By Peter Madsen • The Bulletin

An innocuous question has worked its way into the fabric of everyday interactions in Central Oregon: “Doing anything fun today?”

Whether you’re buying a cup of coffee or run into a friend downtown, the ice-breaking inquiry rolls off the tip of just about everyone’s tongue.

But why are people so friendly?

Is it because Central Oregon is peppered with small towns — and correspondingly small-town interactions — that people are quick to turn the perfunctory into the familiar? Does the service industry, which caters to tourists and residents alike, have more to do with the ubiquitous question?

The answer — if there really is one — is complicated.

Business executive in residence and senior instructor at Oregon State University-­Cascades College of Business Todd Montgomery has studied customer service trends as they have changed over the past few decades.

“All these top service organizations like the Four Seasons (hotels and resorts) and the Ritz-Carlton used to have pretty standard lines that you would say,” he said. “They were fairly generic, fairly prepackaged.”

As the internet made it easier for customers to share reviews and videos, people started to realize they were getting a generic experience from upscale brands, Montgomery said.

“And they wanted a little bit more. There has been a rise in the idea of authentic customer service,” he said. “But what is an authentic experience, an authentic interaction?”

‘Where are you from?’

Bend native Caitlin ­Lewis, 28, has some perspective on Central Oregon niceness. When attending Suffolk University in Boston, Lewis often tried to strike up conversations with the secretaries and shoe shiners heading to work in the high-rises where her classes were held. She didn’t find many keen to talk.

“I’d wander over and talk to them because I was bored,” Lewis said between making coffee drinks at the downtown cafe. “I don’t think they were used to people talking to them. I feel like on the East Coast, you’re just surrounded by people all the time. You sort of try to get your own space by not talking to others. People would get unnerved that I would want to talk to them in their own space — they forget there is life outside their little bubble. People would say, ‘You’re not from here. Where are you from?’”

Lewis returned to Bend after college. Life in the big city — with the big city brusqueness — wasn’t for her.

“Bend is a particularly friendly city. But I think Bend is genuinely nice. In Portland, I think the service is a lot less friendly. I think a lot of people that live here are doing what they want to do. They moved to Bend because it has the outdoors, and it’s beautiful. The quality of life is really high, and that’s reflected in people’s attitude because they’re happy.”

As a barista, Lewis greets customers with eye contact and a simple hello. Regardless of which side the checkout counter Lewis is on, she doesn’t like disingenuous interactions.

“People will ask how you’re doing, but they don’t really want to hear the answer,” she said.

“You can read a lot about people when they come in and then you can ask them more interesting questions. Tourists, you can ask where they are from, what they’re up to. Sometimes it’s fun to get people out of s----- moods. But you have to read your audience. Some people aren’t necessarily coming for the experience; they’re just coming for the coffee.”

Sugar or saccharine?

But some want a dollop of cheer with their macchiato. Perhaps no other coffee stand does customer service like Dutch Bros Coffee, which is headquartered in Oregon and has more than 290 locations in seven states. Casie Ozolin, who works near the Dutch Bros Coffee location on SW Century Drive in Bend, visits several mornings a week.

“I come back because the employees are always cheery and happy,” Ozolin said, clutching a coffee cup.

The baristas know Ozolin by name and anticipate her regular order. “They make me smile regardless of the way my day is starting. Their customer service is not common in today’s world. Whatever their employee development team is doing, it’s working.”

On display at the Dutch Bros Coffee location on SW Century Drive is “The Dutch Creed.” It lists the virtues of its customer service: “To wear a cheerful countenance at all times and give every living creature you meet a smile,” and “To be too happy to permit the presence of trouble” are among other hyperbolic commandments for employees.

Montgomery, the OSU-­Cascades instructor, has studied Dutch Bros Coffee’s business model, which experiences a relatively low turnover among its “high energy, engaging, confident” employees. Sure enough, their effusive customer service is mandated from the top.

“Whether the interactions at (Dutch Bros Coffee) are authentic is hard to say,” Montgomery said. “But I know a lot of people who really do like that. They’re coming to the coffee (stand) to get energy and have these upbeat younger folks engage with them. To each his own, right? Maybe you’ve decided that that’s not the vibe, the authentic experience you’re looking for. But the other people I’ve talked to, they’ll know a lot of the people by name, they’ll get to know them. Then, that authentic experience comes out because of the conversations. It’s hit or miss. What works for some won’t always work for others.”

Nicholas Dahl, who teaches communication courses at OSU-Cascades, moved from the Northeast 25 years ago. He and his family often talk about what’s behind Central Oregon’s niceness. He doesn’t visit Dutch Bros Coffee because he finds the service — as much as he finds the coffee — too sweet.

“In Central Oregon and some other places, you get this mix of a service culture that is bound by tourism and recreation,” he said. “It’s the idea that you’re framing your lifestyle around something like fun and what it means to have fun.”

What lubricates these single-­serving interactions is an absence of — or a limited — judgment on the part of the server, Dahl said.

He made the case that you can inquire about a fun plan — and approve of it — without being personally committed.

“You may not necessarily approve of (the activity) in a deeper sense, but (the attitude is) ‘Hey, if that’s fun for you …’ When my family and I went to the East Coast, we were surprised by how abrupt conversations were. There didn’t need to be this shared narrative, a community that exists beyond that particular transaction. People in a small town often interact on a regular basis. They know their histories, stories. … That idea of being nice has some sort of power. It does. But how we all define the term is something that is becoming contested. Are we nice because we have to be because it’s part of our job, or is it a synonym for something else?”

A smile, after all, can resemble a snarl, Dahl said.

“We all get to explore what something means — how authentic is this encounter between individuals?” he said.

For all its emphasis on fun and seizing the day, will Central Oregon experience a blowback on its friendliness?

So long as the internet is around, Montgomery doesn’t think so.

He doesn’t see the pressure of social media lessening the premium that consumers place on quote-­unquote authentic interactions — or “thoughtful encounters,” as he puts it.

“We’ll find that right balance, but I think it’s going to move more toward the personal level. I don’t think the prepackaged stuff is coming back. But I’m sure companies will find the right balance and different ways to do it than they’re presently doing it. But it’s hard to say what that will ultimately be.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7816,