Poise under pressure

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Early on, O'Connell learned the value of maintaining poise under pressure. One night a few years after the inn opened, a difficult customer kept sending back her coffee, complaining that the scalding cup wasn't hot enough. The frustrated waiter offered to bounce the irritable customer, but O'Connell sent him back into the dining room, saying, "She's testing you. Just stay with it. Bring love to the table and enjoy the challenge."

The waiter persevered and discovered later that his customer was, in fact, the Mobil Travel Guide's editor-in-chief. That year the inn received its first five-star Mobil rating.

In online reviews, some critics complain that the inn fails to deliver the consistently perfect food and service they expect at its stratospheric price point: a $400 minimum for a room, plus $150 per person for dinner. Certain guests reported cobwebs and shabby décor in their rooms (O'Connell admits that housekeeping is the most difficult position to fill and maintain).

"It's not about not making mistakes," he says of the occasional snafus. "It's about how you correct them. Everyone here understands that whatever takes place, the show will go on."

As in most restaurants, the staff meets daily to prepare for the evening's demands - a guest's special needs, for example. They also revisit any issues from the previous day, such as the toppling mushroom napoleon and how it should be handled in the future. The meetings are also designed to teach empathy even for the enem - restaurant reviewers.

"Reviewers control our market, and most restaurant people hate and fear them," says O'Connell. So he asks five dining-room employees to each choose an industry critic and study him or her for a month, then write a restaurant review in that voice and read it in the meeting.

"First, they see how hard the job is," O'Connell explains. "Second, they see what we do through someone else's eyes, and in the process can't help but find flaws with our service." When O'Connell takes corrective steps, employees see the reasoning behind it.

Employees are frequently awarded dinners for two at the inn, and can also take vacations at one of the many other small luxury hotels listed in the Relais & Châteaux guide. Such perks probably contribute to the low turnover - 50%, compared with the industry average of 79% for hourly workers, according to the National Restaurant Association.

But the trips also function as training junkets, as employees always bring back tips to share. "Something as simple as being offered a local map," Lysaght says, "or room service offering to pour your tea."

In truth, we became so relaxed during our stay at the inn that we felt as if the overnight had been a long weekend. On the drive home to Richmond we were confused about what day it was.  To top of page

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