Due to the recent passing of great customer experience hero Leah Chase, I would like to honor her by reposting this blog which originally published on February 19, 2019.
Few people have actively stewarded a restaurant’s success for over 70 years. So, when such a person speaks about customer experience, I take notice and listen. I suspect we all should.
During my many visits to New Orleans, I’ve been fortunate to dine at the Dooky Chase Restaurant off of Orleans Ave.
When I’ve visited, I was aware of Dooky Chases’ storied history as the first local Creole restaurant for people of color. I also knew that it had been a gathering place for civil rights leaders.
Sadly, I missed a very important historically relevant piece of information at Dooky Chase – that is the story of its owner and head chef, 96-year-old Leah Chase. Shame on me!
Leah Chase came to my attention thanks to a recent NBC news feature conducted by Rhema Ellis. That video snippet led me to a variety of online resources including, a 2017 interview Leah did with Pat Mitchell for a TEDWomen’s conference, an interview for One Time in New Orleans program, and many other online resources.
So, who is Leah Chase? What is her importance to business owners/leaders? What does Leah have to say of relevance to those seeking to deliver loyalty-building customer experiences?
Leah Chase was raised in a small segregated town near New Orleans (Madisonville). She worked as a waitress at the high-end Colonial Restaurant in the French Quarter and her curiosity caused her to spend a lot of time in the kitchen watching how the restaurant’s chefs prepared their opulent feasts.
Leah’s curiosity also led her to ask, “Why can’t we have this type of restaurant in our Black neighborhoods?”
In 1946, Leah married Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr. and took over her in-law’s sandwich shop – Dooky Chase.
Leah transformed that sandwich shop into a sit-down restaurant with table cloths and silverware for people in her community.
Over the years Dooky Chase and Leah have served the likes of President Barak Obama, Thurgood Marshall, Oprah, Stevie Wonder, Jim Brown, Willie Mays, Ray Charles, and so many other celebrities. She is not only a successful restaurateur but also an award-winning author and television chef.
Of all her many accomplishments, Leah notes her highest praise comes in the way people refer to her business as “the restaurant or their restaurant” as opposed to Dooky Chase.
According to Leah, “That’s what makes me move. It’s what makes me strive for better things because if you have that much faith in me – I better perform. I better uplift people and uplift my restaurant.”
In reflecting on her success, Leah believes that much of it is linked to creating a welcoming and safe place for those she serves. She also believes success in business and life is treating people in ways that affirm their worth. She notes, “You’ve gotta treat people fine and you gotta make them feel good.”
For me, Leah epitomizes enduring truths about customer experience delivery.
She observed her environment, learned skills such as cooking and hospitality, identified a need for an underserved population, exerted effort to meet that need, created a welcoming and safe environment, and treats people with respect. Leah makes people feel good.
Today Leah continues to oversee food preparation in her restaurant. While 96 years on the planet have decreased her mobility, Leah still greets patrons from her wheelchair. In the words of Rhema Ellis, “People are eager to meet the ‘queen of Creole cuisine’” as she dishes “out respect…bringing people together with food.”
In these polarized times, Leah also has some advice for healing political and social divides, “We changed the course of America over a bowl of gumbo and some fried chicken…I’d like to invite leaders now to just come and have a bowl of gumbo and some fried chicken, talk it over and we can go out and do what we have to do….Because that’s what we are not doing we are not talking, let’s come together, eat, and talk.”
I am grateful to the wisdom of Leah and for so many wise customer experience creators and innovators in our midst.
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Joseph A. Michelli, Ph.D. is a professional speaker and chief experience officer at The Michelli Experience. A New York Times #1 bestselling author, Dr. Michelli and his team consult with some of the world’s best customer experience companies.
Follow on Twitter: @josephmichelli
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