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On Food: Hospitality beyond the call of duty can lift customers’ spirits and spur them to return

It was a typical weekday morning, the rush hour in full swing, and Au Bon Pain operator Jim Miner stood front and center at the entrance of his new store in New York’s Penn Station, one of the city’s major commuter rail hubs.

Posing as a typical customer, I asked him about the smoked salmon-wasabi sandwich on a dill bagel that was featured on a large poster hanging by the entrance. Miner, who’s worked at the grab-and-go bakery concept for some 20 years, took the time to describe the sandwich in detail despite the stress he was under by operating at such a hectic location. He told me the item was a hot seller.

“Really?” I asked. “That’s surprising. I can’t image the wasabi element appeals to your typical commuter customers—especially in the morning.”

“Try it,” he said. “If you like it, you can buy it. If you don’t, don’t pay for it.”

As a food editor, I sample a lot of free food, but I immediately thought to myself, who gives away free sandwiches in a city train station?

So I tried it, of course, and went back to pay for it and buy more.

Miner, with his honesty and friendliness did more that day than hook a customer on an odd-sounding dish; he made a new, loyal pal.

In fact, he caught me at a time of need. My trust in fellow humans was at an all-time low.

After a week from hell—starting with a lost suitcase in the middle of Mexico and ending with my wallet and identity stolen in a mall in Princeton, N.J., just a few days after my home had been burglarized—this man was offering an intangible, generous faith in others.

Besides that, he was wise. Here I was asking about one of his strangest items on the menu board, and he correctly guessed that the best way to entice me was to get the item into my mouth.

And guess what? It is one heck of a great-tasting breakfast sandwich—even with a healthy dose of hot wasabi at 9:30 in the morning. It had enough bite to clean out sinuses, although that could have been due to the taste of the young woman who made that particular sandwich.

But she was on target, adding just the right amount of crisp cucumber slices so they didn’t slide out of the sandwich and the ratio of salmon to bagel was ideal, offering a mild oceanlike taste without being fishy. The cream cheese helped balance that ratio, too. And the bagel was toasted with an appealing, slightly bitter char.

Words don’t do this sandwich justice. To really appreciate it, it needed to be tasted.

Not only did the dish win me over, so did my new friend at the train station. When I saw him the following week, he recognized me. Now he sees thousands of commuters a day, many wearing harried expressions, black coats and big bags, but he remembered me. At that point I still had not told him I write for Nation’s Restaurant News; all he knew about me was the bad luck I had experienced and how I felt my luck had changed after experiencing his own faith in humanity. At our first meeting I told him I planned to play the lottery.

“Did you win?” he asked.


“Well, I hope your week got better.”

“You started it off right with the free wasabi bagel sample,” I responded. “And you were right, it was delicious.”

“Well thank Abdou Gaye, my baker,” he said introducing the man standing next to him. “He was up all night baking that for you.”

Giving credit where credit’s due. Now that’s hospitality.

Okay, I didn’t win millions in the lottery, but making a new and wise friend who I could write about was a prize in itself.

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