basket gauge went through the ceiling that Keith had almost completely covered with a glistening coat of Campbell Soup Can red paint. The market was experiencing a rebirth and excitement was contagious.
It appeared, at first at least, that Martin was doing a professional job delivering the baskets in our reliable, but older station wagon to customers, some as far as 50 miles away. Three days before New Years, Martin loaded the station wagon with 35 overflowing baskets. The majority of 3M executives receiving the holiday greetings from vendors and upper level management lived in Stillwater, White Bear Lake, Northgate and other wealthy hamlets surrounding St. Paul.
Winter was ferocious in the Twin Cities that year. We couldn´t have been clearer with Martin- keep the car running and the heat on, especially when you are delivering the baskets. At 15 degrees below zero, fruit, and wine freeze quickly.
Martin had no problem with delivering in the cold. He was, as he claimed, an ice fishermen at heart. Martin left the parking lot of Crocus Hill just before eleven o´clock on a Thursday, December 27th. He was scheduled to return by 5:30 p.m. Thirty five stops, some close together with eighteen baskets going to one location was a very doable task.
Immediately following the eighteen basket drop off, another twelve baskets were going to the second location. With another five baskets going to Stillwater, Martin´s home town, we knew he would be back before dark. Martin was also instructed to call periodically to give us a progress update. With forty-two hundred dollars worth of perishable, wrapped wicker baskets in the back of the station wagon Martin was in control of our largest delivery of the season. We weren´t worried.Our concer, however, was constant.
Snow began accumulating at 12:30. The storm had hit Stillwater an hour earlier. As soon as Martin heard the news he decided to drive to Stillwater first and check on his cat. Cat checking had never been one of the options we offered employees. We didn´t hear the cat checking explanation for two days. Martin finally returned the car after threats left on his message machine that it would be reported stolen if not returned immediately.
That may have been a better option for Martin. Upon his return, Saturday morning, complete with 35 baskets filled with frozen food and wine, I asked Martin to accompany me to my basement office. If my words had turned to actions I probably wouldn´t be writing this column today.
I watched corporate profits and my partner´s hard work thaw in the back room of the dysfunctional business we now shared. We seldom speak about Martin. I dislike heavy metal music. It was my first employee lesson. It proved, over time, to be the foundation for numerous employee manuals.
We managed to recreate and deliver the baskets by New Year´s Eve. We recouped the losses.
The staff realized after the basement episode that I took my job seriously. I was the dictator, Kranston the diplomat. And, I also found that I did learn something from Gary Hat, the loan shark in New York.
The stairs to the basement at Crocus Hill were old, worn wood.