Things are looking up for those who have visited the Sacramento County Jail, as I did recently, only to encounter uniformed deputies who weren't exactly embracing the idea of good manners and cordial service to the public.
When I wrote about that bewildering experience last week - and sought to compare and contrast it with the kind of service we see at restaurants - it didn't sit well with a certain captain of the Sacramento Sheriff's Department. Rick Pattison is the commander of the jail, meaning he's in charge. As luck would have it, Pattison is also a well-traveled and discerning dining enthusiast. Pattison got word of the blog post while traveling and took time to read it while waiting for a flight at the Salt Lake City airport.
Pattison called me when he got back in town and responded in the way any excellent business or institution would. He didn't make excuses. He apologized. And he pledged that things would get better. It was as if he had read the book "Setting The Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business" by the great New York City restaurateur Danny Meyer. In fact, when I listed a couple of books in my post, including "Lessons in Service From Charlie Trotter," Pattison said he immediately thought of the Meyer book.
Obviously, no one is trying to suggest that the jail staff needs to provide the same kind of service you'd see at Eleven Madison Park (which Meyer recently sold to the chef and manager) or Gramercy Tavern or any of the great restaurants in Sacramento. But these 367 jail employees do, indeed, represent our county - and visitors must be treated with a high level of respect and courtesy.
I know it's not easy. The jail is filled with people who don't follow the rules and don't exhibit common courtesies. It's easy to develop a negative attitude about humanity when you are in law enforcement. But that kind of outlook doesn't serve anyone well. All kinds of people visit the jail - hardworking parents, lawyers, friends, family members and, no doubt, a few lowlifes.
"I admit personal embarrassment because I'm responsible for what happens here," Pattison said at the outset of our phone conversation. "It's a challenge to get our folks to see the people with whom we work as customers. Since I've been here at the jail, it is something that is constantly on my mind."
Pattison said he has already instructed his staff to do better and he assured me things would turn around.
"Yes, there's something that can be done about it. It may take awhile...From my perspective, there is absolutely no excuse for a lack of common courtesy."
Referring to my blog post, the commander said, "It was shared with employees yesterday (last Thursday) when I was sitting in the Salt Lake City airport reading it. I was less than pleased, let's put it that way. It's something I have harped on. That front counter is the public face of the county for a lot of people. If that public face is a sneer, people are going to walk away thinking the Sheriff's Department is a bunch of jerks. I take great pride in the department. It is filled with excellent people - and then something like this happens."
I agree with Pattison. While some may have interpreted my initial piece as "cop bashing," that was far from my intent. Not only do I have friends who are cops, cops are who I call when I spot trouble and need help. As a downtown resident, I see the police as an ally in my ongoing effort to make my block, my neighborhood and our city a better place to live, work and play.
Said Pattison, "I am communicating my expectations to my people. I'm telling them that this makes their job easier and that it's important. The customers are our employers. I will follow up with supervisors to make sure our people are held accountable. If it takes some customer service training classes, I am going to make that happen."
Pattison and I then chatted for some time about restaurants, including some of our personal favorites here and in New York. There's always so much to see and learn at the best restaurants, especially when it comes to dealing with the public. I asked him to name a couple of places around here that showcase the kind of service he admires and respects. He didn't hesitate.
"Two come to mind right off the bat," he said. "One is Biba, my home away from home. Biba talks to people. She listens to what they have to say and you get that same treatment from the staff. It's top of the line. Then there's Hawks (in Granite Bay). It's the same thing. From the moment you walk in until you walk out, you see the attention, the engagement. They're interested in what you have to say."
Those two restaurants do, indeed, exhibit the Danny Meyer/Charlie Trotter level of service and professionalism and their people make the dining experience something very special night after night. We don't expect Michelin-caliber food at the jail, but if the employees there can turn things around and take a page or two from the Biba and Hawks playbooks, then everyone comes out a winner.
Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.