Whether it’s tending bars at restaurants, parking cars at local malls, or welcoming visitors staying at local hotels, the hospitality industry comprises a large part of our local economy.
In Washington state, the restaurant industry alone generates more than $750 million in annual tax revenue, employs 218,000 people, and pays approximately $4 billion in wages, according to the Washington Hospitality Association, which represents more than 6,000 industry members.
Many hospitality professionals can be found on the Eastside, including the four experienced individuals featured on the following pages. We spent some time with them to glean their industry insights and perspectives
The Best Secret
Name: Jerry Kimble
Occupation: Owner, Jerry’s Shoe Shine
Years working in the hospitality industry: 25
For decades, Jerry Kimble has made Eastside business professionals look a little more polished thanks to his skill at shining shoes.
Born and raised in Yakima, Kimble, 52, moved to Western Washington as a young adult and landed a job shining shoes at Nordstrom in Bellevue Square. Twenty-five years later, he’s a veteran of his craft.
“I love this job, absolutely,” Kimble said, while he used a brush, cloth, and polish to breathe new life into a customer’s well-worn pair of leather boots. “There’s the camaraderie with customers, but also the instant satisfaction. They pay me to shoot the breeze and make shoes look good. Shhh! It’s the best secret.”
Kimble can be found Tuesday through Saturday manning his shoe-shine stand, located in Lincoln Square South at The Bellevue Collection — outside Nordstrom Rack, near a set of elevators leading to the parking garage, and just steps away from the Food Hall.
Kimble credits his best friend, Alvin Horton, for setting him on a career path in the hospitality industry. The pair trained under Morgan Perkins, a local industry legend who famously brought shoe-shining to Nordstrom 40 years ago. Although Kimble operated a shoe-shine stand in Redmond 20 years ago, he’s most associated with downtown Bellevue.
“I would say, going back since Nordstrom, I have at least 200 regular customers,” he said. “Some are from Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Symetra, and PACCAR. I have a great following. I have been blessed.”
His optimism and laughter are contagious, and belie the fact that, for the past three years, the Renton resident has undergone regular dialysis three days a week to treat kidney disease while he continues to work full-time shining shoes.
“Life became more precious,” he explained. “You don’t argue over the dumb stuff. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Just let things go. Don’t get so flustered over things you can’t change.”
Kimble said he’s shined Larry King’s shoes, as well as the shoes worn by various athletes who played for the Seattle Mariners, Seahawks, and SuperSonics.
And while some people might think shining shoes is an easy job, Kimble disagreed.
“When you are dealing with hundreds of dollars’ worth of shoes and different kinds of care for each shoe, it becomes a bit overwhelming,” he said. “It’s not something you can just pick up and start to do. You have to learn the shoes and what colors of polish are going to work best for each shoe. It’s an art. It’s a skill.”
Up On a Stage
Name: Irina Franzen
Occupation: Lead Bartender, Solarium Kitchen & Bar at the Bellevue Hilton
Years working in the hospitality industry: 19
In 1998, Irina Franzen was a 24-year-old single mother of a 5-year-old son, and a recent immigrant to the United States from Russia, where she worked as an emergency room nurse.
Franzen, who spoke little to no English at the time, settled in Bellevue, enrolled in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, and started to apply for nursing jobs, only to realize the degree she earned in Russia wasn’t recognized in the United States. If she wanted to resume her career as a nurse, she would need to return to nursing school.
Needing to make ends meet while she completed school, one summer Franzen applied for a job as a restaurant hostess at the Doubletree Hotel (now Hilton Bellevue) close to her apartment.
“I got the job,” she explained, “and never went back (to nursing).”
In fact, she never looked for another job. Instead, Franzen worked her way up from hostess to restaurant server to lead bartender, finding her bearings in a new culture along the way.
“I really started speaking English at the Hilton,” explained Franzen, 45, who typically works nine to 10 hours per day, Monday through Thursday. “My former boss was so patient with me, teaching me American ways. My team members were so welcoming and helpful.”
One thing Franzen said she has enjoyed about her hospitality job is getting to know guests and travelers who have sat at her bar for almost as long as she’s tended it. There’s also a performance-like quality to tending bar, where she has to stay knowledgeable of the latest craft cocktails in an environment like downtown Bellevue, which can be very competitive from one restaurant or bar to the next.
“When I first started, I was always watching bartenders, for some reason, and just the way they carried themselves,” she explained. “I was always kind of drawn to them. They’re up on a stage, with so many eyes on them. It’s kind of fascinating. I didn’t think I was going to do that. But when I started, I really loved it.”
Franzen said she has served a few notable customers over the years: Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, many Seattle Seahawks players, and Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates. “He and his friends would go play tennis next door at the Bellevue Club, and then come over a for a couple of drinks,” she explained. “But it’s been a while since I’ve seen him.”
Still, it can be a tough industry to make ends meet. Even today, Franzen said tips make all the difference in her income month-to-month.
