It’s no secret that the pandemic has provided more opportunities for people to get outside and enjoy Alabama’s beautiful lakes and scenery.
To keep up with the increase in visitors to the area and ensure people keep coming back, the Lake Martin Tourism Association, the official destination marketing organization of Lake Martin, says outstanding customer service is key.
To highlight people who are going above and beyond to ensure memorable experiences for visitors, the organization created the Lake Martin Tourism Superstar Award. Four people are being recognized annually for outstanding customer service in the area.
“We realized that a big part of the experience people have when they visit the area is the customer service they receive,” said Brandy Hastings, executive director of the Lake Martin Tourism Association. “It’s about experiences you can’t have anywhere else, so we wanted to honor and celebrate the people on the frontlines who create those experiences.”
The most recent recipient of the award is Richard Owens, owner of Yellow Top Ice Cream Shop. Owens, who runs the pontoon boat turned ice cream shop with his wife, Julie, started selling sweet treats to lake goers this year when their grandson, 10-year-old Jackson Owens, gave them the idea.
“He sent us a photo of an ice cream boat and told us we had to do it,” said Julie. “We said we would, but only if he would help when he comes to visit. Now, we tell him he’s the CEO.”
The Owenses started turning their boat into an ice cream shop last winter by adding a freezer and making a few other adjustments. By April, they were ready to dip their toes into the water and began selling popsicles and ice cream on the lake.
“It’s great to have a job where people love to see you coming,” Richard said. “We thought about things in a whole different way before we started doing this. The people we meet are like family now and we’ve been so lovingly accepted by everyone.”
Richard Owens is well-known on the lake, not only for his ice cream business but for frequently offering a helping hand to those in need.
“I’ve seen him pause his own business several times to help repair other boats having problems,” said Julie. “Once, he gave a family the battery out of his truck to put in their boat for the day because their battery was dead. They were about to pull their boat back up on their trailer and either go home or find a place to buy a new one, but Richard said, ‘Take my truck battery! Don’t waste your fun time on the lake!’ They couldn’t believe it. He knew he could trust lake folks.”
Hastings and her team surprised Owens with his award out on the waters of Lake Martin on July 9. “I was not expecting it at all,” he said. “It was a total surprise and such a blessing. I didn’t know what to say.”
Nancy Williams, who nominated Owens for the award, said he is very generous with people on the lake. “He has a great personality with a heart to match. He loves meeting the residents of Lake Martin and serving ice cream from his yellow boat. He even gifts free ice cream to the kids at Children’s Harbor during their camps.”
Children’s Harbor is a nonprofit organization on Lake Martin that provides seriously ill children and their families a place to relax and have some fun at no cost. Their summer camps offer a safe environment where families can enjoy activities like swimming, canoeing, miniature golf, volleyball, basketball or hanging out in a special, handicapped-accessible treehouse.
“The Yellow Top Ice Cream Shop boat has been such a treat this year for our camps,” said Vicki Tuggle, chief operating officer for Children’s Harbor. “The brightly colored boat would arrive at Children’s Harbor, complete with ice cream music playing, and the campers would line up for a delicious frozen treat. Throughout the spring and summer, the Yellow Top folks displayed a collection jar on the boat to collect donations from their customers to treat the hundreds of campers at Children’s Harbor to ice cream at no charge. We are so thankful to the Owens family for choosing us as their mission.”
Winners of the Lake Martin Tourism Superstar Award receive a plaque and $100. Owens said he plans to donate the money toward more ice cream for kids at Children’s Harbor.
“Hearing him say that as the first thing after receiving his award was just a reinforcement that we’d made a great choice,” said Hastings. “We knew he deserved the award when we saw his generosity firsthand and how he interacts with his customers.”
The Owenses are planning to keep their new business going for as long as possible because, for them, it’s not just about income.
“It’s about making a difference in people’s lives,” Richard said. “We hope the brightness of our yellow boat brings some joy to others. In this business, we’re learning something new every day about what to do and what not to do, and we don’t intend to stop. We want to be as famous as Peanut Point!”
Nominations for the Lake Martin Tourism Superstar awards are accepted on an ongoing basis at ExploreLakeMartin.com/Superstar. People are encouraged to nominate anyone they think has exhibited excellent customer service.
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)