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Daniel Rubin: Service with smile a winner

The glow of the night before, when her peers named her the city's top concierge, still showed on Gale Feinstein as she settled into a Windsor chair in the Omni's lounge Friday morning and shared a few trade secrets.

The glow of the night before, when her peers named her the city's top concierge, still showed on Gale Feinstein as she settled into a Windsor chair in the Omni's lounge Friday morning and shared a few trade secrets.

Such as, how do you score great seats for a sold-out Springsteen show?

Where can you get your fortune told from the sediment in a coffee cup - and here's the tricky part - in Albanian?

And what do you do for a guest who has not been to bed for days and desperately needs a prescription-only sleeping pill?

These sorts of war stories came to mind as Feinstein talked about the disappearing art and science of the big-city concierge. The soft-spoken Northeast native concedes she probably disappointed her guests in each of these cases. But it was not for lack of trying.

The best she could do was send the fortune seekers to a Greek restaurant where she knew the old-timers read coffee grounds.

The insomniac slammed the door in her face when she came back from a pharmacy that refused to refill his spent prescription.

And the Springsteen fan screamed when he learned the tickets she bought from a broker were too close to the stage. The guest - a music-biz type from Memphis - threatened to sue. His lawyer wrote a nasty letter. General manager A.J. Williams stood by his concierge.

"The picture of hospitality," he calls her.

More common are the unglamorous tasks that Feinstein performs, such as remembering what her guests have likely forgotten. She keeps a cache of dress-shirt stays and safety pins for emergencies. She carries a lint roller to keep her guests looking sharp.

Most of us don't get to see what a Philadelphia concierge does - we live here, after all. I was surprised to learn that their numbers and hours are dwindling as hotels cut services. Ken Alan, who started a concierge association here in 1996, estimates that 40 still ply their trade in hotels.

You could find many other concierges who work with efficient cool. What won Feinstein the top award is her warmth.

"Sometimes it's very difficult to accommodate a last-minute guest at 5 p.m.," said Ellen Yin, owner of Fork restaurant. "She's the type of person you want to accommodate - so gracious and kind. She exudes exuberance."

Olivier de St. Martin, owner of Caribou Cafe and Zinc Bistro, was another restaurateur who voted for Feinstein. He said he's never met her, but happened to see her in action a couple of months ago and was wowed.

"She was all over," he said. "She was telling the guy fixing the flowers in the middle of the lobby what to do. There were two customers. She was showing them banquet rooms or guest rooms. And in the meantime she was giving orders to someone on the phone, and she was smiling.

"Everybody should be like that, but no one's like that. That's the problem. In this age there is no hospitality anymore."

Where did she pick up this Old World charm? At Wanamakers, she says. She worked there nearly 25 years, marveling at the white-gloved women who operated elevators, how the founder's office was kept as he'd left it.

In 1996, the new owners eliminated some positions, including hers. She could move to a sales job from administration. She was in her mid-40s, and felt "if I didn't try something new, I'd regret it all my life."

She showed up for a job fair at the Omni, and was hired on the spot. Feinstein trained with the concierge for two days and has spent the 13 years since learning on the job. She says she doesn't think of herself as anything special. "I'm just a dinosaur," she said.

And so Thursday night she stood at one end of the bar at Ristorante Panorama, her hands clasped as if in prayer. She was one of four finalists for the award, sponsored by Where Magazine and Lagos Jewelry, and there was no way, she felt, she'd won.

Next to her was Jean Farquhar from the Four Seasons and Frank Marandino of the Rittenhouse. And if the award wasn't going to one of her peers from those premier spots, then surely it was going to Joe Broderick, who's been doorman at the Latham for 39 years.

Then she heard her name, followed by the flowers, a plaque, a key to the city. "It's like a dream," she said, searching the crowd for her husband. "I must be dreaming."