And while others are taking traditional breaks and holidays, hospitality workers are usually on the job.
“In our industry, it’s really hard when you have to leave your family and go work holidays — Easter, Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving,” she said. “But we just always do our Thanksgiving on the Saturday following Thanksgiving.”
First Point of Contact
Name: Tara Lee
Occupation: Guest Services Agent, Silver Cloud Inn
Years working in the hospitality industry: 11
Introduced to the hospitality industry at an early age, Tara Lee spent years watching her parents run their family business, a bed and breakfast called the Honey Farm Inn, located just outside downtown Snoqualmie.
“I kind of grew up in hotels, and that’s what I decided to do as a grown-up, too,” explained Lee, 30, who was hired 11 years ago to help run the guest services operations at the 98-room Silver Cloud Inn in downtown Bellevue. It’s a job the Seattle resident still holds today.
Lee often is the first person a visitor might see when he arrives at the Silver Cloud Inn after a long flight and in a city both new and unfamiliar. Lee said meeting those guests’ needs requires an almost intangible skillset honed over years of experience.
“Guests arrive with a different set of needs, and they’re not always going to articulate that to you,” she explained. “They don’t necessarily always say exactly what they need or want. It’s a matter of intuiting that, and that is a skill that takes a while to refine. I don’t think most guest services people just pop onto the job that first day and understand how to guess what people want before maybe even they know what they want.”
Lee has witnessed many industry changes. The DOS-based reservation system she first used now operates on Microsoft Windows. The rise of smartphones, apps, and third-party travel websites has made it easier for guests to book rooms.
And yet, the guest services slice of the hospitality industry is still built on face-to-face interactions.
“The unique thing about hospitality is how human it is,” Lee explained. “In retail, there’s a pretty distinct boundary between when the transaction starts and ends, and when the retail worker is done with the interaction. In hospitality, people are coming from far away. You’re their first point of contact with the area. You are how they ground themselves in the area, how they find what they need.”
As for notable guests she’s greeted and served, Lee recalled the drummer of a punk rock band in town while on tour, and high-level executives in town for meetings at PACCAR. According to Lee, it’s not uncommon for former PACCAR president and CEO Mark Pigott, whose family founded the company more than 100 years ago, to greet company visitors in the Silver Cloud Inn’s lobby.
Lee typically works the swing shift, 3 p.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday and has no plans to leave the hospitality industry in the near future.
“I like to tell people that working at the front desk is kind of like traveling the world in reverse,” she said. “You meet people from all over the place who bring their experiences to you, and it is a really good way to broaden your perspective without having to travel. I would love to travel, but it’s just not feasible to go to every single country. So, it’s fun to meet people from everywhere.”
The Human Element
Name: Mark Fremmerlid
Occupation: President, Four Park Avenue
Years working in the hospitality industry: 38
“Itruly believe that people want interaction,” explained Mark Fremmerlid, president of Four Park Avenue. “They want that human element. I’ve always had that truly old-school sense of customer service. I think it’s an art that’s missing in a lot of our industry today.”
“People will pay for good service,” he added. “A lot of times, they don’t question you on fees or what it’s going to cost. If you are providing the service, people are going to pay for it.”
Fremmerlid said he started parking cars at the Lakeside Restaurant in Seattle while he was in high school — and before he could legally drive. “I was 15-and-a-half,” he explained, sheepishly and with a chuckle. “They didn’t ask me for my license.”
In 1982, then 18, he opened his first business, Silver Cloud Valet. In 2000, he sold the company to Ampco System Parking and achieved a goal he set early on — namely, to retire before the age of 40.
But when Four Park Avenue CEO Michael Williams invited Fremmerlid in 2009 to help lead the company, Fremmerlid said he couldn’t refuse the opportunity to work with an old friend in the industry.
Today, the pair operates a company that employs 55 people and includes a fleet of 12 vehicles at its Kirkland headquarters. It also offers large-scale transportation-management solutions — valet services at local restaurants and hospitals, for example, or town car rides to and from the airport during special events — for corporate and private clients nationwide.
Four Park Avenue’s clients include professional sports organizations (Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association, National Football League, Professional Golf Association, and the Women’s National Basketball Association), corporate clients (Daniel’s Broiler, Leisure Care, Microsoft, and Providence Medical Center).
As for the best business advice Fremmerlid received, he points to the late Pete Winemiller, vice president of guest relations for the Seattle SuperSonics and the Seattle Storm.
“I learned a ton of things from him from a customer service and a hospitality standpoint,” Fremmerlid explained. “He was a wizard of all things. He kept saying, ‘What kind of experience are you creating for your guests?’ That’s something we tell our staff — what kind of experience are we creating for our customers when they come to us? It’s a philosophy I totally embrace. How do we make that experience better?”
As long as Fremmerlid and Four Park Avenue can answer that question for its customers, both parties will likely spend many more years in the hospitality industry.