Checkout Line

We think it's time to meet someone who, if you've been a semi-regular shopper at Dean and Deluca over the years, probably knows you.

Any student of customer relations knows the key to impressive service is to create loyal customers. For Barb Hilber, the meet-and-greet part of her job as cashier at Dean and Deluca comes as naturally as the smile she adds to each customer's order. Hilber has never formally studied the finer points of how to treat and retain a customer; she just instinctively does the next right thing. And for the self-proclaimed oldest employee at the gourmet emporium in Leawood that means everyone--including coworkers--is like a member of her family.

"I want people to be happy when they leave here," says Hilber. "I don't care if they're buying their lunch, a cookie or items to go home and cook. I want them to come back."

In nearly 12 years of efficiently moving crowds through her station, Hilber has gotten to know scores of people--if not all by name, by something significant in their lives. For this writer, it was following my husband's passing two years ago after his battle with cancer. Hilber is always concerned about my well-being and how I'm traveling through life in the wake of the loss.

For Dianne Burns, a Leawood resident and sushi lover who picks up her favorite rolls at Dean and Deluca, it was the day she paid for her lunch and Hilber--a doting grandmother with three grandkids--inquired about her grandson. 

"Barb said, 'That little boy must be grown up now because I remember when he was a tyke,'" says Burns, adding that indeed, her grandson, who accompanied her on shopping trips as a youngster, is now 14. "I was shocked she remembered."

General manager Josh Hodapp says Hilber is one of the true faces of Dean and Deluca. "People wait just to get in Barb's line and catch up," he says. "She always has her ear to the ground and knows the pulse of the store. She's the last interaction people have as they're walking out the door."

Colleague Ric Delaney works the prepared foods case at Dean and Deluca and is Hilber's younger equivalent of a customer service guru; he says she's one of the most ebullient people he's worked with and marvels at her magnetic authenticity. 

"Barb is genuinely concerned about the customer experience here," says Delaney. "She comes to work every day and literally asks, 'What can we do that's good for our customers today?'"

And that, according to Barb Hilber's homespun recipe, is how to succeed in business.

I was born in Milwaukee, the fifth girl in a family with seven children. Family life was always very important and it still is. I have a son and daughter-in-law who now live in Houston and a daughter and son-in-law in Overland Park.

I moved to Overland Park almost 13 years ago from Franklin, Tenn., 20 miles from Nashville, where I lived near my daughter and her family for almost five years. When her husband was transferred to Kansas I moved, too. I love it--the activities in Johnson County are endless. 

When I settled here I decided I wanted to work and told my daughter I was going to investigate the new store up the street. I walked into Dean and Deluca, met Josh and had an interview. I told him I could work Monday through Friday during the day. I had worked for a family physician in Wisconsin for many years and didn't really know what I could offer to the store. I told Josh just to give me a job I could handle. He said he had the perfect position and hired me immediately.

I love the hustle and bustle of Dean and Deluca. I especially like the holidays, our prepared foods and catering. Our food is really exceptional. The kids here do a terrific job--Josh and Kevin [Johnson, executive chef] run a great store. I used to test the soups--they're one of my favorite items.

One of my passions is playing bridge. I had bridge parties in Wisconsin and Tennessee and played in marathons. Gert, my bridge partner of 30 years, cried when I left Milwaukee. We still talk. I play bridge here, too, and like to read mysteries and listen to all kinds of music, even hip hop.

My grandchildren are my joy and I do things on holidays and cook for them. Ashley Eve has a master's in communication and is now a producer in Hollywood; Zach is in his senior year at the University of Kansas in communications; and Madalyn is at Kansas State University. I used to go to swim meets and soccer games. Even though they're grown up I still have Easter egg hunts for them and we all spend Christmas and Mother's Day together. My grandson loves my pork chops and mashed potatoes and I like to bake cookies.

My motto is to be nice and leave people with a smile. That's it. I laugh with customers and know about their engagements, wedding, babies and grandchildren. I could write a book.

Simple Pleasures

When Barb Hilber isn't at her cash register at Dean and Deluca, she enjoys shopping and eating out with her family--and adding to her trademark necklace and earring collection.

Restaurant: Bristol Seafood Grill "I love their lobster bisque."

Stores: Macy's and Nordstrom "I don't shop much for myself--it's mostly for the grandkids."

Jewelry: The last thing Barb does before she leaves for work is to choose a necklace and earrings to wear with her uniform--perhaps yellow, pink or green, her favorite colors. "My mother Mary loved jewelry and took me shopping at The Grand in Milwaukee when I was a young girl. I still find some pieces to pick up here and there."

words: Kimberly Winter Stern

photos: Paul Versluis