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What I Learned about Business At Pike Place Market

The Market Grill is tucked in across from the fish mongers bellowing “Fresh Butt Cheeks!” to passersby within Seattle’s boisterous Pike Place Market. The dozen barstools wrap close up to the U-shape counter. One side is open straight out into the busy thoroughfare. Lunchgoers snuggle into the kitschy Americana diner with posters plastering the length of the three walls. A hand-drawn one catches my eye: “Employee of the Month,” Bill Gates’ mug shot underneath.

The Market Grill is tucked in across from the fish mongers bellowing “Fresh Butt Cheeks!” to passersby within Seattle’s boisterous Pike Place Market. The dozen barstools wrap close up to the U-shape counter. One side is open straight out into the busy thoroughfare. Lunchgoers snuggle into the kitschy Americana diner with posters plastering the length of the three walls. A hand-drawn one catches my eye: “Employee of the Month,” Bill Gates’ mug shot underneath.

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It’s the last place you’d expect an oasis. Or memorable business demonstrations.

Perhaps it was the black chalkboard that listed their media mentions: “As featured in NPR, CNN, NYT…” Or scribbled underneath: “Voted Best Handcrafted Sandwich in the Market.” I’m not even a “sandwich person,” but I wasn’t second-guessing my hunger instincts right now. And who could pass up handcrafted sandwiches?

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A couple gets up to leave. The family of four clamped onto three stools beside me were relieved they’d get to spread out as I was eating solo.

A young man with copper stubble chin, jeans hugging hips, white half-apron tucked, and wearing a coffee-bean colored T with “Cupcake Royale” in pink lettering casually turns his back to the grill to greet me. A minute later:

“Have a clam chowder while you are waiting.”

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It’s not a question. It’s a declarative statement. Gurgled with ease the way a creek cascades downhill. As if he’s reading my mind. I had no intention of having soup. The words are mouthed aloud and they’re saying, “Sure.”

The menu is simple. Enough. Your choice of type of fish, served as a sandwich or perched on a bed of greens. With the same basic ingredients: fresh greens, rosemary mayonnaise, tomato, tender grilled onions, crusty grilled bread, and halibut, salmon, cod or shrimp.

Poetry is not synonynous with the poem (I once knew a short-order cook who worked a grill with poetic grace). A poem, of course, is not excluded.” — Greg Harris, “Footnotes”, Mountain Gazette, July 2005

I watch while I savor the dill-infused chunky clam chowder. This must be peak business hour on this Thursday afternoon. A Seattle-lover warns: “It will be impossible to find a seat after 12 noon.” Yet nothing is rushed.

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I’m reminded of chado, the Japanese tea ceremony, in the way he slides open the drawers, turns over the salmon, and deliberately spreads every inch of the bread evenly with the rosemary mayonnaise. His companion worker’s movements are just as fluid.

They are attentive noticing exactly when someone arrives, is waiting, is wanting water, is ready to pay the bill or have another helping of coleslaw. The mother and daughter loaded with shopping bag now sit next to me. They were about to turn down the chowder offer.

“Made it this morning,” he sings as he cocks his head.

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“Well,” mom hesitates, “we’ll have a sample.”

Three minutes later, they end up sharing a cup. It’s the kind of place where Yes happens.

Everything is fresh. And they let you know it if the time is right. Slicing the bread: “We baked it this morning.” The emphasis wouldn’t work if every bite didn’t salivate wholesomeness.

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Seth Godin is right: “People often choose to consume not because they need but because they want.” We don’t need. We want. Maybe the Starbucks feel rubs off. (No, that can’t be right, this feel isn’t everywhere in Seattle).

“The art of marketing today is the ability to build this emotional connection… At Starbucks, we have integrated ourselves in a way that is very different than selling a cup of coffee. We have an emotional relationship with our customers… It’s not good enough to have a good ad, but everything you do helps complete the circle…the packaging, the community involvement, the service all help build that emotional connection.” – “The Art of Creating Passionate Customers,” KNOW Magazine, Spring/Summer 2005 (via the BrandAutopsy blog)

“Whether the drink in your cup tastes more or less bitter, more or less creamy, is not so important in the end. It is what the whole experience does to your spirits and your sense of self that really counts. If drinking a cappuchino in a coffee shop makes you feel OK with yourself and at ease with the world, then the chances are you will return to repeat the experience… This is the possibility that Howard [Schultz, founder and chairman of Starbucks] saw.” — John Simmons, My Sister is a Barista: How They Made Starbucks a Home from Home

“Behavorial economics have taught us that there is a lot more involved in a purchase decision than a simple price/benefit analysis… Feelings drive behaviour… Your ultimate business or organizational advantage lies in discovering your audiences desired feeling. And then, once discovered, to get creative and develop consistently positive experiences so your audience can bring those expected feelings to life.” — Tom Asacker, A Clear Eye for Branding

In my first meditation retreat, I recall the instructor telling us about a foreign land where the wedding festivities can last a week plus or minus. Starting with the multi-day walk to the village hosting the wedding feast. In the middle they take one day off. “We let our souls catch up with us.” My plane just landed. I was headed to the Gnomedex conference. The Market Grill that day was my port in a storm. And it was so for the customers I observed.

Later that just-ripe-for-sun-jam-preserves afternoon, I spot a bookstore on my way down the staircase shops on my walk to the bayfront-facing opening reception. And as is my custom, I let books find me, and I open them to a random page.

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On that page I learn the term samu is the Japanese word for working meditatively. That’s one time in Microsoft-country where the demo preceded the announcement.

P.S. Oh, when I left The Market Grill I noted that the chalkboard actually reads “Voted Best Halibut Sandwich…” but I must have glimpsed the truth on the first pass: it’s the best handcrafted sandwich. My meal was $16 with tip — worth every penny, every moment.

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