Marley and Me

Marley Bartlett - Sonny's BBQ, Orlando, FL

Say “Hi!”, as so many customers do every day at Sonny’s BBQ in Orlando, FL to Marley Bartlett.

Like many I spend a great deal of my professional time traveling the country and being a part of the travel, meetings, and hospitality industry.  Good service, but more importantly, the people who provide it, is a real interesting topic to me.  I’m always interested in learning a little bit more from the provider, and from the receiver of that service.

This example I happened on to quite by accident.  A customer was in a hurry to catch a flight, as many flights to Chicago were cancelling due to a violent summer storm that was following the heat front through the Windy City.  So, my flight being later, I offered to drop off his rental car for him.  Being somewhat “directionally challenged” and talking on my cell phone, I took the wrong ramp, and ended up leaving the airport instead of going to the rental car return.  In order to return to the airport, I exited at the next light, saw Tony Roma’s and thought I would catch lunch before returning.  After making the turn, I saw a more interesting BBQ restaurant built right next door to the nationwide chain.  Intrigued by the thought of two next door to each other, and being familiar as many are with the Roma’s offerings (and being from Texas and one who enjoys bbq), I thought I would see who these Sonny’s BBQ folks were.

What a treat!

Inside, the delicious smells greeted me and I went and sat at the bar where I could watch sports and enjoy some good bbq.  That’s when I encountered the secret ingredient of their success…Marley.  The bar was packed, and everybody that arrived was greeted with “Welcome!”, or “Good to see you again!” and a very real smile and attitude.  As I sat at the bar, I learned how one person can really make a difference to their business.

This restaurant has only been opened since November, their second restaurant in the Orlando area.  Customers drive past many other offerings, bbq and otherwise, to come here.  I was intrigued when I heard Marley greet customer after customer with their order…”Hi!  Good to see you.  Ribs, fries, and cole slaw, right?…”Hi!  Welcome back.  That’s the half chicken and ribs with okra and slaw again?”.  I was absolutely amazed how many times she knew not only the customer, but their order as well.  Commenting on this to one of the regulars seated near me, I asked how she knew so much about them and keeps them coming back.

He works at the CarMax that is located nearby, as did his lunch companion.  “Cupcakes.  She makes homemade cupcakes and brings them by to remind us to come to lunch here.  She also sends us texts”.  Homemade cupcakes, made from the simple boxes available to all of us.  They have become so popular, she’s even asked to make them and bring them to the restaurant to provide her regulars for dessert.  And the management smartly is okay with it even though they don’t make a dime off of it.

She personalizes the cupcake experience also, making chocolate with vanilla icing for the sales guy, but for the man in the service department she made strawberry cupcakes with chocolate icing and real strawberries on top.

Who does this???  And why didn’t any of us think of it????  This is a bartender/order taker/food server at the bar area of a roadside bbq restaurant near the entrance of an airport for goodness sakes.  Is this something the company makes her do?


“My mother was a bartender.  She always had fun at work.  And, I learned to count money real fast”, she shared with a smile.  “I used to work at the other Sonny’s but moved here when it opened as it’s closer to my house and it has a bar but the first one did not.  A lot of my customers followed me here.  I enjoy what I do, and I get to know them and what they like.  I text customers, post on Facebook when I’m going to be working at the restaurant, so they know to come by.”

Totally immersed now in my lunch experience, which was really terrific food, I spent a good amount of time observing this constantly moving energy field as she moved around the customers at the bar, as well as the high tables along the walls, greeting everyone, remembering names and orders, and personal stories.  While she worked she took orders, wiped counters, tables, and chairs.  She served food, took payment, made change, thanked everyone, and when people left, invited them all back.  She served soldiers, business men and women, and neighbors.  One customer returned, and without the customer saying a word, Marley greeted her with a smile and said, “You’re back.  I’ve got your credit card.  It’s in the safe.  I’m sorry I didn’t have any way to get ahold of you.  Let me get the manager.”.    While Marley retrieved the manager this customer was dumbfounded that she was recognized immediately, had only dined there once, forgotten her credit card, and was just returning to see if it was there.  Wow!

You travel a good amount, I’m sure.  My career started as a desk clerk, and one of the best tips I ever received was to rarely look down,  talk to the customer instead of the counter.  As I watched Marley, I came to appreciate that during this flurry of activity, as she smoothly slid around the bar area, her eyes were always moving, looking at customers, reading them, sensing their needs, seeing them.  For the rest of my trip, and in businesses since I’ve returned home, I’ve started to notice how little eye contact is made.  Marley sees everything, and feels everything and it makes a world of difference.

“I’m down to 2 jobs now from 4, she shared.  I think you have to enjoy what you do and give it 100% whenever you are there.  If you can’t do that, or if you’re not sure you like what you do or don’t like what you do, you better go do something else.  Because when you’re unsure, or unhappy, you are not only bringing down yourself, but you are bringing down the level of energy in those you work with, as well as your customers.”

“I stay because I love working with Marley”, shared one of the other Sonny’s employees.  “She lifts me up every day and makes being here a lot of fun.  The customers come for the same reason”.

“My first love would be to be  a veterinary technician.  That’s what I went to school for, but I can’t pay the bills with that.  If I could work at a zoo, with monkeys and orangutans and other animals, that would be terrific.  Working in a zoo would be a dream come true.  One day, when I meet the right person and they can help me pay the bills, that’s where you’ll find me.”

It’s the guess of this very pleased, and one day to return customer, that he would find a line of animals outside that zoo waiting to get in.

If you read this and are a veterinarian in Orlando, or know one, tell them to go eat a meal at Sonny’s BBQ outside the airport, and see for themselves.  Pay Marley enough to pay her bills, and they will find that they will have a very busy practice in no time!

Thanks for a great meal and lesson, Marley!

One thought on “Marley and Me

  1. Wow, great write-up. This woman deserves a raise! I love the cupcake concept – heck, great desserts keep my boyfriend coming back, imagine what they’d do for the people I work with – as well as updating Facebook about when she works. I can imagine a lot of businesses – from barber shops to restaurants – would benefit from their employees making it easy for favorite customers to know when they were going to be working.

    Thanks for sharing!

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