(Dec. 11) This is a story about people. The first person in this story about people is a guy named Mel, who runs a locally famous hot dog stand in Tampa. A few years back, he tried to expand with a second location in a nearby suburb. The place was situated smack dab in the middle of the busiest drag through town, but after a year or two, Mel closed shop and went back to running his sole, original, quick-serve hot dog restaurant in Tampa.

Why did Mel fail in the burbs? There’s no need to speculate. Mel answered the question himself when interviewed about it by a newspaper reporter. He said he couldn’t duplicate the down-home feel of his first restaurant. He couldn’t get the kind of employees he needed to run the second restaurant like the first.

Mel couldn’t be in both places at the same time. He couldn’t make these other people want to smile and call out the first names of customers when their food was ready. He couldn’t always get them to wipe down the tables promptly or ensure the orders were 100% accurate.

Turns out Mel’s just wasn’t Mel’s without Mel.

Just a few blocks from Mel’s former location in the burbs stands a competitor, known for its sandwiches, ice cream and chili dogs. It fought off Mel’s challenge. It is owned, managed and run by a family. Hmmm.

I was put in mind of this scenario during a recent stop at a chain restaurant in this very same burb. The restaurant was among the latest concepts for a national chain operator with a reputation for popular formats that don’t necessarily sport the highest-quality food but do offer value at a reasonable price. The food I was served was OK, but since this is a story about people, what’s in question here is the service.

It was too good. When I say it was too good, of course, I mean it was bad. I, for one, do not like to be asked if everything is fine 37 times within a 25-minute span — by four different servers. And I don’t like the painted-on smiles, for that matter, or that vaguely saccharine inflection that puts the lie in their giddy little voices.

At one point during my dinner at this chain restaurant, somebody behind the bar clanged a bell. This was soon followed by the bartenders — all 14 of them — yelling something in unison.

That scripted bit of fake frivolity was no more spontaneous than the canned laughter that accompanies TV sitcoms, but it was startling. Believe me, it sent at least one patron scurrying toward the men’s room.

As I sipped my bottomless iced tea, I fathomed myself manager of the place. I would tell this person to back off a bit from the eager beaver sales pitch. I would encourage that person to be a little more aware of the customer’s body language. More tea? Exactly how do you phrase the question, and when do you ask? Minutiae, for sure, but no doubt the difference between a merely satisfied customer and a delighted one.

It’s a bit of a fine line, I suppose, figuring out what’s good and what’s too much of a good thing. But then that’s what salesmanship and customer service are all about.

The lesson of this story about people is that people matter. There’s a reason why one grower-shipper can earn, on average, $1 a carton more than another grower-shipper. Or why one shipper moves from one profitable year to the next with its key retail partners and another gets dropped from the program buying at the end of the season because complacency sets in and benchmarks aren’t met.

It seems a mad rush is on to strip costs at every conceivable point in the supply chain. There are good and bad ways of doing that, however, and produce firms, retailers and restaurant operators parsing the numbers must not fail to recognize the ultimate value of their human capital. It cannot be overestimated.

In this story about people, one subplot I plan to keep an eye on is the expansion of Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. into Florida. More and more of the retail giant’s supercenters are going up in the Sunshine State (my town just got its first), and reports indicate Wal-Mart plans to move into several Florida markets in 2003 with its smaller Neighborhood Markets format.

What I’m most interested in is the battle between Wal-Mart and Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix Super Markets Inc. Publix is one of the strongest regional retail chains in the U.S., and it is my opinion that its main strength is its ability to attract the best managers, clerks, cashiers and baggers from local labor pools.

I’m curious to see whether Wal-Mart’s expansion will affect the quality of labor at Publix. And if it doesn’t, I’ll be equally curious to see if Wal-Mart’s everyday low prices will be enough to lure customers who might otherwise get better service at Publix.

In this story about people, my ending is a happy one — and it suggests Publix will do just fine.