Hospitality – it’s about love – and effort

One of my favorite anecdotes from my Food & Beverage classes at UNLV is a story about cake mix. Apparently, during the convenience food craze of the 1950’s, cake and brownie mixes were originally developed so that only the addition of water was necessary. The first products, although they produced the same quality of product as they do today, were not well patronized. When the marketing folks went to their user groups and asked why the cake mixes hadn’t been as popular as anticipated, the answer was always the same, “It doesn’t feel like cooking.” Epiphany comes for the men tasked with the job of marketing to housewives: the women liked cooking for their families, and making a cake from a mix didn’t feel like cooking to them. So, after some more focus groups, they reformulated the mixes so that users were required to add an egg (and sometimes oil) in addition to water, and the cake mix as we know it today was born.

My takeaway from this was that the experience for the giver of hospitality is just as important as that of the recipient. Hospitality is inherently ritualistic – if you don’t go through the motions – if you don’t work, then it’s not as fulfilling for either party.

Consider the symbols of hospitality – they’re symbolic of hospitality because they signify preciousness. Pineapples have long been a symbol of hospitality in North America. Hosts used to rent whole pineapples from fruit importers to display at dinner parties as symbols of hospitality (even though the pineapple meant for consumption was the cheaper dried, candied or preserved variety). Pineapples later appeared carved into woodwork in beds frames, staircases, and crown moldings. Pineapples also required a fair amount of work to carve and serve.

Another symbol of hospitality is coffee, which requires an obscene amount of work. It’s a fussy crop that must be grown at high elevation with soil rich in volcanic ash, plenty of rainfall, and specific amounts of sunlight. Once it’s lovingly grown, harvested and shipped (typically some distance), it must be dried, roasted, ground, passed through boiling water, and served with a choice of condiments. That’s an awful lot of work – which means that’s true hospitality.

Similarly chocolate. Chocolate is a cousin to coffee, requiring fermentation, drying, cleaning, roasted, shelling, and mixing with milk and/or sugar. Many fine hotels and restaurants cap off an evening with chocolates for this reason – not particularly because their sweets, but because hospitality is about sharing things that are precious, and produced with plenty of love.

It seems today that hotels and a lot of service industry organizations make it about consistency. Procedures. Use the guest’s name three times. Greet every guest and ask how they’re doing. The only acceptable response to “thank you” is “my pleasure”. I just can’t help but feel like that’s all just cake mix and water. It really needs an egg.

So that’s it. Hospitality isn’t about rules, it’s about love. Working to make your guests feel welcome by sharing your very best with them.

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