I’m finishing a trip that has allowed me to lift up my perspective on this difficult winter and another month of down sales and traffic posted on “The Restaurant Industry Snapshot” – negative 0.6 percent comparable-store sales and a negative 3.1 percent traffic.

If anyone can decipher the impact from real consumer spending issues versus the weather, my hat is off to them. The only fact known for sure is that weather is impacting markets negatively and positively, with the total rolling up to bad news. 

With that comment on comp results, let me indulge in some stories from my travel world the past two weeks. Yes, I escaped to warmer weather, continuing education and time to disconnect long enough to think. I take joy in my role as an observer of the intersection of life and business. I will share my observations in reverse order.

Observations from London 

It appears business is rebounding in the major cities in the U.K. It is driven by innovation in concepts delivering on the same consumer shifts we see in the U.S.: fresh, sustainable and local. January was a good month in their indices – up 7.3 percent. The February results are not in, but torrential rains in spite of an unseasonably warm winter will negatively impact them. However, it seems the U.K. consumer is spending, and there is growth across the segments.

Of particular note to us was the presence of Whole Foods in the Kensington district of London. The on-premise operators have been battling their own grocery stores like Tesco and others with prepared foods for some time. To see the Whole Foods offering is impressive as a consumer, but scary as heck as an operator. This trend of competing with the “fresh grocers” will continue here and in the U.S.

Finally, it seems the London labor market is complex and diverse beyond our standards. For the most part, we found service exceptional, from fine dining to casual dining.

Observations from Doha, Qatar

This was a new experience for us, in spite of my previous travels to the Middle East. We saw a city that is growing by the minute, 24 hours a day. Doha has been selected to host the World Cup in 2022, and the number of projects underway everywhere we looked amazed us. We found the expected pattern of hospitality workers from around the world – wonderfully diverse workers who seemed to enjoy their jobs. The quality of building, food and service was exceptional, but expensive. Doha is the junior Dubai, United Arab Emirates, coming into its own right. We observed many U.S. brands that seem to do well in the market.

Observations from the villages of Ethiopia

This part of our journey was a follow-up to a trip we took in July of 2012. During that trip with Joni and our friends Kat Cole, Amanda Hite and Jim Knight, we explored getting involved with Global Hope Network International, led in the U.S. by Pangeo Coffee chief executive Jeff Power. The outcome of the trip was a commitment to raising funds to assist the village of Garmaan in obtaining irrigation to raise crops for food and, eventually, to sell in the nearby marketplace. There is so much to share about this, but in the interest of time, I will go to the most relevant points we learned on this trip:

We raised $17,000 to provide the pumps and equipment needed for the village. The villagers are now producing crops for food and sale on land that was formerly used to grow chat – a local drug plant. We built trust with the villagers that went against their instincts of not trusting outsiders from another religion. We are partners in their success. It was the classic practice of Global Hope Network: Teach a man to fish, and he will provide for himself.

So what does this have to do with a cold winter and declining sales?

Our reward for helping this village feed 120 families was being invited to participate in a traditional Ethiopian coffee service – a celebration to honor friends and guests. With Joni, Kat, Amanda, Jeff and our newest travel partner, Ron Ruggless, we joined the village elders for the coffee service. As the eldest in the group, I was asked to cut the beautiful, fresh-baked, hearty bread to have with the coffee. We had popcorn as well. As we sat, the dialogue began of how we had enabled them to change their lives and the lives of their children by bringing them water and, subsequently, food. 

We are in a noble business of providing more than food for our guests. We provide a solution to the needs of hunger, convenience and celebration. Within that big market of needs, food is the common denominator. And bringing people together through food is the pleasant outcome of our work.

This trip has made me again appreciate the industry we serve. With our diverse workforce, and our expertise in growing and selling food, we provide the catalyst for the human spirit to enjoy a few moments of joy with friends and family, or just to satisfy a need to eat.

In the village of Garmaan we had bread and coffee with people who shared their appreciation for people very different from themselves. They shared what you as restaurateurs do in demonstrating that it is more than bread and water that makes the meal: It is the genuine caring that makes a customer want to go back.

How do you show your customers that you care? Join the conversation in the comments below.