ARLINGTON — Bill Klein has been a fixture of the Arlington Safeway for as long as many of his customers have been alive, and on his final day on the job on Friday, March 29, Kathy McPherson recalled how Klein had gone above and beyond for her then-newborn daughter Melissa.
"She was born two months premature, and weighed three pounds, six ounces," Kathy said of Melissa, who's now 31 years old. "Bill weighed her on the store's scales for me."
Klein started work at the Arlington Safeway at its previous location on Jan. 12, 1977, only a month before he turned 19 years old, and even on his last day, he continued to cater to his customers, assisting them with the self-checkout machines while returning the hearty handshakes and hugs that nearly all of them offered him on his last day as a store employee.
"The store just won't be the same without you," said Brian Mindt, who clapped Klein on the back affectionately after Klein had helped Mindt scan his purchases through the checkout.
"You've been a pillar of the community," said pharmacist James Mensik, whose turn of phrase would later be independently repeated by Klein's boss, Arlington Safeway Store Manager Rick Blewett. "Take some time to travel and have fun with your family."
Kathy McPherson was echoed by fellow shopper Joe Rickard in describing Klein as "a great guy who's always smiling," while Melissa McPherson was so overwhelmed by the news of Klein's retirement that she shed a few tears while sharing yet another hug with him, while Rob Parrish, who first met Klein at the former Arlington Safeway location, likewise agreed with Rickard that Klein is "just the nicest guy."
"He's the face of Safeway," Parrish said.
"He's been here all my life, ever since I was a kid," said Rickard, now 45 years old. "The world needs more people like him."
"I've never seen him without a smile," Kathy McPherson said. "You would never know if he was having a crummy day."
In his 36 years at the Arlington Safeway, Klein has managed both the frozen foods and the bread sections, the latter of which he's still in charge of, while also serving as a mentor, a trainer, a repair person and a self-described Jack of all trades. In his own 20 years at the Arlington Safeway, Blewett has come to regard Klein as an indispensable member of his team.
"As the bread manager alone, he's the best in the field in the entire Everett district, which includes 16 stores," Blewett said. "I put him on the self-checkout because all the customers gravitate toward him. He always makes time for people, and if there's a problem, he'll fix it. We've got a great backup for him, but they'll have some big shoes to fill, because Bill is an awesome man. We're really going to miss him."
Not only has Blewett seen all of Klein's children grow up to start families of their own, but Blewett will also still have two Kleins as employees — Bill's uncle, Gerald Klein, and Gerald's daughter, Kelly Tabert — after Bill's retirement.
"All these Kleins have a great work ethic," Blewett said. "There's just something about being a Klein, I guess."
With literally hundreds of Arlington Safeway shoppers taking time to bid him fond farewells, Bill Klein was left with precious little time to reflect on a career that's spanned the better part of four decades, but he still took care to tell Yolanda Larsen, "Give your grand-baby a Safeway hug for me," and to express his appreciation to the steady stream of customers who showed their support for him that day.
"You guys made my job," Klein said, as he consoled a crying Melissa McPherson. "My customers have always been my people, and I've always enjoyed my people. That's what's kept me here."
As far as Klein is concerned, the recipe for successful customer service is no secret at all.
"Take care of them," Klein said. "Be a friend to them. Give them good service. Be a part of their lives. As I've gotten to know these folks, I've seen them through some rough roads, especially these last few years. I've been there for them, but they've been there for me too. They've helped lift me up."
Although Bill Klein is already busy enough with personal projects that he joked, "I don't know how I've found the time to do my job," he expects to pitch in on behalf of his son, Arlington City Council member Ken Klein, in his campaign to get elected to John Koster's soon-to-be-open seat on the Snohomish County Council. In the meantime, Bill promised his people that he would never become a stranger to the Arlington Safeway.
"I've been very blessed to have such good people as my customers and coworkers," Bill Klein said. "They were my job."