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What's Brewing

Service stars earn a Bern

By SUSAN THURSTON
Published June 4, 2004

I hope everyone who went away for Memorial Day weekend had good, Florida-friendly service. No dirty pillow cases. No hair in your baked beans. No rude taxi drivers.

Those things happen, and when they do, they can taint your entire experience. Suddenly that $200-a-night hotel room isn't so nice and that $50 dinner not so hot.

FORTUNATELY, plenty of people here in Tampa are hard at work to keep those vacation mishaps to a minimum. In all, more than 38,000 work in tourism countywide.

Last month, the Tampa Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau gave Bern Laxer Awards of Excellence to eight hospitality workers as part of National Tourism Week. The new awards recognize people who go out of their way to make visitors feel welcome.

The bureau named the awards after the late founder of Bern's Steak House, a stickler for quality and service. Winners were nominated by their managers and selected by a committee. Each received a crystal pineapple, the international sign of hospitality, and our eternal gratitude.

THE BEST SERVER award went to Erika Echevarria, who works at the Marriott Residence Inn on Boy Scout Boulevard. Originally from Colombia, Erika makes breakfast a highlight of guests' day.

If someone has an early business appointment, she packs him a meal. If a guest has a birthday, she pokes a candle in her muffin. And if a guest isn't feeling well, Nurse Erika to the rescue, with an order of chicken soup and fresh cookies.

This year alone, the hotel has received 218 comment cards with her name on them. "Hiring Erika was the best decision we ever made," chimed her managers.

Other winners included Louise Wells of the Hyatt Regency Tampa for best hotel housekeeper and Cretha Grant of the Tampa Convention Center for best concierge.

Larry McFarley earned the best taxi driver award. A driver for Gulf Coast Transportation since 1998, he's the first to go out of his way, literally, to pick up a rider. He shuttles visitors to the airport and hotels but also takes little old ladies to church, the grocery store and doctors' appointments.

In some cases, he's their only contact of the day. He "takes care of his community," said Nancy Castellano, Gulf Coast's general manager, who nominated him.

Larry can find any address, street corner or business, making him the go-to person if dispatchers get stumped. When people step into his black-and-white cab, he's got positive, useful things to say about Tampa.

"People don't have a high opinion of the taxi industry," Castellano said. "He's one of the guys who's changing it."

Best bartender went to Dave Madera of Mise en Place. His manager, Ty Rodriguez, says Dave has energy that makes you "clap your hands and look up into the sky and smile at no one in particular."

He can change moods and make people laugh. And that's before he pours a drink.

Dave has been at Mise en Place for about a year. Before that, he worked at the former Cactus Club for about a decade.

Like most good bartenders, Dave knows the regulars by name. He makes a mean margarita ("It's all in the sour mix") and knows better than to run out of Hawaiian cosmos and sour apple martinis - Mise favorites.

He doesn't spin bottles, but claims to breathe fire. Hmmm.

The next time you're in there, ask him about his coconutty concoction, a carry-over from his Cactus Club days. It's got vodka, coconut rum, melon liqueur, pineapple juice, a splash of Blue Curacoa and sour mix.

It hasn't won any awards, but Bern Laxer probably would have approved.

THE LAST DROP: I spotted Hulk Hogan and his daughter, Brooke Bollea, at Mike Alstott's Island Way Grill in Clearwater Saturday night. Much to my surprise, his eyes were glued to his meal, not to the TV, where the Lightning was on. He must have swapped his "Let's Play Hockey" mantra for "Let's Eat Dinner."

At least he kept his shirt on.

- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com

[Last modified June 3, 2004, 10:50:24]

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