The art of smiling and the impact it can have on business success.

Eduarda Cristovam, Head of Coffee

When I was little, I used to go to the farmers’ market with my mother every Saturday morning. This market was built in the mid-19th century and now it’s fully covered, donned with escalators. But what I remember is a large building divided in sections with three levels and lots of stone steps. We always walked with our bags down a steep cobbled street lined with trees.

At the top of the market were the live chickens, rabbits, ducks. My mother once bought me a goose. Not a “I’m going to eat you later” goose, but a pet goose I named Clarabela. There were wide stone steps to the fruit section and whatever was in season was there. A few more steps and you could hear the noise coming from the large, uncovered area where farmers set their stalls with vegetables in long rows. It was full of colour, smells and never quiet. The fish market was to the right in a separate covered building. The floor was normally wet, the noise unbelievable, and it smelled of the sea.

Leaving the fish market behind, more stone steps lead to the bakeries set under a round covered area where my love of bread began. The butchers were further along all in one area with identical sections, a front counter and scales, big, refrigerated units at the back, white tiles everywhere, wood blocks and meat hanging from hooks.

Me as a girl with my pet goose Clarabela!

My mother had her favourite sellers. The butcher who knew her by name, asked about the family while sharpening an enormous knife. That knife once slipped, went flying and missed me by a whisker which turned the poor man whiter than his apron. From that day onwards I regularly received the gift of liver. The egg lady who looked like she was a hundred years old, always wore a black shawl regardless of the seasons but smiled from ear to ear when she saw us and always kept eggs aside covered in fig leaves. She would talk about her chickens, if they were laying, when she collected the eggs and mum would inspect each one carefully. There was the cabbage lady with her machine to turn gigantic leaves into thin hair-like green threads. The smell of brine and bay leaf drifting through from the large bowls of olives told you the olive man was near. The fish lady faced the large gate at one end of the market and always lifted the fish from their icy bed by the side of their heads. Watching her remove scales and fins was nothing short of a Samurai dance. I learnt how to prepare squid watching her.

I still have a photo of the tiles from the fish market

Food shopping on a Saturday was full of chattering noises, a million smells, lots of tasting and recognising familiar faces. Years later I still see the toothless egg lady grinning with her black shawl when I buy eggs and the face of the smiling butcher is etched in my mind. I don’t remember their names. I don’t think I ever paid attention at the time. Most of all I remember the feeling of being there, of tasting a square of melon offered as proof of quality, of being taught the difference between olives, how to pick a good rabbit, what to look for in liver and how to test if fish is fresh. I never did take to eels but was given the opportunity to grab them with sand and see them wriggle. These Saturday lessons were given freely by extraordinary people who smiled, were pleased to see you, knew you and made the experience unforgettable. I doubt they ever had training in upselling or how to charm a customer.

The town I lived in was the capital of Portugal for one hundred years, give or take, during the 12th & 13th centuries. The university was founded in the 13th century and permanently established by the 16th. This meant the city flourished around the business of education. Students helped it grow as well as the industries supporting them: bakers, butchers, fish markets, shops, patisseries, and coffee shops. In a city crawling with coffee shops, reasonable weather, and love for aimlessly strolling it’s logical that you stumble naturally into coffee and cake, learning the art of doing little and watching. I remember the coffee shop my mother used to take me after each shopping trip. Round tables with marble tops, the chairs heavy and a gaggle of priests used to sit together having coffee. The smiling waiter would spot us coming in and help find a table. Our order was taken, and the small espresso cup would arrive quickly with a glass of water. A nata or “bolo de arroz” would be my reward.

Before large shopping malls were built, the city centre was full of small shops where you could walk in looking for a shirt or socks only to have many samples brought to you from beautiful shelves. You could touch, have a conversation about buttons while making your decision. This exchange was part of the ritual of buying. As a child I watched with my nose glued to many counters and now I can spot polyester at ten paces, purr at the sight of Egyptian cotton, know if a pair of socks would fit without reading the label (no sizes or tags in the olden days), and can select salted dried cod by the springiness of the texture after many cod-free years.

There was patience and knowledge in those serving behind the counters. The service was exceptional, perhaps of gone-by times but occasionally still experienced today even if only fleetingly or at a cost so considerable that few can afford it. I feel that now those behind the counters are younger or impatient or maybe I’m just a lot older and not frequenting the right places. To serve is no longer a career, maybe a stop gap, a temporary necessity to get through and often a rushed affair. To serve has a tint of shame or the look of “I’m too good for this job”. If you’ve never come across it, look for the lack of eye contact, the sighs, the haste, or the length of time it takes for your presence to be acknowledged. There are those who master rudeness and make a profession of patronising and un-welcoming. The saddest of all are those who have not learnt the art of smiling. The young lady who scans my shopping at my local supermarket is a personal challenge. One day I will manage to make her smile, but for that she must first look at me from behind her screen. I’m considering a hideous hat with flowers.

My friends have grim stories of poor service. Those who look first at who is serving at their favourite coffee shop before going in because they hate how a certain barista makes them feel. The experience of being humiliated when asking for a drink to be served how they like it. Or the classic waving for attention after waiting an eternity and still being ignored. If you own a business, you’re probably thinking that everyone has bad days, that time is money, and sometimes customers are rude too. Without a doubt. The exchange in hospitality is simple though, I give you my money and you deliver on my expectations of quality and service. A smile may be a fragile defence against a difficult public, but a smile has power. Give me service with a smile and I will smile back. I will even pay you for it.

Venturing out of late has left me hopeful. Table service is coming back post-Covid, forcing the business of serving and hospitality to be reassessed. Service has changed in places perhaps because customers are still a novelty and operations are somewhat different with track and trace and social distance. I like most of the changes so far and enjoy the social interaction with those directing me to my table, explaining how to scan menus, telling me it’s their first day, or experiencing hotel breakfasts that are no longer self-serve and watching people try to ask for prunes in a whisper. There is plenty of smiling and a mask can’t hide a Duchenne smile - when smiling spreads to the whole face, and the eyes crinkle. For a technical overload, get in touch with your zygomaticus majoris or if you’re feeling politically adventurous the orbicularis oris (aka kissing muscle). Body language and even the voice change when we mean a smile. Best of all this is contagious, tricky to fake and genuine smilers apparently have a 70% chance of living until their 80s.

The team at Kaya, Horsham certainly know how to deliver a warm welcome!

To me smiling is the reflection of a business and what they promise me; a pledge to offer a product or service I will enjoy. It means the essence of hospitality. Smiling while serving customers is how a business shows respect, patience, and ultimately hospitality. A smile is the foundation of excellent customer service. A smile should not be used as cover for poor quality though. If a business believes customers can’t tell poor quality, giving them a licence to serve mediocracy, that business doesn’t deserve to succeed. In the world of hospitality, honesty is essential so the smiles should be genuine. And for those who think we customers can’t tell, think again 😊

About Dr Eduarda Cristovam

Head of Coffee at Matthew Algie

Eduarda is our resident sensory expert, with 21 years of experience in Sensory Analysis; 19 of which are specific to the coffee industry. As a result, Eduarda has a unique and inspiring way of describing coffee attributes and her interactive tasting sessions come highly recommended.

In addition to holding a PhD (Quality drivers in Port Wine and Espresso Coffee), Eduarda has lectured in Sensory Studies at Adelaide University, Australia, and is an Honorary Guest Lecturer at Strathclyde University, Glasgow.

As Head of Coffee at Matthew Algie, Eduarda oversees the development and introduction of all our new coffee and non-coffee products.

Share this aticle