Monday, September 19, 2011

Am I a Coffee Snob?

If you follow my Twitter or Facebook posts when I’m out of town, you’re well aware that I often stop once or twice a day at a local Starbucks to get my standard CafĂ© Americano. It’s a freshly made, espresso-based cup of coffee that can give me that caffeine jolt in the morning (sometimes with an extra shot of espresso), or a satisfying cup of decaf after a light dinner. Having to depend on the coffee served at the places I teach can frequently lead to less than satisfying results. Does that make me a coffee snob? I hope not! I just enjoy a good fresh cup, rather than something that has been sitting around in a pump pot or a heated carafe for who knows how long.

There’s another reason I like to go to the coffee shop, particularly when I’m at home. Because of the free WiFi internet available at most places, it often provides a way for me to get some work done away from the four walls of my home office. A good coffee shop should have good ambience, comfortable seating, plenty of work tables, and an abundance of electric outlets. Oh…and they should serve a decent cup of coffee, too!

One of my favorite coffee shops is our local Caribou Coffee. It more than meets the requirements for working away from my office. I’ve also been taking my grandsons there on Saturday mornings, and it has been a great place for us to read a book, and then do some fun activity together. I’m hoping they’ll always remember all the fun we’ve been having doing our Saturday morning outings at Caribou.

Of course, the two places I’ve mentioned are both chains that have stores nationwide. It’s nice for me to be able to go into a place that looks and feels familiar, no matter where my business happens to take me. However, I do have to say that I’ve never been a huge fan of the actual coffee at either place. It’s one reason I go for the Americano. It’s fresh, and I like the espresso roast better than any other roast at either of these chains. But you know, sometimes I just have an itch for a really really good cup of coffee. And I think I may have found it here in Raleigh.

My son-in-law recently suggested that I try a shop called Jubala Village Coffee. It’s on the other side of town, but I have discovered that it is well worth the drive. In addition to having the atmosphere, technology, and furnishings conducive to getting some work done, they happen to serve a top quality cup of coffee! They work with a local roaster, and they make each cup individually. You can request a cup made using the pour-over method, or they’ll make you an excellent pot of French Press. You select the beans/roast you want, and then decide which method you prefer. If you’ve never had a truly handcrafted cup of coffee, let me say that there is a huge difference in taste.

The baristas at Jubala take their craft seriously. They pay attention to brew times, proper grind, and optimum water temperature. The result is really out of this world. They also serve hand-crafted tea drinks. And while they have a couple of home made flavorings that they’ll use in a latte if asked, they will not add any flavorings to a cup of coffee. But believe me, the coffee is that good. No need for flavorings…just enjoy the full rich flavor of the actual coffee. And I guess the reason the taste is so important to me is that I have always taken my coffee black. I never add anything else, so the coffee itself has to taste good.

Unlike many other coffee shops, Jubala Village Coffee does not serve an array of various baked goods or other packaged foods or drinks. They do, however, serve these wonderful homemade waffles. They’re made with a special dough (not a waffle batter), and they are absolutely incredible. I typically watch my carb intake, but for the occasional splurge, the waffles at Jubala are absolutely worth it.

So while I do like and appreciate the familiarity and availability of Starbucks and Caribou when I’m on the road, I think I’ve found my favorite local coffee shop. During the weeks I’m not traveling, you’ll likely find me working at Jubala Village Coffee one morning a week, taking advantage of their free WiFi, enjoying a great cup of coffee…and maybe even a hot waffle now and then!

Monday, August 15, 2011

First Class or No Class?

I am very fortunate, as a Diamond Medallion member with Delta, to get upgraded to first class on about 98% of my flights. The behaviors I witness in the front cabin, however, can sometimes be anything but first class. Don't get me wrong. Many first class passengers are there because they, like me, are very frequent fliers. As a result, they understand airline etiquette. They also know that, even though things might not always go smoothly, they know not to look a gift horse in the mouth. They are courteous to their fellow passengers, and polite (read un-demanding) to the flight attendants. Unfortunately, I have also witnessed levels of arrogance and impatience up front that I never encountered back in coach.

