Inspiration & AdviceHospitality: Creating a Brand of Generosity in a Digital Era

Ruby Receptionists, barre3 and Salt & StrawWe live in a digital era where it’s commonplace to engage in impersonal, robotic interactions with consumers and brands. Whether we’re trying to explain our latest technological hiccup to a robot on the other end of a customer service line, or ordering food from scripted employees, it has become less common to engage in personal, heartfelt interactions on a daily basis. That’s why it’s so rewarding to see three ultra-successful woman CEOs who have worked to truly connect with their customers and made hospitality a key component of their business models.

Three of Portland’s superstar entrepreneurs — Jill Nelson, CEO and Founder of Ruby Receptionists, Kim Malek, CEO and Founder of Salt and Straw, and Sadie Lincoln, CEO and Founder of barre3 — spoke on the different forms that hospitality take at their businesses at a seminar on Digital Hospitality at eROI. Each woman highlighted the core concepts that resonate with their brands, underscoring the importance of kindness, empathy, connecting with customers, building a brand founded on giving, and ultimately creating a culture of generosity.

Here is a breakdown of some of their questions and answers regarding how hospitality plays a role at their companies in a digital era:

Jill Nelson, Kim Malek and Sadie Lincoln
Jill Nelson, Kim Malek and Sadie Lincoln

When did digital hospitality start for your brand?

JN: Ruby Receptionists is a company that prides itself on perpetuating those real human connections. “Early on we got the notion that business wasn’t about efficiencies. It was about personal connections.” Her employees practice “WOWism” on a daily basis. They don’t just answer phones—they’re there to make your day, foster happiness and ultimately leave you feeling wowed.

KM: Kim fell in love with the close-knit community that encompasses Portland—a place where people support one another. Her company has flourished through creating and maintaining close connections within the community and through partnering with local artisans. Salt and Straw is a model of hospitality where the team takes care of one another—whether it be their employees, customers, or the local neighborhoods.

SL:  Sadie felt alienated in the gym environment. She loved the warmth that came with studio classes and yoga, and envisioned a place where people could unite in an accepting environment. After selling her house in the Bay Area and moving her family to the Pacific Northwest, she invested every penny into the first barre3 studio. Her attitude—”who cares if it fails. Let’s do exactly what we think is right.” barre3 has innovative classes that combine the discipline of ballet with pilates and yoga—leaving customers feeling balanced, bright and all around healthier.

When are there times when you’re put in a situation that makes it hard to be hospitable?

KM: When the second Salt and Straw opened on NW 23rd, no one had the slightest inclination how popular it would become. Lines snaked around the block (and continue in this fashion, 3 years later), creating hostility among some neighbors and businesses within the local community. When protesters and unhappy Portlanders sought action, Kim knew she had to step up her game and work with the community, rather than fight them—to reach a middle ground. Kim is a firm believer that “a strong business can only exist as part of a strong community” and “with great success comes great responsibility.” Kim used hospitality, generosity, empathy and compromise to work with neighbors and meet them in the middle. The result? A local community that loves and respects Salt and Straw even more because of their generosity and willingness to work together to move forward.

SL: barre3 has ballooned to represent more than 100 franchises throughout the country. Sadie doesn’t have the superhuman power to monitor every barre3 at all times, and with a business model based on franchising, this means needing to be extremely selective in deciding who opens the franchises. She works to ensure that these individuals are using their talents to serve others in the hospitable fashion that barre3 has come to represent.  Sadie is a firm believer that being warm and honest can turn people around — even in trying situations when hospitality is put to the test.

How do you recreate that real human connection digitally? Is it through specific media channels?

JN: Ruby Receptionists maintain that real human connection through their word choice, color usage, layout of invoice, and structure of their mobile app. Even the smallest details matter. Nelson compared her service to Uber—a company that took an old fashioned car service and revamped it. Ruby Receptionists does the same — using an old model and modernizing services by allowing clients access to digital components. She also has a list of 10 ways to connect with customers.


