My dinner with Oprah.

IT WAS AN EVENING like any other. After my wife Shannon and I wrestled the kids to sleep, I sat on the couch to check my email. I saw a puzzling message in my inbox full of the usual detritus of junk mail and Google Business review notifications. It was from a producer from CBS News. He was asking to use The Mitten to film an episode of 60 Minutes.

I frantically called my business partner Max. We both agreed it was a major opportunity, and that having our little place appear on national television would obviously be a boon for business, despite the fact that they were asking us to close on a Saturday (our busiest day) to accommodate the shoot. We scheduled a call with the producer the next day to learn more about what he had in mind.

We spoke for 15 minutes or so, mostly about the logistics of the shoot; what our space looked like, floor dimensions, ceiling heights, etc. He mentioned the episode was going to be a follow-up to one they had filmed several months prior. The subject had been the 2016 presidential election, and they filmed a moderated discussion panel made up of seven Trump voters and seven Clinton voters, all Grand Rapidians. The moderator? 

Oprah Winfrey. 

Max and I looked at each other, and I asked casually if Oprah was going to be coming to our restaurant. The producer deftly deflected and though we weren’t exactly sure what was happening, I didn’t feel we were in a position to push for more information. He explained that the reason they wanted to revisit this panel was that despite their obvious differences, they all remained in contact and found a way to keep the conversation going without hating each other. Oprah and the producers had heard about it and were so impressed they decided to film a second episode from that perspective. I listened excitedly but in the back of my mind the question burned: why us? Surely there were nicer (and bigger) locations they could use. But I wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth.

The producer asked us to send a diagram of our upstairs taproom to determine if our space was going to work for the production crew. I quickly put one together and sent it along with an impassioned case for why they should shoot at The Mitten. We waited. Five days later, he wrote back and said that regrettably, the support beams in the Engine House were a deal breaker for their crew, and The Mitten wasn’t going to work after all. Cursed by 19th century architecture. We were disappointed, but thanked him for the opportunity and offered to host them for dinner and drinks after the shoot if they were so inclined. I didn’t hold my breath. Easy come, easy go. Max and I were half relieved we could enjoy our Saturday sales as expected.

Three weeks later, on the evening before the shoot, the producer stopped in at the Mitten. I was walking out the door when the manager told me he was here and asking for me. I ran upstairs and luckily was still in time to join him for a beer. We discussed the history of the Mitten and I spoke with him about our Foundation and the work we’ve done in our community. He told me that although they had found a more suitable location for the shoot, he was still interested in bringing the cast and crew to The Mitten afterward. I asked if the guest of honor would be joining us as well. “TBD,” he said. Ugh.

He asked us to hold tables for 25 or 30 guests to be arriving around 5 PM. I assured him it wouldn’t be a problem but I knew it was potentially a huge problem, especially if the guest of honor didn’t come. Holding that many tables empty during a Saturday dinner hour represented the loss of thousands of dollars, so I knew it was a risk but it felt like one worth taking. My father always told me to learn to trust my “tummy meter.” The only yardstick that means anything is our gut, and my gut was telling me to take a chance. I reminded myself that this is the difference between the “I can’t afford that” and “how can I afford that?” mindset in action. Potential, not scarcity. A visit from Oprah would be worth far more than half a day’s lost income. I decided to roll the dice.

Max and I, along with our wives and Dana and Mallory came down to The Mitten early the next afternoon. Together we deep cleaned the upstairs taproom and carefully arranged the tables in advance of the Saturday crowds. The reserved signs we placed on them confused many of our guests because we do not and have never taken reservations. But it wasn’t going to work any other way. Once a guest sits, I can’t ask them to move. As the afternoon wore on and the taproom began to fill, I felt the pain as dozens of standing customers eyeballed those tables, wondering why they couldn’t sit there. Doubt began to creep in and I wondered if I had made a mistake. After all, we didn’t even know who was actually coming. Were we being unfair to our customers and staff by not seating other guests there? Would they understand if they knew what was at stake? The worst part was, we couldn’t explain to anyone why we were doing what we were doing because we weren’t sure exactly what was going to happen. But we stayed the course. Risk isn’t for everyone.

As 5:00 came, the producer messaged to say that they were running behind, and 6 PM was a more realistic time of arrival. I groaned. If Oprah didn’t show up now, we were really in the weeds. The tables had sat empty for nearly three hours on the busiest day of the week, and I was acutely aware that we had been on a two-hour wait to be seated for most of the day. This was a big opportunity but we were still very much a small business.

At 5:45, the producer wrote to say they were on the way, and the guest of honor was with them. O was in tow. I hurriedly informed the staff of what was about to happen and Max and I went outside to greet our guests. As the cast members from the discussion panel trickled in, a black SUV pulled into our alley, and Oprah and two bodyguards stepped out. “Hi Oprah,” I said, dimly aware of the absurdity of that statement. “Welcome to The Mitten,” Max said. “I hope you’re hungry.” Oprah laughed and said she was starving since she hadn’t eaten anything – “not even an egg” – in anticipation for our pizza which she heard so much about. She saved all of her Weight Watchers points for us.

The second floor taproom was half seated with guests since the CBS crew thankfully didn’t require privacy. As Max and I walked in with Oprah, everyone stopped eating and stared. A customer locked eyes with me and mouthed “no.” I nodded yes. We sat down with Oprah and the crew and raised a glass to being there with each other. Seven die-hard Republicans breaking bread with seven liberal Democrats and the most recognized woman in the world. It was unequivocal. Max and I took a minute to enjoy the fact that this group was gathering in a place we made, on tables we built, toasting with beers we brewed. 

News crews began to call the restaurant and gather outside. We didn’t let them in. This was going to be a shared experience, one marked by its intimacy. Oprah worked the room like the pro she is, stopping to shake hands, hug and take photos with nearly every guest. She was genuine and personable. She told us how much she enjoyed the beer and pizza and posed for pictures with us. Though it all happened so fast and came about so unexpectedly, the effects of her visit have been longlasting and hugely beneficial to our small business. People ask to sit in the “Oprah seat” weekly. 

Through the years we’ve been fortunate to host many famous and influential individuals, and I believe wholeheartedly that it’s because of our track record as a strong and generous business. The producer later told me he chose us for our outstanding reputation in the community which was likely bolstered by our giving program. Six years have shown me that our company culture, quality of hires, employee retention and even bottom line all benefit from well-executed giving. This occurs over time and I sometimes don’t notice until its pointed out, but it’s there. The pace of entrepreneurship often prevents us from seeing the forest for the trees, but once in a while something incredible happens as a result of our work and it stuns us in our tracks.

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