A well-dressed business professional sat across the aisle from me today. He, along with quite a few of the others in first class, was busy with his iPad and cell phone during the entire boarding process. Every frequent flier is well aware of the FAA regulation that dictates that, once the boarding door is closed, all electronic devices must be turned completely off. Whether or not these devices actually interfere with the navigational system of the aircraft, the regulation states that the devices must remain in the off position until the aircraft has reached an altitude of 10,000 ft. When the announcement was made requesting the electronic shut-down, this man continued reading and typing on his iPad, as if he were exempt from the regulation. He also used his phone several times. He did this brazenly as the flight staff repeatedly walked by without asking him to comply. At least he didn't pull the trick I've often seen, where adult passengers act like children and hide their device as the flight attendant walks by, only to pull it back out once the danger of being caught has passed. Yes indeed. Adults really do behave that way.

As I watched this man completely disregard the regulation, the plane pushed back from the gate and headed toward the runway. He continued reading email and typing replies on his iPad. I refrained from saying something, but perhaps I should have. I wanted to ask him what made him believe that he was actually exempt from the FAA regulation. I wanted to ask him that on the off chance that electronic devices actually do interfere with the aircraft's navigational system (I have my own questions about that), was he aware that his indiscretion could be putting himself and all of his fellow passengers and crew in danger, all so he could answer a few more emails. I kept my mouth shut.

Once the plane was in the air, this gentleman (and I use the term loosely) suddenly reclined his seatback as far as it would go with no consideration whatsoever for the person sitting behind him, who was actually quite startled by the move. And once the plane landed and arrived at the gate, this same passenger jumped out of his seat and immediately began clawing his way past other passengers in his effort to retrieve his bag from an overhead bin, and then decided that he deserved to push past everyone ahead of him to regain his original position, in order to be one of the first off the plane. He exhibited complete disregard for his fellow passengers.

Fortunately, I did not witness any arrogance toward the flight attendants. I have occasionally seen business men become demanding oafs, particularly with female flight attendants. They behave as if every comfort they desire should be met immediately by the flight crew. I’ve heard more rude behavior by entitled business people than I care to remember.

I’m not always impressed by the service provided in first class, but I’m completely impressed when I see a flight attendant deal courteously with a passenger who exhibits quite the opposite behavior. Witnessing professionalism such as that, along with personal courtesies extended to one another by seasoned travelers who know the drill, helps to restore my confidence that human beings really can treat each other with respect and consideration. And the ones who don’t tend to remind me that I still can.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Who's To Blame

About 20 years ago, I went to Philadelphia on business. After I completed my work, I headed back to the airport for my flight home to Raleigh. This, of course, was well before 9/11, but as I progressed through the security checkpoint, I remember going through the usual routine: shoes off, computer in a separate bin, jacket off, etc.. I used to carry a very small pocket knife back then, so I would always put that in the bin, as well. Except for this one time, when I apparently forgot to remove the knife from my pocket.

The reason I remember this particular experience with security is because of what happened as I proceeded through the metal detector. I beeped, of course, but it’s what happened next that sticks in my mind. And by that, I mean nothing! Nothing at all! I stopped, and I looked over toward the security agents (they weren’t known as TSA back then). I was waiting to be told that I had to check my pockets and go back through the metal detector. But instead, I got no response at all. No eye contact or attention of any kind. It was a particularly slow time at security, so I was actually the only one going through just then. As it turns out, the two security agents were engrossed in a personal conversation and were paying absolutely no attention to me, or to their responsibilities. I remember thinking to myself, “It’s a good thing for them that I’m not carrying a gun in my pocket!” I, of course, figured out right away that it was the knife, and as soon as I realized no one was paying attention, I just gathered my belongings and continued on to my gate.

What reminded me of this experience was the “TSA Stowaway” incident that was reported recently in the news. If it had happened at a small airport, I might have a different view. But it happened at JFK in New York, where you would think the TSA training would be as good as it gets. The stowaway apparently made it through the same security screening that I’m subjected to a couple of times a week. His boarding pass had another man’s name on it (he had pick-pocketed it the day before while riding the subway), and he also carried a stolen US passport. He then boarded a plane even though he was not on the flight manifest. It was not discovered until they were in the air, and several other passengers had complained about the man’s body odor. And I’m left wondering how this could have ever happened.

