Avery McGinn: Making Relationship Sandwiches
Before owner Avery McGinn moved Klein's Deli to the San Francisco International Airport, the restaurant had served Potrero Hill residents from a perch on 20th Street, across from The Good Life Grocery, for a quarter-century. McGinn made sandwiches alongside Debra Klein from the day Klein opened the deli in 1979. She purchased the business from her in 1990. The Hill location remained open until 2006, though McGinn started selling sandwiches at the airport as a subtenant in 1992. She launched her first airport store in 2004, a second in 2012, and a third SFO location – at United Terminal Three, in newly opening Boarding Area E – is set to open next month.
“It's been good,” McGinn said. “We've developed a good following, even at the airport.” When she first landed at SFO – in Terminal Three – it never occurred to her that the business would spawn multiple locations. But demand for the deli has been steady from airport employees and frequent travelers.
“It's busy,” she said. “I'm in a good location. Both locations are good. And the third one should also be a very good location.” McGinn said relationships are the main reason for her business success; it was a positive relationship with a former Klein's employee that led to the opportunity to move the shop to the airport. “I think everything hinges on relationships,” McGinn said. “In business I think it does. In life I think it does.”
This philosophy seems to spill over into who she chooses for employees, as well as her philosophy of customer service. “Our interactions; they're just so much of what life is,” she said. McGinn believes that if she’s genuinely engaged and interested “in people feeling good and feeling a connection and feeling well-served,” then that comes back to her. “It's very much of an interchange,” she said.
She teaches her employees that it’s more pleasant to engage positively with customers than prove someone's right. Rather than saying, “You didn't order that” or “You didn't say that,” McGinn recommends her employees say, “Oh, I'm sorry I missed that” or “Let me get that for you.” With three stores, that approach seems to be working.
“She the epitome of customer service,” said Mauri Schwartz, a View columnist and friend. “She's real.”
“This is your life here,” McGinn tells her employees. “You spend eight hours a day here. The best possible outcome is if you feel good and the people you’re interacting with feel good. And it comes back to you in terms of uplifting your own energy.” She said there have been times when she wasn't in a great mood, but she’d come into work, start interacting with people, and be energized. “And I would just feel better,” she said.
“Here's a moment,” McGinn said, of the sandwich-making process. “You've got 30 seconds with somebody. You've got a minute with somebody. And, wow, that's another human being, who is totally different from any other human being you're going to encounter. That's pretty exciting. I find it very exciting.”
The atmosphere at Klein's Potrero Hill location was “harmonious,” said Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu - Kumu Hula director Patrick Makuakane, a friend of McGinn who said workers were happy and likeable there.
According to McGinn, at least one Hill customer used to come in because the operation was “like watching Olympic performers. It seemed almost choreographed,” the customer told her.
McGinn looks for “a warm presence” in prospective employees. She wants to hire individuals who are engaging, quick, reliable, and enjoy other people. Those who are self-motivated and like working in a team environment also top her list, as do people who like to stay busy. “People who stand around drive me crazy,” she said.
McGinn was born in Norfolk, Virginia, but was raised in New York City. She earned a degree in literature from Antioch College, and a master's in the art of teaching from Reed College. After graduating Reed she taught high school English for ten years in Portland, Oregon. When she came to San Francisco for the summer she decided to stay if she could find work. That was settled when she met Klein. “We hit it off. So we started it together.”
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