Local Lifestyle

Saturday, Nov 03 2012 12:00 PM

HERB BENHAM: Value of good customer service: $5,000

By The Bakersfield Californian

Two Fridays ago, Bryan Kelly was carrying on at the back of Trader Joe's in the demonstration area -- between the whole bean coffee and the soy chorizo -- where he offers tasty food and beverages to customers, when a middle-aged man and woman walked in.

Bryan recognized the man, because he was the son of Virginia, one of his favorite customers. For 12 years, until her death in August at 94, Virginia would arrive at the store at 10:30 a.m. Friday with her son to pick up a few things but mostly to visit Bryan.

"We have something for you," said Virginia's son and daughter (they did not want to be identified by name).

"She wanted to thank you for all the Fridays."

With that, the couple handed Bryan a check for $5,000.

"This was her gift, not ours," they added.

Bryan, 59, is certainly not without fans. He is an accomplished actor who starred in "Greater Tuna," one of the best local plays some of us have ever seen.

Bryan brings those theatrics and bravado to Trader Joe's, where he has worked for 14 years. Go ahead and try to sneak by after he spots you from 20 yards aways heading west from the sliced smoked turkey section. Before you know it, you are munching on a slice of Pain Rustique Pizza and washing it down with a jigger of pomegranate blueberry juice.

"Bryan has a cult following," said Josh Henderson, who also works at Trader Joe's. "There are people who come in and buy one or two things, but they're here to see Bryan. He gives the store a neighborhood feeling."

Virginia and Bryan could have been neighbors and were -- in their sensibilities, which bridged decades. They appreciated each other, quirks and all.

"She was from another era," Bryan said. "Virginia was always immaculately dressed. She was from the time when ladies wore white gloves, hats and had a tea service. Virginia raised her kids in San Francisco until they were in high school."

Virginia and Bryan had their Friday routine.

"I would always have a joke for her and she would have one for me," he said.

They would talk about the opera, art and theater. Bryan would show Virginia his extensive collection of hats, in the shape of a donkey, a TV set, an 18-inch pink flamingo and a flower pot.

Then, after their repartee, Bryan would offer Virginia samples on the day's specials that might include Thanksgiving green beans with shallots, mushrooms and pecans in a sherry reduction sauce, creamed spinach, Philly cheesesteak and pound cake with raspberries and shaved chocolate.

For Christmas, Virginia would give Bryan a bottle of Bombay Sapphire Gin. In turn, he would give her Mary Kay hand cream.

"We never emailed or called," Bryan said. "We were just good friends."

Bryan learned that Virginia had been a nurse before World War II. She met her first husband (he died in 1956) in the Army. He was testing soldiers for veneral disease.

Virginia remarried and lived down south for awhile.

She returned to Bakersfield for family reasons in 2000 and shortly after that, befriended Bryan.

Early last summer, Virginia's health began to decline. Despite her frailty, she would tell her son, "I have to go see Bryan."

While Virginia waited in the car, her son would come in, pick up a few things and deliver a greeting from his mother.

She also wanted to know what Bryan was sampling.

Virginia may not have had the appetite she once had, but she still liked hearing about food.

It is tempting to climb on the soapbox and talk about how civility, kindness and attention pays dividends, but normally those dividends don't come in denominations of $100 bills.

However, there is something familiar and right about the story. Maybe, because it comes with a happy ending. Just what you'd expect from Friday friends.

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