I grew up in the Gulf South and was, from the first time I heard it, mesmerized by the magic of a word my dad taught me, lagniappe (pronounced lan-yap). Originally a Spanish word, it was adopted and adapted by the Louisiana French. It is used widely in the Gulf South and means “getting a little something extra.”
When my dad was a little boy, he’d go to Mr. Condon’s grocery store on Jefferson Street in Mobile, Alabama, taking his mother’s list in hand. The procedure was that the child (or other customer) would place the list on the counter, and the shopkeeper would collect the items while the customer waited. This was either a nice “service” for the customer or else a statement on the level of trust the grocer had in people browsing the aisles and gathering things on their own. Regardless, it was customary for the shopkeeper to, at the close of the purchase, give the child a little “nap” (short for lagniappe) consisting of a piece of candy or a cookie.
It was a nice finishing touch to the “service” and made the shopping trip seem less of a chore for the child. In this particular instance, and likely in small shopping excursions throughout the Gulf South, lagniappe came to be an expected little treat.
Today, getting a little lagniappe is actually quite rare. Quite unexpected, which is why getting it makes it so special.
A number of years ago, when my twins were almost three, my husband and I decided to venture a long weekend trip, with the children, to The Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne. Living in the Washington, D.C., area, we mapped out a perfect plan to take a relatively short, 2½ hour morning flight into Fort Lauderdale, rent a car, drive to Key Biscayne, and be on the beach by lunchtime.
That was until JetBlue’s mechanical issues entered the picture. Somewhere over Virginia, my husband, who, for full disclosure, is an airline pilot, noticed that we were descending rapidly. He scrolled through the JetBlue satellite television channels and found that the flight progress map showed the plane at 10,000 feet heading due West (not in the direction of Florida). He looked at me and said, “Something’s not right.” Seconds later, the captain announced that we were diverting to Charlotte for pressurization problems. I thought, “Great way to start our long weekend.”
We landed in Charlotte, 700 miles short of Fort Lauderdale…seven brutal hours on the ground.
We landed in Charlotte, 700 miles short of Fort Lauderdale. At the gate, a JetBlue representative boarded the aircraft, apologized for the inconvenience, and promised to make our time in Charlotte as short and as pleasant as possible. They had parked us at a remote part of the airport, far from restaurants or shops. We deplaned and did our best to entertain two very busy two-year-olds. Minutes turned into an hour, two, three, four. We had played all our DVDs. We had run the hallways playing chase. Passengers with small children were asking each other if they could borrow diapers.
After seven brutal hours on the ground, we boarded the plane, then waited on the taxiway another 45 minutes before taking off. Bitter icing on a rotten cake.
We arrived in Fort Lauderdale around 7 pm. First day of vacation shot. No sipping piña coladas by the pool at lunchtime. No warm Florida sunshine on our backs. Just one long, miserable day of travel. Barreling down I-95 toward Miami, I was trying to stay calm and make the best of it. Then my tired children began what is known as the evening hunger meltdown, and my typically even-keeled husband also began to turn grumpy.
Tired and hungry are a bad combination. Throw in dashed vacation expectations, and you have an ugly cocktail. Having consumed enough airport terminal fare during our seven-hour layover to cure all of us from ever craving fast food again, I tried to formulate a plan to solve this next mini crisis. We were about 30 minutes from The Ritz-Carlton, so I thought, “We haven’t checked in yet, but maybe we can order room service to be ready when we arrive.”
Room Service answered my call with a warm and cheerful greeting. I said, “Hi, this is Laura Bates. My family and I haven’t checked in yet. Our flight was delayed eight hours, and my children and husband are really hungry. Can we place an order? We should be there in about 30 minutes.” Mentally preparing myself for a response of, “I’m sorry, but…” I was delighted to hear, “Of course. What would you like?” “Score,” I thought. “Two orders of mac’n’cheese (for the twins); one cheeseburger medium rare with fries (for my husband); and a chicken Caesar salad and half bottle of Chardonnay (for me).” They repeated the order back correctly and said, “Thank you, Mrs. Bates. We look forward to seeing you soon.”
For the first moment in that long, long day, I felt a sense of hope. Maybe things were starting to turn. My husband, with the prospect of a delicious cheeseburger waiting at the end of his journey, pressed the gas pedal a little harder, and we sped towards Key Biscayne.
As we arrived, it seemed a whole team of Ladies and Gentlemen (as they call their employees) poured out of the front door to greet us. “Good evening, Mrs. Bates. Let me show you to your room. We can bypass the front desk, and we’ll bring your bags up to you.” Hours of frustration began to subside. I grabbed the essentials—diaper bag (with one precious diaper remaining), purse, and twins—and followed the gentleman into the hotel. I must have been delirious with hunger, fatigue, whatever, but it felt as if we somehow floated to our room.
So many nice touches. The fact that these touches weren’t expected made them even more special.
