As I’ve readily admitted, I have very discriminating standards, particularly when it comes to customer service. I’m of a generation where the customer was always right and treated with respect. Increasingly, I’m encountering an attitude where customers should consider themselves darn lucky they are getting served.

Fortunately, there are still places where customers are made to feel welcome are staffed with individuals who take great pride in what they do and excel at doing it.  These people are equal opportunity dispensers of excellence who believe that diversity and inclusiveness include tolerating demanding customers and clients with quirky needs and requests. Finding and celebrating these people is what Starkman Approved is all about.

Today being Thanksgiving, I thought I’d give public acknowledgment and thanks to the dozens of individuals who throughout the year enhance my life and make my daily grind more enjoyable.

Rob, Josh, and the Morning Team at Peet’s Coffee on Westwood

When Rob took over as manager two years ago, he faced a formidable task. An earlier manager had assembled an all-star team that made the place feel like Cheers, the sitcom bar where everyone knew your name. Tellingly, the Westwood store was one of the highest grossing in the chain.

The manager left, and so did his entire staff. Another manager rolled in, but he wasn’t up to snuff and sales plummeted. Then Rob took over.

Rob (l) and Josh

It took some time, but Rob has restored the store to its former glory, in terms of ambiance and sales. He assembled a team that cares and that always goes the extra mile. Although he’s the manager, Rob is often in the store when it opens at 5 a.m. greeting customers and asking about their weekends or what they have in store for the day. The Rhode Island native is a Patriots fan, but don’t hold that against him.

Josh was my go-to person when things weren’t quite right, but with the addition of Anita, Brian, Francisco, Dustin, and Jesse the store is cranking perfection on all cylinders. Rob is the Peet’s trainer for the L.A. region and sets the standard against which the chain’s other managers should be measured.

Alex and Team at Starbucks on Olympic and Westwood

I’m no fan of Starbucks and the company’s stores in West L.A. are particularly awful. But Alex didn’t get, or chose to ignore, the bad service memo.

I’ve been to some Starbucks where I’m the only person in line and there are four people working the counter — and I still had to wait until someone took my order. Alex and his team don’t like to keep people waiting; despite a steady stream of people throughout the early morning long lines rarely form. They work well as a team in a very cramped space and can process and fill orders quickly.

Kevin (l), Alex, Rodolfo, and Kat

Alex unquestionably is one of the youngest store managers in the chain, and like his counterpart at Peet’s down the street, maintains a high visibility and is often in the store when it opens at 5. His rock star morning crew is comprised of Rodolfo, Kevin, Kat, GK, Ariana, Carlos, Juli, and Deon. They, too, know the names and preferences of their regulars.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Alex one day becomes a top Starbucks executive.

Go figure. The two best coffee shops in West L.A. are within a half mile of each other. I call it the Miracle on Westwood Ave. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

Jacques and Alfonso, Sirens and Titans Fitness

Fitness has been my passion since my elementary school gym teacher, former Toronto Argonaut Ulysses (“Crazy Legs’) Curtis, called my classmates and me “the poorest excuse for the male species” he’d ever seen. I’ve been pumping iron ever since. If there is someone on the planet who knows more about strength and conditioning training than Jacques Devore, the founder of Sirens and Titans Fitness, I’ve yet to meet that person.

Devore, a former Wall Street trader, lives and breathes fitness.  He’s been a competitive athlete his entire life in a variety of sports including wrestling, track, cycling, lacrosse, and full contact kickboxing. Devore also trained various elite athletes and co-authored a book about power training for cyclists. Devore is in his early sixties but you’d never guess because he doesn’t have an ounce of fat on his wiry frame. He can run circles around people of any age.

Alfonso (l) and Jacques

For more than a year I’ve been enrolled in Devore’s signature elite training program. Devore custom designs my twice-weekly training sessions, which are posted on a board when I arrive. Each session typically involves four exercises repeated in sequence four times, followed by three exercises repeated in sequence four times.  There is a maximum of five people per class, supervised by an instructor who closely monitors and corrects everyone’s routines.

