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.

18 comments:

  1. This is why we love your blog, Mr. Dave--because you are so totally not full of crap. Kudos.

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  2. I expect (and respect) knowledgeable staff who are attentive and courteous. I'm secure as a customer and don't need my ego stroked. I think we're pretty much in agreement, and I echo the so totally not full of crap.

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  3. This is a great post. It draws a similar conclusion to Fussy's a few weeks ago but I like yours better because a/it is very specific to experiences and examples at two establishments and b/you have a better perspective having grown up locally. Now, I will ask you to do a parallel post on why Capital District restaurants charge too much and justify it by giving you more food than you can eat.

    Of course, Fussy's post on this topic got him kicked off Steve Barnes' blogroll. Hope that doesn't happen to you as well.

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  4. I too must come to the defense of the staff at the Cheese Traveler. On my second visit there, during their first month of operation, the crowd was three deep at the counter. The two guys behind the counter answered a constant stream of - is this your best cheddar? - while one of guys waited on a customer who was ordering prosciutto and Iberico hams - by the slice! Each individual slice was weighed, wrapped, labeled, and put in a bag while the rest of us watched in amazement. I personally would have told this most inconsiderate customer to come back later (or not), but the staff were as courteous as your Aunt Millie on Christmas Day. Kudos to them both.

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  5. Here is my two cents. I don't expect stellar customer service. But I do expect to at least be acknowledged. Even if it's "I'll be right with you". I'm the bitch who calls out cashiers at grocery stores if they don't at least stop talking to their pals while they ring me out. And yes, I'm also the bitch who tells the manager on duty.

    Having been in some form of customer service for over 25 years, one thing I've noticed is that common courtesy is diminishing. If I'm ignored while trying to transact business, I will take my business elsewhere. Plain and simple.

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  6. I don't expect staff to be super-friendly, and I would hope that they do know a lot more about the product than I do. But I would expect them to be forthcoming, to try to engage me, figure out what I want and help me find it.

    When we went to the Cheese Traveler, it felt like pulling teeth to try to get anything at all out of the guy. It seemed like he walked over to us only reluctantly, and then, when he asked what we wanted and we said we weren't sure, there was no "Well, what kinds do you usually like?" or "How do you plan to serve it?" or anything like that -- there was just "oh. Okay." He made no attempt to actually help us until, after we stood there for a while in awkward silence, scrambling to come up with a specific thing to ask for in a sea of cheese we aren't familiar with, we shyly blurted out, "um, maybe something like ___insert cheese___, or something??" and he pulled out a few cheeses for us to try.

    I had hoped that going there, I'd learn about the different cheeses and perhaps sample a bunch. Instead, I got the feeling that he didn't want to talk to us, didn't want to share any of his knowledge, didn't really want us to be there at all.

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    1. Ok.. that does surprise me because I did get a lot of help at the Cheese Traveler... however, he also recognized me (which freaked me out a bit) and I always wonder if that skews anything.

      I happened in two days before they had their official opening so they were busy getting everything set up for that. I expected to have limited contact since they were busy but Eric spent a lot of time with me helping me set up a cheese plate.

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  7. Fawn, no. Engage, yes. There is a minimum level of service I expect, and it varys by the type of establishment. But absolutely, I don't expect to be coddled and doted on. And in reference to AGB/TCT, I've never had an experience at either where I didn't feel they went above and beyond.

    I think it's more than fragile ego though. Self-importance as much as anything. I think the daily commute is illustrative as well.

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  8. Blame Big Retail. I know, been working in clothing stores since I was 16. Now I am 32a and in charge of a local store. Before you say thaf food is different than clothing, let me assure you the same knowledge and service skills are needed. Just you need to know how to care for cashmere instead of cheese.

    During the recession, lots of brands tightened their customer service standards. When people don't have a ton of money to spend, one of the last places they spend it is luxury brands like J Crew or Banana Republic. Its pricey so there has to be a reason to go in. And there is a limit to discounts before your gross profit margin is affected.

    So customer service. People want to be treated like they are important. Like they are in the know. So that is exactly what I train my staff to do. But somehow that became the expectation - discount heavily and fawn all over these people. If you stop one or the other your sales suffer. And woe is the kid who cuts short a conversation because he needs to blow his nose. Before you scoff, I had this complaint. Even when explaining my cashier excused himself abruptly from the fitting room and was not there exactly when wanted because his nose was bleeding, I got screamed at because the customer had to wait three hole minutes for an opinion on a dress. Now that discount are being pulled back, customers get aggressive. So aggressive that my company is considering adding a discount code of 10% for just those situations to make the customer happy but to track issues as well.

