For a period of about five years, whenever we’d go out to a restaurant either my wife or I would order the dish with the garlic mashed potatoes. They were so yummy and creamy and decadent, with heaps more butter and garlic than we’d ever dare cook in at home. It pretty much didn’t matter what the main dish was.
Once garlic mashed potatoes began appearing on every menu, the allure went away. But the power of the surprise, the power of the side dish, hasn’t. As in, I just ate a take-out bowl of lentil chili, and at the bottom of the bag I discovered a completely unexpected corn muffin, which was really good. Not great enough, on its own, to make me go back next week nor (better still) so good that it’s really worth talking about, but still pretty darn good and worth remembering.
The thing about the garlic mashed potatoes or the corn bread is that they allow you, for once, to define the terms of the game. You rarely get to set expectations – expectations mostly arrive in force when your customers show up – meaning you’re usually running as fast as you can to meet/not meet:surpass those expectations. But with a side dish, with an unexpected surprise, you have the luxury of competing in a category that your customer didn’t even expect. It’s like applying for a job that hasn’t been posted yet: yes, you still have to be amazing, but it’s a heck of a lot easier to blow people away when they’re not busy systematically comparing you to the other 500 people whose names came in over the transom.
The garlic mashed potatoes is the best handwritten note your customer got all week (they haven’t received any), the phone call when everyone is busy filling their inbox. It’s showing up in person when everyone else is calling; giving a presentation with no slides when everyone who came before you bored them with a thousand bullet points; doing something wildly generous when you really, truly, have nothing to gain. It’s not being different for difference’s sake – garlic mashed potatoes are still dinner, after all – it’s doing something fabulous and unexpected that’s relevant to the core story you’re telling them.
Go ahead, why don’t you whip up a hot, piping batch of garlic mashed potatoes?