Whether this was a training run for some future terrorist act, or simply a crook who was trying to fly for free, it doesn’t give me a lot of confidence in my security. TSA subjects me (some times rudely) to a scanner that basically takes a photo of my naked body, or to an invasive and uncomfortable “pat-down”, allegedly to make sure that my fellow passengers and I are safe when we fly. I don’t like the security screening process, but I have submitted to it in return for the safety it supposedly preserves. In my view, airport security should be a zero-tolerance environment. The alternative is to accept “missing the occasional terrorist”. Kind of defeats the whole purpose.

Federal law states that being a stowaway on board a flight is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. My question is, what about the TSA agent(s) who let him into the secure area without proper documents? They say that disciplinary action is being taken, and at a minimum, the officers involved will receive remedial training. Seriously? Remedial training? I’ll accept that as long as they receive that training behind bars. If the stowaway gets jail time, then the agents who facilitated his crime by being more than careless should also do some time.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Loyalty: Retail Style

We all have our favorite places to shop. Typically once a year, and all within about a week, I hit all of my normal clothing places, in quest of the annual wardrobe upgrade. I make regular visits to a couple of coffee shops. On rare occasions I hit a grocery store (many thanks to my wife for handling 99% of that chore). During the spring, I make repeated visits to Lowes for plants, gardening supplies, and pest control. I’ll hit WalMart or Target from time to time, and less frequently you’ll find me picking up a quick item at a CVS or Walgreens. That’s about it.

Now, that doesn’t seem like too much to keep up with, until you take into account all the loyalty programs that come into play. It seems like everyone has a frequent shopper program of some variety. Buy seven drinks, and get the eighth one free. Use a gift card to make purchases, and accrue points. Free refills. Bonus coupons. Special shopping hours. Value pricing. As long as you belong to the loyalty program. Even restaurants have gotten into the loyalty game. And with my business travel, I have to include all of the different airline and hotel loyalty programs.

I must admit that I belong to a number of these programs, even though I’m very aware that they are often nothing more than thinly disguised methods for obtaining important marketing information. They track your purchases, and then bombard you via email or even snail mail with targeted advertising. However, that’s not my biggest problem with these programs. It’s those wretched cards!

I’m a guy who carries his wallet in his front pants pocket (don’t get me started on pockets!). That being the case, I’m a big fan of keeping a very thin wallet. I want a couple of credit cards, my driver’s license, AAA card, health insurance card, gym membership card, and one $20 bill (I hate carrying cash). With that in my wallet, I’m good. But thanks to the loyalty programs, I frequently find myself either missing out on the benefits, or packing a wallet-full of the frequently requested cards. I usually choose not to carry the cards, but then I get frustrated when I wind up losing a freebie.

I know…I know. The alternative is probably having a chip implanted in our hands or on our foreheads or something, so that store clerks can just scan the chip. And over that option, I would definitely prefer the cards. But isn’t there something in between? Like maybe one card that could have many different program ID’s embedded somehow? And I mean, at the very least, could we make a decision, once and for all, to use the same size and style of card? Mini cards. Keychain cards. Credit cards. Too much for a guy with a thin wallet and limited pocket space.

I’ve discovered some tricks along the way. The easiest is to ask the clerk to look up your loyalty number by phone number, which often works. Another is to say you’ve forgotten your card (true!), and I find that many stores have a card that they can run through for you to provide the value pricing. I’ve even had the person in line behind me offer to let me swipe their card for my purchase, just so I could qualify for the better prices.

There’s always the option of just carrying all of the cards with you. These days, of course, that would seem to require a mini-wheelbarrow to cart all of them around. Certainly my wallet is no match for that task. Aside from the pure weight and volume of the cards, imagine going through all of them each time you check out somewhere, trying to locate the right one. Why, I might as well go back to paying by check. At least during the time it takes for most stores to accept that check, I could probably find the required loyalty card.

I understand loyalty, and I enjoy some nice benefits. I shouldn’t complain. But as soon as someone announces the universal loyalty card, I’m going to be first in line to grab one.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

I Win the Prize!

Just over three years ago, I was in a minor fender bender. I was driving a 1989 Honda Accord that was in surprisingly great condition, and it had extremely low mileage for a 19 year old car. The accident was fairly minor, but because of the age of the car, the damage to three or four big parts caused the car to be totaled. After hunting around for a replacement, I settled on a 2000 Audi A4 Quattro 5 speed. Purchased from a Craigslist ad, I feel like I got a steal of a deal, and I have been enjoying the car ever since.

