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Tuesday, I found myself in a restaurant, something I can’t say I’ve done much of in the last 16 months.
The reason was because 65 years prior, I was born. My wife decreed that on such a milestone occasion, it didn’t matter if I wanted to stay home and eat a bologna and swiss cheese sandwich. I even offered to microwave it and add pickle, but she said no. On a 65th birthday, something more special was in order.
So after 24 hours of diplomatic negotiations, I finally agreed on going for lunch to a place called Ford’s Fish Shack. They have several locations here in Loudoun County, but the first one was in Ashburn, and it’s special to me. It’s the smallest of their locations, but that weakness is also its strength. The place has personality.
I don’t like to wait in line for much of anything, so I called ahead to ask if I needed reservations, even mentioning I wanted to come when it was least crowded, as there are two booths on each side of the restaurant that are my favorite ones. Part of it is these booths are big and comfortable, and part of it is I’ve had many special memories there, almost always in those two locations.
The young lady on the other end of the phone said they don’t usually reserve a specific table, but to come over around 2 PM and they would work everything out. That’s the thing about Ford’s I enjoy so much. I know none of them by name, am not friends with the owner, and am just a nameless, faceless person who eats there several times a year.
But when it comes to service, my experience has been they have always had a “if we CAN do it to make you happy, we WILL” attitude. And of course, their food is every bit as good the 15th time you’ve eaten there as it is the first. I once had a meal that wasn’t exceptional, mentioned it in passing on the way out the door, and soon found myself getting a visit for someone who ran the place before I could get to my car.
They’re just good people.
As we walked into the restaurant, the lady at the front door immediately welcomed my wife and I with birthday greetings. To be honest, it seemed like they told everyone within a two square block radius of this, as anyone who got near the booth that afternoon for whatever reason stopped and wished us a great day.
The food and service were excellent, but it was another element of a favorite local business that popped up in my mind. As we sat down in the booth, it seemed as if we were joined by the memory of a great dinner with our daughter the night she graduated high school in this very same space. Memories of multiple meals of wedding anniversaries ranging from No. 20 to No. 40 since we moved to Ashburn were also present. Even the celebration of a new job or two was recalled.
It reminded me that in the intensely competitive restaurant business, places come and go, and there will always be some new building with new people who can make you a meal. But amongst the thousands of places that are open for business, there are increasingly fewer and fewer diamonds like Ford’s, who don’t barrage you with bright lights and marketing buzz words; they walk the walk, treat you like family, and serve you the way they would want to be served.
If it seems like I’m being overly sentimental about a small business, it’s because I am. While thanking several of the staff for their wonderful hospitality, I asked one about a news item making the rounds here in Ashburn about that location. Supposedly owner and landlord are having disagreements about the lease, and if nothing changes, Ford’s will leave that location in Ashburn sometime in September.
The hostess confirmed that’s a real danger, which would be such a shame. The pandemic has flattened a lot of the smaller businesses all across the country that add a unique flavor to where you live, and losing the Ford’s Ashburn location would be another big loss. When I’m buying dogfood and paper towels, having the equivalent of an Amazon/Costco/Walmart business on every street corner is fine.
But life isn’t a commodity, and when I’m looking for a special evening, I don’t want to go somewhere that’s part of a 732-store chain, mainly because I know before I even get out of the car it won’t be special. Unique experiences, I've learned, are created by unique individuals.
So I hope they work it out, as I’m sure my family isn’t the only one here in Ashburn who has created so many special memories at Ford’s. Great small businesses, I was reminded Tuesday, are one of life’s special pleasures. It's why when I've had to move to new towns over the course of my career, I never felt at home until I found at least these four places: a family doctor, a dentist, a place to get my hair cut, and a place to celebrate something good in my life.
I found the last one a long time ago in a small restaurant at the edge of a strip shopping center in Ashburn, where Tuesday I celebrated my 65th birthday.
I can only hope it will still be there when the time comes next year to celebrate No. 66.
When we talk about passing something in life that involves a stone, we're talking about something else entirely