For the time being, the reporters and cameramen had left Grand Central Bakery. And inside the café sat three small-business owners who were getting a once-in-a-lifetime meeting with the president.

For the time being, the reporters and cameramen had left Grand Central Bakery. And inside the café sat three small-business owners who were getting a once-in-a-lifetime meeting with the president.

They smiled a lot to cover their skyrocketing heart palpitations. Nothing, they said, could have prepared them for what it was like to meet the most powerful man on the planet.

Tiffany Turner, co-owner of the Inn at Discovery Coast in Long Beach, called the whole thing “surreal.”

“At one point, I wanted to reach across the table and poke him,” she said.

Turner, along with Joe Fugere, owner of Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria, and Gillian Allen-White, general manager of the Grand Central Bakery, were invited to share their thoughts with the president about the concerns of small-business owners. They spoke of the need for access to loans and for tamping down merchant fees for credit cards.

Which is all well and good. But let’s get to the wow factor.

Fugere said the experience brought an intense range of emotions. He could barely believe it when he got the call from the White House last week that he was going to be invited to the private round-table.

“You can imagine what goes through your mind,” he said. “You always think, ‘If I ever had an opportunity to talk to the president, what would I say?’ “

Late Tuesday morning, as commotion of Obama’s arrival spread through Pioneer Square, Fugere found himself “face to face with the president of the United States.”

The first thing that popped out of his mouth? “I will be in deep trouble if I don’t tell you hello from my mother,” he said.

The president laughed, Fugere relaxed, and a discussion soon got going. Obama’s sincerity and warmth quickly dissipated any jitters, said Allen-White, who’s also one of the bakery’s seven co-owners.

She, Fugere and Turner were all impressed by Obama’s willingness to listen and ask probing questions about their struggles and successes as small-business owners.

One question, in particular, stuck with Fugere.

“He asked: ‘What keeps you up at night?’ He really wanted to know.”

The 30-minute conversation, which stretched five minutes longer than planned, was recapitulated in a speech Obama gave to reporters later. Then he was off to the Westin. And the moment was over.

All three business owners were amped with excitement afterward. They laughed at what they fretted about in the days before — What to wear? What to say? — and Allen-White and Fugere admitted they didn’t sleep at all Monday night.

In the end, Obama’s disarming manner got them to open up and have a normal, heartfelt conversation.

“Well,” said Turner, “as normal as a conversation can be with the president.”

Sonia Krishnan: 206-515-5546 or skrishnan@seattletimes.com