When the zipper on my grandmother’s 1960s-era dress gave out before an event at a historic San Francisco hotel, and with no time to visit a tailor or buy a new outfit, all I could think was: thank goodness for Tom Wolfe, the man who first introduced hotel concierge services to the United States.
Below, meet the man behind exquisite service from the first greeting to the final adieu. Check out what our MICHELIN Guide Hotels team said about the Fairmont San Francisco here, and click below to book.
Concierges seem as intrinsic to the upscale hotel experience as the heart is to the body, but the dark age of hotels-before-concierges ended only in 1974, when a young Tom Wolfe landed in San Francisco from Europe bursting with never before seen hospitality skills. Providing guests with personalized services was a longstanding practice in England and Paris, Wolfe cut his teeth at the Ritz London and the Hotel Lancaster, respectively, but when he came back to America he had to convince the hospitality industry on the value of a concierge and explain the role.
It was the grand Fairmont San Francisco that gave Wolfe the chance to break ground. “On a whim, I walked into the Fairmont,” Wolfe recalls. “My pretext on getting in to see the general manager was that I had greetings from a friend of his in Washington, D.C.” Wolfe used the opportunity to share his resume, and because of his experience in Europe, was hired on the spot as assistant manager.
A month later, when the hotel’s owner came for a visit, the stars aligned to turn Wolfe into the first American concierge. “‘You know, I’ve been trying to start a concierge program at this hotel, but nobody knows what the hell I'm talking about,’” Wolfe recalls him saying. “I said, ‘Well, I actually do know what you're talking about. And what's more, I'll be happy to do it.’ That's how I became the first concierge in the country.”
Wolfe shared his story with me over coffee and croissants at the Laurel Court Restaurant in the Fairmont San Francisco, where he continues to serve guests today. His red-framed glasses, perfectly pressed suit, and crossed golden keys pinned to his lapel embody what one imagines the country’s first concierge to look like, but it’s the genuine friendliness of his demeanor that makes it clear how he was able to establish an entire profession based around thoughtful service.
The duties of a concierge then were much like they are now: make things happen for guests. “I was the one stop shop; that was my selling point,” Wolfe says. From fixing an airline ticket in the pre-internet days to getting a reservation at the best restaurant in town, Wolfe was there. “Going back to that training from London and from the guys in Paris, knowing how to respond: I had that built in.”
But Wolfe wasn’t content to simply found an entire industry: he wanted himself and the growing community of American concierges to be officially recognized by Les Clefs d’Or, the esteemed international organization of top hotel concierges responsible for his crossed keys pin. Like a true concierge, he made things happen, and founded the organization’s American branch.
Though the Fairmont San Francisco is where Wolfe works as Chief Concierge today, he did take his talents elsewhere before coming back home. Not only to other American hotels including New York’s Plaza Hotel, but also to Japan, the second country in which he became the first concierge. “I came back [to the US] five years later speaking fluent Japanese at the very highest level,” Wolfe says, bringing his language count to five, alongside English, Spanish, French, and Italian. Japan is also where he met his wife, to whom he has been married for 37 years.
It makes sense that the Fairmont San Francisco is where Wolfe planted the very first roots of concierges in the United States: the hotel is a history-making place. It was rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake by Julia Morgan, the nation’s foremost female architect of the time, and in 1945, the hotel hosted delegates from 40 nations as they wrote the United Nations Charter. The many flags waving outside the hotel honor that incredible moment in history. Later, in 1961, Tony Bennett performed “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” live for the first time in the hotel’s Venetian Room.
So the next time you visit a hotel, and their concierge gets you ungettable restaurant reservations, arranges last second transport, or hands you enough safety pins to fix your grandmother’s vintage dress in time for an important event, remember who to thank.