No room (for error) at the inn

An inn in rural Virginia strives for perfection - and takes pride in correcting its mistakes.

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The Gamekeeper's Cottage can run to more than $1,000 a night, and includes afternoon tea.
The pride of owner Patrick O'Connell (left), these artisanal mushrooms are sorted with the help of sous-chef Raffaele Dall'Erta
Of the inn's 125 positions, housekeeping is the hardest to keep well-staffed.
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WASHINGTON, VA. (Fortune Small Business) -- In a romantically lit dining room of The Inn at Little Washington, just outside our nation's capital, a graceful server places a dish of wild mushrooms, set atop flaky pastry, on my table. In the final moment she flinches slightly, sending mushrooms sliding off their pastry mountain onto the plate.

The server doesn't miss a beat: "Let's do that again," she smiles, whereupon she whisks away the gastronomic flub and quickly returns with a picture-perfect replacement.

In the retail world there is service - and then there is the heavenly coddling, unflappable professionalism, and you're-so-special attention to detail that make customers feel completely spoiled (and forever yours). Sure, one waiter's fast recovery doesn't merit a service star. But unexpected problems give you insight into a staff's true preparedness and depth of character, two hallmarks of a great service establishment. Those traits are baked in the bread at the inn, the first hotel-restaurant ever to be separately awarded five stars from the Mobil Travel Guide for both its food and its accommodations. It also holds the highest award from both Zagat and AAA.

Living in Richmond for nine years, I had often heard stories about memorable dining experiences at the inn, which is tucked away in tiny Washington, Va. (quaintly called Little Washington to distinguish it from Washington, D.C.), about a two-hour drive from my house. I was impressed but not awed - so many popular restaurants flame out. But the inn is now three decades old, and its reputation grows ever stronger. So I put it to my editors: Any small business that can not only prosper in a fiercely competitive field but also improve its level of play deserves a closer look.

Their response: Go forth and indulge.

My husband and I drove up on a spring afternoon, coasting along beautiful rural roads lined with wildflowers. Upon arrival, I was impressed by the informal check-in: Having already collected my billing data when I made the reservation, the clerks simply gave us a warm greeting and showed us to our room - after a welcome cocktail at the bar. (I didn't reveal myself as a journalist until the end of the stay.)

What's quickly apparent to a visitor is that the inn's awards and distinctions result from near-religious devotion to customer service. One example: On the wall of the inn's kitchen, owner Patrick O'Connell, 59, bares his restaurateur soul, giving dimensions to the customer experience with five Zen-like stages spelled out in paint: anticipation, trepidation, inspection, fulfillment, and evaluation. That display serves as a mantra for staff, meant to inspire empathy with customers - an empathy that can then be channeled into world-class service.

Comprehensive training

The Inn at Little Washington was established in 1978 by O'Connell and his then-partner, Reinhardt Lynch. It almost immediately wowed critics, going on to win an impressive list of top food awards. Today the inn, which includes 18 suites and a 100-seat-capacity restaurant, is independently owned by O'Connell (he bought out Lynch last year) and generates annual revenues of about $20 million, an FSB estimate that O'Connell flatly refuses to confirm. It employs a staff of 125; guests range from couples celebrating anniversaries to Alan Greenspan and Al Gore.

O'Connell's easy smile and gracious manner mask an intense focus on every aspect of the inn and its staff. He's not just demanding; he also cultivates the traits he wants. O'Connell estimates that he spends up to three months' salary per person on each new hire's first month of orientation and training (compared with the industry average of two weeks of compensation, according to Pricewater-houseCoopers). And it's a top-to-bottom introduction, no matter what the rank or expertise. For example, every dining-room employee begins by polishing silver and handling valet parking, then spends a year rotating through the hotel, dining room, and kitchen.

"Cross-training is essential," O'Connell says, "so that workers are able to jump in and assist one another in any capacity."

This isn't a business owner's attempt to economize but rather a way to empower.

"There's a real sense of accomplishment to be able to assist in any capacity at any time," says Rosalie Lysaght, 41, who has been with the inn five years and is just as likely to carry a guest's bag as serve him dinner. "You feel you can do anything."

Even problem guests are no problem. Lysaght knows she can turn to any other employee for support, whether seeking advice or just a helping hand. All employees are determined that every guest leave the restaurant elated.

"It's a game," Lysaght says. "If I humble myself to a condescending guest, then I win the game because this isn't about me, it's about their evening."

Clearly O'Connell wins only if he finds employees who can adopt Lysaght's mindset. His hiring decisions are based more on personality than experience.

"On our early applications the first question was 'Do you smile easily?' " he says. "There are people who make you feel comfortable and those who don't. It's a feeling, not something you can have a checklist about."

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