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Kevin Boehm finds hospitality in an unlikely place

KevBoehm | Christopher Free~Project Captured

Kevin Boehm | Christopher Free~Project Captured

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Updated: December 24, 2012 6:26AM

I found myself telling a familiar story last week to the almost 200 new hires at orientation at Little Goat, our soon-to-open second restaurant with “Top Chef” star Stephanie Izard (we opened The Girl and the Goat together in 2010) and my partner Rob Katz.

I often ask my staff, “What is your favorite hospitality experience you have ever had in a restaurant?” and then proceed to tell them my story, which never fails to surprise them: a small Wendy’s in central Illinois. Yes, that Wendy’s — hamburgers, Dave Thomas, The Frosty, red-haired girl with pigtails.

A few years ago, I was traveling with a successful chef friend and we took a quiet exit, saw a familiar sign and entered. This is when things got weird. First of all, we were greeted by a hostess. “Hello, gentlemen, welcome to Wendy’s!” A hostess? At Wendy’s? I like it, I thought. Small-town charm.

Next, I moved to the cash register, where an enthusiastic man told us about the new Spicy Chicken Sandwich with the same detail and passion that an Alinea captain might tell you about chef Achatz’s latest creation. “You sold me,” I said. “One Spicy Chicken Sandwich, one pasta bar, one water.” The pasta bar, as well as the condiment station, would have made Charlie Trotter proud in its cleanliness, and my friend and I watched in quiet amazement.

After the hostess came by to pour us water (seriously) and check on our meals (seriously, again!), I couldn’t hold my silence. “What the hell is going on here?” I asked my friend. “I’ve been eating fast food for 30 years and this is the greatest fast-food experience I have ever had.” We felt compelled to ask for the manager. After praising him for his restaurant, he smiled, said thank you, and simply pointed to the wall of awards, one of which was the Golden Wendy’s award for best Wendy’s Restaurant in America. “As you can see we take what we do quite seriously,” he said. When we left the restaurant, I saw a red Camaro, and I’m guessing it was the manager’s because of the vanity plate: WNDYS25. This guy was committed.

His commitment was not encouraged by the hope of Michelin Stars, reviews from major newspapers or James Beard Awards. He was simply interested in doing the best job he could, every single day.

I left there with a new motivation to give inspired service on a daily basis. Like I told the opening staff at Little Goat, if you can’t be inspired in Chicago (greatest town in America) with one of the best chefs in the world (the amazing Stephanie Izard), then you should probably go have a hamburger in central Illinois.

I have never returned to that Wendy’s. As most great memories do, that particular restaurant in my mind continues to get better with age. I feel like that restaurant could only exist in the Midwest. I’ve often said that Mother Nature around here is like a door guy at a hot nightclub: It keeps out the riffraff.

In these parts, we work hard and we’re tough when we need to be, but we do it all with a smile.

Kevin Boehm donated his fee for writing this column to The Hope Institute.

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