    What this amounts to is local businesses cannot keep up. They don't have access to the millions of dollars of research big retailers have. They just have themselves. So when a bakery runs out of cookies because the owner is struggling with the flu, those selfentitled fools scream foul. So when the owner of a coffee shop looks at someone oddly for insisting on gluten free lettuce, people blog about how that place stinks instead of looking inward.

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    1. I agree. People are so accustomed to slick, scientific, corporate practices in our society I don't think they even notice it. It is an indoctrination that begins in childhood. The attitude I see towards smalll businesses is that if the same treatment one would get at Walmart or Appplebees or Panera is not displayed, then, "I will take my business elsewhere." Fine, then don't complain when everything is Walmart. In a world where the American consumer is king, there can only be Walmart. It is a sad reality and something we should all have some self awareness a out.

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  9. Customer service is not the be-all, end-all. However, if I have a choice between 2 near equal locations, customer service is going to play into which one I attend regularly.

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  10. As mentioned on twitter, I'm very glad you had a warm, engaging experience at AGB.

    I've been waiting tables or in some form of customer service since I was able to begin working at age 15, and I'm always concerned about how we present ourselves to people who visit the shop. Friendly, competent, quick service is what we always strive for but there are times when we make mistakes (like inadvertently not greeting Jeni right away when she visited - she's right though, there is no excuse for that happening 3 times. I hope you can accept our heartfelt apology, Jeni, and that you'll try visiting us again). Sometimes when the shop hasn't been very busy, we have allowed ourselves to become too relaxed. I've spoken to Nick and Leigh (our front of house manager) about it and we will absolutely correct the behavior in the future. We appreciate you (and the two THers) bringing the matter to our attention.

    @Ellie, we have the problem sometimes of not being able to keep up. My husband, daughter and I have all had the stomach flu in the last month so one of us has had to stay home (wouldn't want to spread that around). With just 2 part time staff members, it can be very difficult to complete everything needed when just one is down.

    Eric & Ali at The CT are gaining their footing. They're very nice people and I'm sure aren't trying to put out a snobby vibe.

    Thanks for this insightful post.

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    1. Hey Britin,

      I was intentionally NOT trying to call you out. but since you've mentioned me specifically, I'll address it. The last time I was in you were speaking with your heating guy and looked right at me, turned your head and kept talking to your heating guy. There was no one else in the shop. I was left to stand there while I waited for you to you finish your conversation. I felt like I was intruding.
      I don't feel this was intentional or malicious in any way.
      I think often small businesses feel so comfortable with their clientelle that they forget we aren't "friends" but instead are customers.
      I think there is a fine line to walk as a small business owner. To appear friendly but not pushy is a difficult task.

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  11. @AllGoodBakers I frequent you as much as possible. I typically am off tuesdays so it can be difficult but every trip has been amazing. I was actually referencing a bakery in my parents hometown from when I was growing up. The baker got the flu and focused on making sure the money makers were done -the preorders, breads, muffins and did not make enough cookies. People were actually screaming at the counter staff. Its funny because I remember the terrible customers but not the name of the bakery. Odd that. :)

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  12. I loved this post :) so very true.

    I am a farmer raising grass fed beef and work in an old school butcher shop.

    I am often amazed and astounded at people and have come to realize, often customers just want to be told how awesome they are. I will be considered to be contrary if I suggest anything less than praise and/or admiration.

    It's hard to keep my friendly helpfulness from becoming tarnished at times with the way people speak to you...

    Maybe if your experience was negative, you should also consider your own tone and attitude.

    For the most part, we are excited about what we do and enjoy sharing that with our (mostly) lovely customers :)

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  13. I love All Good Bakers and haven't been to the Cheese Traveler yet. Sometimes being in AGB can seem like a scene out of Portlandia. I've come to consider it part of its charm.

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  14. I really want to like Cheese Traveler--the owner/proprietor is a friendly, knowledgeable guy who clearly loves what he does and it's important to support local businesses.

    I've been in there a few times, and every time it has been an excruciatingly long experience. I'm taking two customers in the shop, I know exactly what I want, and it still takes 45 minutes to get out the door with 4 or 5 items. It's already an out-of-the-way trip for me, as I don't drive, so I find it hard to get myself to go out there when I can quickly walk over to the co-op and quickly pick up what I want and am served very quickly when asking for something that hasn't already been cut and packaged.

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    1. Cut to order takes time. Pre-cut cheese wrapped in plastic is no way to care for cheese. Just because a cheese you liked tasted great the past ten times does not mean the 11th time will be great. It is a living breathing food that changes over time.

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