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Published: Tuesday, 11/14/2006

Toledo tavern owner exemplifies principle of customer service

Corporations and marketers have spent a lot of energy figuring out the value of a loyal customer. For example, studies have shown that a lifetime customer could be worth several hundred thousand dollars to one of the Big Three automakers.

There are sophisticated formulas to assess revenue, cost, and profit coming from regular customers, and there are even calculators for business owners, available on the Internet.

But sometimes the research done by a small-business owner is more the seat-of-the pants variety. And sometimes the things they'll do to keep a good customer go far beyond just ringing up the sale.

David O'Konski, operator of a tavern/restaurant on Franklin Avenue at Oakland Street in the International Polish Village section of Toledo, doesn't need sophisticated research such tools to understand the value of a good customer.

Mr. O'Konski, who goes by the nickname "Pickells," has run Pic-Rose Place for 20 years, and he knows that a regular customer can bring many hundreds of dollars into the business in a year's time, and probably many thousands over time.

So, to keep these customers happy, he has often been a loan officer. "Can you lend me forty bucks till Friday?" is a familiar request, he said, adding that, unfortunately, sometimes "Friday doesn't come."

He has been a bail bondsman of sorts - a few hundred bucks here and there to get a customer out of the clink. And he has run a charitable enterprise at times, too.

"Somebody stole one of my customers' car and wrecked it, and she didn't have comprehensive insurance," he explained. "She didn't have any money so we took up donations, scrounged around for car parts, and found another customer who fixed it up for her. Everybody chipped in." He figures the parts and repairs were worth about $1,000.

And now Mr. O'Konski is moving in on Make-A-Wish's territory. Several weeks ago, a longtime customer, Millie Smazenka, told him she'd like to take a ride on a motorcycle. The customer is not exactly a youngster - she'll be 89 next month. But Mr. O'Konski said he would arrange it.

One recent warmish day, Denny Hobbs rode his Harley-Davidson to the Pic-Rose and took Mrs. Smazenka for a spin. "I've always been crazy about motorcycles," said Mrs. Smazenka, who retired in the early 1980s after 32 years as a punch-press operator for the former Reichert Stamping Co.

She added that she often rode motorcycles in her youth in Lenawee County, Michigan.

Keeping customers happy is a boost to business on a corner that has seen much busier times.

Mr. O'Konski's place has housed numerous restaurants and grocery stores since it was built 106 years ago.

He and his late father, Clarence, opened Pic-Rose in 1986, after selling Pickells Music & Vending. They turned it into a veritable museum of Buckeye Brewery and Electric Auto-Lite memorabilia as well as newspaper articles and plaques chronicling events in the old Polish neighborhood called "Lagrinka" by old-timers.

"Business isn't bad now, but it was probably better back then," said Mr. O'Konski, who is in the process of reopening his kitchen, mostly closed for the last two years.

"It's a darn good feeling helping people out," he said. That's what it's all about."

Homer Brickey is The Blade's senior business writer.

Contact him at:

homerbrickey@theblade.com

or 419-724-6129.



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