  • Share things you have in common with a client by sending a link to an article you think they’d enjoy.
  • Congratulate customers through social media channels via Facebook, or twitter when they’ve experienced a landmark achievement
  • Send a congratulatory e-mail the next time their favorite sports team wins a big game

SL: barre3 has maintained human connections digitally through their online workouts. Every month they post a new workout in the hopes of educating their followers. And customers can subscribe to individual online workouts or to annual subscriptions. “It’s the words that count,” she says. “That’s when you can break through in digital—by being real.” She maintains that creating genuine connections with followers, even if it’s through digital means, will enhance human connections and maintain a model of hospitality.


Jill Nelson, Kim Malek, and Sadie Lincoln speaking at eROI

How do you get employees to be brand ambassadors?

KM: Salt and Straw looks for employees who are “unapologetically positive.”  “Are you baseline happy,” Kim inquires, “because you need that to survive in this business.” Salt and Straw hires employees based on if they’re a cultural fit and all around positive, happy people.

JN: Ruby Receptionists looks for excellent referrals from current employees and seeks out genuinely happy people. They work to find, retain and invest in people who align with your company’s values.  “I have a relentless resistance to ‘fine’—things have to be exceptional,” says Nelson. RR doesn’t hire employees to simply emulate and copy her full-proof process. They hire genuinely happy, positive employees, whose lives revolve around positivity and creating meaningful relations with others.

SL: “Trust them, believe in them, and train them,” says Lincoln. “We’re constantly seeking to understand and be better.” Admit when you’re wrong and move forward, she says.” And Lincoln believes that the “in-between” moments, not the actual job interview, is critical to seeing a person’s true character. In those moments you truly learn about people. This means watching how potential employees interact with people when walking down the street—or how they treat the individual behind the counter when ordering their coffee. These are signs of how they will interact with clientele and represent your brand.

Give 1-2 examples how you systemize/instill hospitality in employees/keep them long term:

JN: Jill created a 5-minute Receptionist makeover to ensure meaningful connections are created between her Ruby Receptionists and customers. She utilized Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs as a base model for ensuring customer satisfaction. This breaks down to understanding the process, following through with customers, creating experiences, making connections and giving customers “what they don’t even know they want.” It ultimately means leaving customers wowed and feeling they’re heard and truly cared for.

          Here are highlights from her 5-minute Receptionist Makeover:

  • Include a salutation, the company name and an offer of assistance when greeting a customer: “Good Morning, Oregon Entrepreneurs Network. How can I help you?”
  • Never answer with a negative: e.g. “I’m not sure, I don’t think so, or I don’t know.” Respond with “I’ll be happy to find out!” or “Great question, Let me look into that for you!” Ensure the customer that they’ve been heard and their question matters.
  • Fine is never good enough for Ruby Receptionists. Rather than responding with “Okay,” “Yeah,” or “I can” answer with “Absolutely” or “I’d be happy to.”
  • When a customer asks you to do something, answer with “My pleasure,” instead of a lackluster “Sure” or “Okay.”
  • Ask politely for customer information rather than demanding it. Always ask polite questions.


KM: Kim’s favorite book is “Setting the table” by Danny Meyer. The book emphasizes being swan like, connecting the dots, and always find a way to move forward. This resonates with what she looks for in potential hires.  There should be a philosophy of hospitality toward each other that resonates through the company, she says. All employees at Salt and Straw go through a one week training course through a program called “Topgrading.” But ultimately, Kim believes the key to systemizing hospitality is through finding and hiring the right people. She believes it’s important to be extremely selective and have the courage to say no. “There are certain things that are sacred — you protect that fiercely,” she says.

SL: Sadie brought up the 90-10 rule: Ten percent of life is made up of what happens to you. Ninety percent of life is how you react and make do with what you’re given. barre3 seeks to hire employees who are positive, balanced and react with optimism and positivity no matter what life throws at them. Sadie Lincoln is a firm believer in honoring your truth, making it your own, and understanding why you’re doing so. She doesn’t believe you should teach employees to emulate a behavior because “copying skips understanding.” This is why employees are often initially clients of barre3 who instructors seek out based on what they see on a daily basis. At barre3, there is a system of hospitality training among clients.


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