We couldn’t have been in the spacious condo unit we had booked more than five minutes when we heard a knock on the door. I thought, “Great, our bags are here.” But, it wasn’t the bags. It was Room Service! How could they have timed it so perfectly? In came the server, who began to artfully place the dishes onto the dining table. It was all I could do to get my children to wash their hands before sitting down to their sumptuous feast. Never before have mac’n’cheese and steamed broccoli been more beautifully plated or more eagerly welcomed. The “adult food” was all in order, including that important half bottle of wine. Yet there were two surprises.
First, the Ladies and Gentlemen must have determined that a good cheeseburger can’t be eaten without ice cold beer because they brought a small bucket of chilled beer for my husband. Brilliant. Next, they unveiled the piece de resistance, a plate of warm, chocolate chip cookies for the children. Written in dark chocolate script around the edge of the plate were their names, John and Keelin. A dusting of powdered sugar provided the finish.
I was floored. So many nice touches. The fact that these touches weren’t expected made them even more special. First, knowing that we’d had a long, hard day of travel delays, they let us bypass the check-in process and do it in the room. That one less step saved us time, energy, and potential headaches. Second, not only did they somehow time the room service delivery perfectly, but also they gave such thought to the little extras…the ice cold beers to go with the cheeseburger, the plate of cookies with the children’s names written in chocolate.
It’s a service experience I will never, ever forget. But they weren’t finished with the lagniappe….
We had ordered cribs for the children. They were still small enough to sleep in cribs, and we were concerned about them rolling out of the hotel bed in the middle of the night. Not expecting much from a hotel crib, even a Ritz-Carlton crib, I had brought my own sheets and blankets to make the rental cribs more homelike. But once I saw the cribs and how they were prepared, I left my meager sheets from home in the suitcase.
The cribs were made beautifully with soft cotton sheets with a high thread count, undoubtedly a higher count than any I owned. Around the perimeter of the cribs were displayed small, sample-sized baby shampoo, lotion, and sunscreen. The types of things any parent would appreciate on a trip with children. If I had been the right size, I would have eschewed the king-size bed and slept in one of the cribs. This thoughtful presentation of the cribs for our children was yet another “little extra” that blew me away.
The remaining few days were relatively uneventful…in a good way. We enjoyed the sunny weather, the pool, and lots of naps. It was smooth sailing, until I decided to do laundry.
I didn’t relish the thought of packing all the dirty toddler clothing back in our suitcase for the return trip. So, I decided to make use of the stackable washer/dryer in our unit. The washing went fine, but when it came to the dryer, I could not make it work. I pushed all the buttons, re-read the instructions, had my husband try to solve the puzzle, but nothing worked. We had just 45 minutes remaining before we needed to leave for the airport. The only thing worse than packing 20 pounds of dirty toddler laundry in your suitcase is to pack 20+ pounds of wet toddler laundry in your suitcase.
My call to the hotel’s Guest Service line led to an offer to send an engineer up to repair the dryer. They said he would be right up, and he was. After examining the dryer for a few minutes, he determined that it was not a quick fix. I was worried about the time and must have looked panic stricken. He made a call on his walkie-talkie and then presented me with a creative plan. He would take the wet clothes to the hotel laundry; they would dry them for me and return them. I thought, “Wow, that’s a great idea.” But then I envisioned a massive hotel laundry operation managing hundreds of loads and asked, “How long will it take?” He said, “Thirty to forty minutes.” So, we put the wet clothes into two plastic bags and off he went.
I spent the next little while packing the remaining clothes and twin accoutrements, looking at my watch every couple of minutes. Shortly, I heard a polite knock on the door. When I opened it, there was a lady standing there with three large shirt boxes. “Mrs. Bates, here are your clothes.” I almost got down on my knees to bow to her I was so delighted. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” I said.
Opening the boxes was like opening a special birthday present. I couldn’t believe someone would devote so much time to such ordinary items.
Opening the boxes was like opening a special birthday present. They were lined with crisp, blue tissue paper (The Ritz-Carlton blue) and the paper was sealed with a lion’s head sticker (the logo of The Ritz-Carlton). Inside the elegant wrapping was the twins’ warm, dry clothing folded in neat little stacks. I couldn’t believe someone would devote so much time and care to such ordinary items. Cotton shorts, t-shirts, pajamas, and some baby towels were wrapped and presented as if fine, tailored shirts.
The little something extra was, again, a powerful gesture. The engineer’s ingenious idea to take our clothes to the hotel laundry…the incredibly quick turnaround in drying the clothes…the way in which they folded and presented the tiny clothes back to me…all said, “We truly care.” I was amazed.
The Ritz-Carlton is known for its memorable service. And, yes, they have a higher-end offering and a higher-paying customer than many other brands. But, the lagniappe they gave us on this trip was not terribly extravagant. Rather, the lagniappe they offered was true to the word’s original meaning: a little something extra. In this case, a series of little somethings that were completely unexpected, that didn’t cost a fortune, and yet they made our experience one we will remember for a lifetime.
They didn’t just fulfill our needs. They connected with our hearts. And that’s the magic of lagniappe. It’s a lesson all businesses could learn from and act upon.