My instructor is Alfonso Avalos Jr., a competitive power-lifter whose personal best includes squatting 600 pounds, bench-pressing 325 pounds, and dead-lifting 728 pounds. Avalos is a stickler for form, and he knows my capabilities better than I do. On several occasions I’ve expressed reservations about doing a certain weight or exercise, and he’s insisted I could do it. Without exception, Avalos was correct.

Fifteen years ago, I set a goal to bench press a target weight on a milestone birthday. I have another milestone birthday coming up January and Devore and Avalos already have me close to matching the target that was formidable for me a decade-and-a-half ago. With Devore and Avalos there is no such thing as aging – you just have to work harder and smarter with each passing year.

Becky Patel, Iyengar Yoga Institute of Los Angeles

Iyengar Yoga, which focuses on bone and muscle alignment, is the least popular of yoga disciplines because it is badly understood and poorly marketed. It’s unfortunate because it takes more than three years to get certified as an Iyengar teacher and several years more to advance to higher levels.

I’ve never met a certified Iyengar teacher who wasn’t phenomenally well-trained and knowledgeable. Iyengar allows teachers to imprint their own style and Becky’s teaching approach is best suited for me. She keeps you moving without sacrificing form or technique. In her classes, the time span between the first “om” and shavasana seemingly passes more quickly.

Becky Patel

Becky is like the “Road Runner” character when she’s teaching. One second she’s demonstrating a pose at the front of the studio and then she’s miraculously in the back aiding a student. Underscoring her knowledge and training, Becky always has alternative poses for people with injuries or limitations. Becky is very hands on, and I’m in awe how sometimes her slightest adjustments can dramatically change the feel and effectiveness of a pose.

Becky is warm and kind and her classes attract students spanning generations; two of her regular students are in their 80s. Unfortunately (for me), Becky only teaches two classes a week. If I could take classes with her on a daily basis, I’d commit to becoming a yogi.

Israel and Team at Rabbi’s Daughter

With the possible exception of Brooklyn, the section of Pico between Robertson and Beverly Glen in Beverly Hills has the greatest concentration of Kosher butcher shops and restaurants in North America. But just over a mile to the West is a boutique operation with a considerably higher quality of meats and service: Rabbi’s Daughter.

Israel (second from right) and some colleagues

Owner Israel and his team are among the hardest workers I’ve ever witnessed. It’s an open workspace so customers can’t help but notice the team works nonstop from the crack of dawn until they close at night. Unlike their counterparts on Pico, Rabbi’s Daughter is a pretty welcoming place.  

At Rabbi’s Daughter customers interact with the staff who prepares the foods, which makes a difference for reasons I can’t explain. As for the store’s name, Israel’s father-in-law is a rabbi. The store is named in his wife’s honor.

Maria at Subaru Santa Monica

Subaru is my kind of company.  In addition to making some of the safest and durable cars on the road, the company is a major supporter of the ASPCA because 70 percent of its customers are dog owners. As well, Subaru displayed an open-mindedness long before so-called cause marketing became popular, targeting lesbians more than 20 years ago.

Maria at Subaru Santa Monica embodies my ideal of a Subaru salesperson. She is well versed in the specs and competitive features of all the Subaru models, and she avoids the hard sell. Subaru owners are a quirky bunch, and Maria has the patience to deal with them.

Maria at Subaru Santa Monica

My quirk is a fear of rattles, a legacy from my days of owning GM and Dodge products that were poorly made. Maria graciously accompanied me on a rattle hunt one Friday night before I took delivery of my current Outback, even volunteering she possibly heard one. She was also a good sport when I serenaded her with my version of “I Just Met a Girl Named Maria,” a song she had never heard before. (After hearing me sing it, she likely hopes to never hear it again.)

Maria is good people and the L.A. Subaru market is pretty price competitive. If you live in California and are in the market for a Subaru, give My Maria a call.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

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