I replaced the tires immediately, but since then, I have had only a few repairs. Then again, I don’t put that many miles on it each year. In fact, at its three year anniversary, I was just a few miles away from hitting 10,000 miles total since buying the car. Last year, I put about 2,400 miles on it. With the little around town driving I do, I wouldn’t expect to run into many repair problems, and I haven’t.

A couple of weeks ago, however, I noticed a definite acceleration problem that occurred pretty abruptly. I quickly made arrangements to take the car to the shop for diagnosis and repair. The shop I use is nearly 30 minutes away, so it takes some organizing to arrange for the repair, in light of the rest of my schedule. I sat in the shop until Evan diagnosed the problem, which was a faulty fuel injector. While he completed the repair, I walked to the local coffee shop and got some work done. On the way home, my car was humming along just as it had before the fuel injector malfunctioned. Accelerating was no longer a problem, and my smooth ride had returned.

Several days later, I hopped in the car to go to run a quick errand. About two blocks from home, with no warning, the Audi started hesitating and sputtering again, just like before the repair, only much worse. I was able to get my errand done, but when I came out to start the car, after five seconds or so, it just died. I tried several more times, and eventually, I couldn’t even get it to start at all.

I called Evan at the shop and told him I thought something was wrong with the repair he had done. He was apologetic, and suggested that I have it towed in, but he couldn’t look at it until Monday (this was Friday). I thought about having it towed just a mile or two to the local Audi repair shop (which I don’t typically use), instead of having it towed 19 miles to Evan’s shop. But I figured that I ought to take it back to where the work had been done earlier that week, since I had already paid for the repair.

We’re AAA members, so towing was not a problem. However, the repair shop was much farther away than the 3 miles AAA will tow your car for free. So I ended up paying a $51 towing charge. At least they came quickly and I didn’t have to make the drive over to Durham. And since we have two cars (and could honestly make due just fine with one), the only inconvenience was having to wait for the tow truck. The rest of the weekend, I barely remembered that my car wasn’t in the garage.

By mid-morning on Monday, I had not heard from Evan about what the problem was. I had decided to have another repair done at the same time, as well as a state inspection, so I figured he was busy. Eventually, though, I needed to know what happened to the car, and when he might be finished with the repairs. Here’s how the conversation went:

Me: Hey Evan, it’s Doug Holden. How are you today?
Evan: Great! How about you?
Me: I’m good. Listen, I was calling to see if you’ve had a chance to find out what was wrong with my Audi.
Evan: I sure did.
Me: So what was the problem?
Evan: Nothing that a little gas in the tank wouldn’t fix…

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Customer Service Plus!

Good customer service…and bad, are both easy to spot. When a former job regularly required me to use hotel banquet facilities, I could tell within the first 30 seconds of my hotel check-in whether or not I could expect prompt and courteous service from the banquet staff. The key was the hotel manager’s philosophy towards customer service. If the manager was committed to top notch service, it was evident throughout the hotel. Unfortunately, the opposite was also true. If the registration staff was inattentive and sloppy about their responsibilities, I knew I’d likely be in for shoddy service across the board.

As a frequent traveler, I depend on good customer service to help smooth out the rough edges of a business trip itinerary. Poor service can ruin a trip. Good service is what makes you believe you can continue taking Frequent business trips without going completely crazy. Because good service is so critical to business travel success, I feel strongly that when I experience it, I need to recognize it and show appreciation for it. I recently experienced some excellent customer service from an Enterprise Rental Car employee, and the story deserves to be told.

I had 3 hours and 20 minutes to make a 28 mile drive from Columbia, MD to Washington National (Reagan) Airport. My GPS told me to expect a 53 minute trip. I was already looking forward to relaxing over a meal at the airport before my flight. I decided to avoid I95, knowing that it is often a parking lot, particularly at rush hour. Instead, I took Route 29 south. I did the first 22 miles in about 30 minutes, and I was feeling very confident. Then I hit Silver Spring, MD, and the traffic began to back up. Before long, I realized that Route 29 was taking me right into the heart of DC. At one point, I was 7 blocks from the White House. And the traffic had all but stopped. Finally, it did stop, because of an accident ahead. After sitting through 7 light cycles without moving, I decided to turn around, but on my alternate route, I encountered another accident. It suddenly dawned on me that not only would I not have time for a meal, but I might actually miss my flight.

