Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Four Questions

When we first opened our doors as innkeepers in June of 2000 there were some things we expected, and a lot we didn't. We expected, correctly, that our guests would mostly carry cell phones, so we did not put phones in the rooms. We expected, correctly, that a lot of our guests would come from the New York City area. We did not expect the fact that we named our rooms after neighborhoods in Brooklyn would actually make people decide to book with us. That was a happy surprise. And we did not expect that we would wind up answering the same four questions every single day.

And what are the questions?

1) How old is the house/what year was it built? (Around 135 years/1871.)
2) Was it an inn before you bought it or did you renovate? (Yes*)
3) Has it always been your dream to own a Bed & Breakfast? (No, it was a way to live in a place we love but where the major industry is tourism & hospitality. That is not to say we don't like what we're doing, we just didn't have that romantic dreamy thing going for years and years; we knew it was going to be a lot of hard work.)
4) What are the winters like? (Peaceful.)

There are other questions that come up a lot, but these are the ones nearly every single guest asks us. Not that we mind answering them, we enjoy chatting with our guests, but sometimes it's hard not to smile when these questions do crop up.

* The woman from whom we purchased the house did run what we call a "loose interpretation" of a B&B, which is to say she rented rooms and prepared breakfast for her guests, but all the rooms shared just one bathroom. We did the renovation that gave every room its own bathroom and generally brought the place up to modern standards... and codes.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Lima Beans

All new ventures come with a learning curve. Over the years we've been in business we've tweaked many of the things we do to make them work better. Sometimes it's to make them work better for us, other times it's for our guests. Actually, that's for us as well, since anything that makes our guests happier is good for us and the business.

One of the things that has evolved and changed over the years is our check-in speech. We've added or deleted certain things when it's become clear that guests weren't understanding what we were asking or telling them. Part of the procedure when checking in new guests is to tell them what time breakfast is, then find out what they drink in the morning (coffee, tea or decaf coffee) so we know what and how much to prepare. We also at this point ask about dietary restrictions. What we're trying to find out is whether our guests have specific food allergies or are vegetarians, we're actually not that interested in what foods our guests don't like to eat or if they're on the diet du jour. We serve breakfast as a buffet so if there's something a guest doesn't like or isn't supposed to eat it's easy enough to avoid.

Over the years we tried phrasing the question a number of different ways because guests were giving us answers that made it clear they didn't understand the question correctly. The number one answer I seemed to get when I asked the question the wrong way was "I don't like lima beans". My husband seemed to get "I don't like raw shellfish". Okay, folks... we're not serving lima beans and raw shellfish for breakfast. We want to know if something we might actually use in a breakfast dish is going to make you sick or kill you!

We have finally settled on "Do you have any dietary restrictions that might affect breakfast?" as the phrasing that most often gets us the answers we are looking for. I'm grateful to add that the vast majority of our guests don't have any serious dietary issues. The few that do, we've been able to handle easily. Vegetarian? No problem as long as you eat cheese & eggs. Nut allergies? We use nuts only rarely and we cook & bake from scratch so we know what's in things. Wheat gluten issues? We have a very good friend with Celiac disease, so we understand that, too.

Of course it would be lovely if guests could let us know about issues like this in advance of their stay, and a few do. But as long as we know before we actually start cooking we can deal with almost anything. That's been part of the learning curve as well. We rarely stress out about dietary restrictions because we've been doing this long enough to know how to adapt our dishes when necessary.

Monday, June 4, 2007

The Kindness of Strangers

I regularly communicate with a number of other innkeepers from around the country. A story from this B&B in Pennsylvania was so wonderful I wanted to share it here (with permission from the other innkeeper, of course).

We have guests on their honeymoon this weekend. Groom is over from Iraq for a few days to attend the wedding before he goes back (Army...patrols the streets). Two different rooms came to me privately after breakfast this morning asking to put a night for the honeymoon couple on their bill. Honestly, I still tear up thinking about the generosity of our guests. The honeymooners were stunned! I will, of course, be writing to each of the guests to tell them how surprised and grateful the honeymooners were at these "random acts of kindness."

Friday, June 1, 2007


The first year we were in business I did all the housekeeping myself. My husband pitched in a lot with the laundry and prepped breakfast with me almost every morning, but housekeeping was pretty much mine alone. In some ways it was necessary. I learned a lot about what cleaning products worked best, the most efficient way to clean our showers (and which soaps I dreaded finding in them), how to fold sheets in such a way as to minimize the number of trips I had to make around a bed when I put the sheets on alone and so forth. This was all to the good, but it was a very long summer.

Since then I've tried to get help at least a few days a week with cleaning during the busy season. Some years I've had pretty good luck with consistent help but most years it's a moving target and I find I have to hire and train three, four or even five kids over the course of a summer. Some have only ended up working for a week or two.

Last year I had two local highschool kids working for me. One of them is unable to continue this summer because her family is moving right after school gets out at the end of this month but I thought the other would be with me all summer and perhaps for the next couple of years until she graduated. She's a great worker and pleasant to be around and I was planning to train her to do a lot more, even to make her my assistant. Alas, it is not to be. On Wednesday she failed to show up for work and despite my pleas to call and discuss the problem and her future employment with me she has maintained radio silence. Her mom says she's embarrassed, but she (the mom) understands that two days is long enough to wait and that I'm done.

I'm sorry about loosing her; she's had some difficulties at home over the past month but until this week has been very reliable about showing up for work. An apology and a plan for getting here in the future was all that was required but I guess at sixteen embarrassment is still considered a terminal illness. I'm also sorry that I now have to start from scratch finding help and training them. This is going to be a busier than usual June and now it's going to be that much more difficult.