Thursday, March 7, 2013

You Think You Are Better Than Me? (Table Hopping Post Got Me Thinking About All Good Bakers and The Cheese Traveler)

So a while ago ol' Steve Barnes at the Times Union Table Hopping blog put up a post entitled "Quality Restaurants where you don't fit in." This opened a flood gate of comments as locals -- seemingly delighted with the opportunity -- let fourth a stream of vitriol. Two establishments that caught a bit of (to me, unexpected) flack were All Good Bakers and The Cheese Traveller (adjacent each other, Delaware Ave, Albany). As over-positive as I usually am about our great Upstate NY homeland (and the Capital Region in particular), this whole kerfluffle gave me cause to examine a sort of unsavory aspect of the local culture. 

Many of the comments concerning The Cheese Traveller were geared towards the staff being rude, condescending, or otherwise making people feel unwelcome in the shop. Before going further I should state that I have only had two direct experiences with the establishment. I bought a couple things from their stand at the Delmar Farmer's Market over the summer, and I swung into the actual shop a couple of weeks ago. 

I got some salami,

and a bit of Limburger cheese. 

I found both experiences to be pretty standard customer/proprietor interactions. During my in-shop visit the proprietor engaged me, offered me samples, and answered a question in quite an expected fashion. I am a bit shy and reticent, so if anything he probably found me rude and unwelcoming! 

As for All good bakers, I have only been once (a week or two ago). I got a wonderful (and cheap) half-dozen bialy (that is plural right?) -

 and a baguette.

This time I was being a little cheeky. I had already read all of the Table Hopping comments (they got a bit of flack too) and had had a twitter conversation with someone who had a bad "customer service" experience on several occasions at the bakery. So I came out of my shell a bit (I can be frightfully charming when motivated) and purposefully engaged the female staff member who took my order (seeing if I could illicit any sort of negative interaction). I asked a question that would be annoying to any tried and true baker (regarding gluten) and it was handled with nothing but grace and friendliness.

So here is where I am going to get kind of controversial. Luckily no one really comments on my hack blog or I expect there would be a torrent of self-righteous indignation and dander up-edness in response to this...

OK, so in the above I have highlighted the fact that at both AGB and CT I was treated with nothing but kindness. But guess what folks? I do not expect kindness. During my evaluation of a shop offering a commodity, the "customer service experience" does not enter into the equation in the slightest. I find the expectation of "friendly customer service" to be the most annoying aspect of American consumer culture. I think it reeks of self entitlement and I hate it. And you know what? I think we have an especially strong propensity towards over-expecting anyone in the service industry to fawn over us locally.

Why would you care if you felt "welcome" or not in a bakery or a cheese shop? Unless the staff were outright rude (threw things, insulted you outright, made fun of your shoes) why would you expect anything besides perhaps a hello? Maybe after you have frequented the establishment and cultivated some sort of personal relationship with the store workers you could come to expect a few extra social graces, but off the bat I don't think this is an entitlement...

I expect that the staff at any given shop to answer my basic questions concerning the products and to not make me wait unnecessarily to be served or to check out. Other than that, if their product is quality and their prices are sound, I expect nothing else. Heck, the staff at Rolf's could lambaste me with insults upon entry (they don't, they are likewise extremely courteous) and I would still go and spend money because I love their products.

If I walked into the Cheese Traveler and asked "What's good?" or "I am looking for something that my 2 year old will like, do you have anything purple?" or "I like cream cheese and Stilton, what would you recommend?" I would expect that the proprietor might be hard pressed to answer and perhaps give me a quizzical gaze as these are all very silly and hard to answer questions. It seems that a lot of the Table Hopping comments stemmed from situations like this.

But the issue here goes deeper into our character. We are, and have always been, a hardscrabble and working class folk around here. Many of us have made good, prospered, and moved to the suburbs but we all share the same roots. I think we tend to have a bit of a fragile sense of pride and any real or imagined slight to our ego, self-image, or intelligence gets taken hard. We seem to have a larger than average, "you think you are better than me?" bone.

I find it strange that many people seem to find the fact that the owner of a specialty cheese store might be in possession of more and preciser information concerning cheese threatening to their self image... I want to know that my cheese monger is "better than me" in terms of cheese and cheese knowledge. I don't even mind a little condescension, I grew up buying comic books and maybe I got acclimated to a bit of "area of expertise condescension" from various comic book store staffers. Reasonable condescension is the right and privilege of the true expert! I did not see any of this at either the Cheese Traveler or AGB, but I would not have gotten all bent out of shape if I had.

In short, one of the only things that make me bashful (and a bit ashamed) of my majestic homeland is this sentiment towards demanding slavish, fawning, "customer service." Be rude to me, scoff at my stupid questions, hurry me out the door to serve the rest of the line. But stay open. Keep offering your wonderful products. The cheese (and all other sorts of things) must flow. I implore others around me to not attempt to verify your self worth based on the treatment you illicit at establishments offering artisan food stuffs.

That is my two cents.
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