Eventually, I got onto the beltway only a short distance from the airport. I carefully watched for the rental car return signs, particularly since I had picked the car up at a different airport and had no return directions. Only after entering the rental car garage, did I realize that Enterprise did not have a location at the airport at all. It was at a nearby off-airport location. I quickly asked for directions from an Avis agent, and realized I’d have to get back out in traffic. I followed US 1 as instructed, but soon realized I was approaching a split in the road, and neither choice looked like it would get me to the Enterprise location.

I pulled over to call, and I finally reached Kate (the Great!) at the Enterprise location for Reagan airport. By this time, I was pretty stressed. I explained my predicament, and she very calmly began to give me directions. At one point, I was at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery. Kate, sensing my high stress level, continued to speak calmly, and said she would stay on the line with me until I got to her location. She carefully walked me through every exit and turn, until finally I saw the Enterprise lot.

Kate told me she’d be waiting outside for me, and she was. As the branch manager, she had arranged for an agent to produce my receipt immediately upon arrival. Then, as I began to grab my bag from the trunk to go catch the shuttle, she said, “Get back in the car! I’m driving you to the airport!” All the way over, Kate remained relaxed, which had a very calming effect on me. In the end, by the time I went through security and arrived at my gate, boarding had already begun. It was clear that without Kate’s over-the-top customer service, I would have missed my flight for the first time in almost 25 years of business travel.

That’s the kind of outstanding service that makes me want to rent from Enterprise every time. Sometimes their off-airport locations are inconvenient, but the customer service they provide is second to none. Thank you, Kate, for going above and beyond. That kind of service ensures that I’ll be a loyal Enterprise customer for years to come!

Thursday, March 3, 2011


Catching enough Z’s is sometimes a challenge. I’m not a huge nap person, but I read recently that a short “power nap” in mid-afternoon can often provide a necessary boost in energy. I’ve tried that, and it often makes me feel even more tired. A better solution for me seems to be regulating my bed time.

As kids, my brothers and I always had a bed time. With five boys to raise, I’m sure my parents were simply looking for a little down-time before heading to bed themselves! We kids always felt like we had to go to bed earlier than any of our friends, so having a bedtime was always a negative thing for us. Not so much these days. I’ve learned that I do best if I have a regular bedtime and stick to it, which is sometimes easier said than done.

I try to eat wisely (I said ‘try’), and I often get an hour of exercise most every morning. But according to Consumer Reports, if I don’t get 7 hours of sleep, I’m increasing my risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. 7 hours it is! My current routine involves turning in at 10:15PM and getting up at 5:15AM. And I try to keep close to the same schedule on weekends. Thanks to TiVo, many of my favorite 10PM TV shows can be viewed at my leisure.

Even so, I don’t really get the full 7 hours, because it sometimes takes a little while to get to sleep. I’ve considered heading to bed at 10PM instead, but I just can’t make myself do that yet. I’m probably lucky to be asleep by 10:40PM. One thing that helps is to have something to listen to as I drop off. I know this goes against conventional wisdom, but I find that I need something to drown out the thoughts that flood my head when it’s time to sleep. So I’ll play a TV show from my phone, or turn on Pandora radio, both of which shut themselves off eventually. I’m often surprised to learn later how quickly I actually drop off…which is evident when I realize how little of a TV show I actually remember hearing.

I tend to get more sleep when I’m traveling for business. After a full day of consulting or teaching, I find that after I eat a light dinner, I am often too spent to get any work done at the computer. So I’ve gotten into the habit of going to bed early. Sometimes before 8PM! If I get up at 3:30 or 4:00AM, I’ve had plenty of sleep, and I have several hours to exercise and get some office work done before I have to begin teaching again. Except for frequent late night airport arrivals, I’m often more rested after a business trip than I was before.

How about you? What’s your optimal amount of sleep? Do you get groggy in the afternoon? What tricks do you have for getting to sleep quickly? Your ideas just might help me to stay more consistent with my own approach to sleep, which is apparently still necessary, because right now it’s about 2 PM, and …..Zzzzzzzzzzz!