This is going to seem awfully trivial perhaps to some of you. But here goes. I spend a lot of money buying food for myself and my family–from restaurants, bakeries, supermarkets, etc. Food is important to me. Before kids happened, my wife and I loved going out to eat and finding terrific restaurants offering interesting culinary adventures. Even now with children, we still spend a lot of time around food establishments: it’s just that their names and styles have changed by being more in the kid-friendly range.
All this by way of introduction of my subject: customer service. When you spend as much time as I do shopping for food, eating in restaurants, dropping into bakeries for kid snacks, you become attuned to quality and nuances of service. Being from New York, perhaps my sensitivity to this issue is heightened. Perhaps Seattleites are more accepting of inferior service or service with an attitude. I’m just not.
One of my favorite Seattle bakeries has been Sweet and Savory, a lovely small French patisserie storefront in Mount Baker. Cynthia Brock serves wonderful quiche, croissants, tarts, scones and cookies. Irregularly she even makes wonderful cupcakes. For lunch she serves hand-made baguette sandwiches.
She used to sell at the University District farmer’s market where I first discovered her. I’ve been a customer since roughly 1998. I’ve raved about her bakery here and at eGullet. I visit her bakery twice a week and spent about $25 a week there. I wouldn’t say Cynthia and I are best of friends but I considered myself a good customer over the years.
Last Thursday, I came in for my usual breakfast of hot chocolate and a pastry. It’s very pleasant to sit and read the N.Y. Times while enjoying a steaming hot chocolate and divine pain au chocolat. I also buy a slice of quiche and ham and cheese croissant for my twins for lunch. But that day Cynthia had made her delightful cupcakes. She knows how much I love them because I’ve told her so myself on more than one occasion. I asked for four. It was a busy day with lots of customers. The clerk, a very nice woman looked at me in a strange way and said: “We have a six item limit on pastries.” It dawned on me that I wanted to order seven items and she was saying I couldn’t. I then did a quick mental tally. I could either forgo my breakfast pastry; only buy a single lunch item for my twins; or buy one less cupcake, meaning that I’d have to awkwardly divide them up for everyone to have later in the evening for dessert.
I thought, instead of deciding which item I was willing to give up I’d appeal to Cynthia. I asked the clerk to ask if she’d make an exception thinking that she would. But I could tell immediately by looking at the clerk’s face that she wouldn’t. She went back to talk to Cynthia and I could see her shaking her head saying: “Not today, it’s just too busy.”
I then had another quick mental calculation to make about what I would do. And I decided that if ten years of being a customer wasn’t enough for her to make an exception I didn’t need her baked goods. I lied and told the cashier in a huff that I’d have to come back again another time leaving a steaming hot chocolate on the counter. Then I turned around and walked out of the store. I could hear the clerk behind me in a quandary and hoping that I would reconsider.
Could I have done the decent thing and acceded to Cynthia’s rules? Sure. Do I understand why she has the rules? Sure. She has a small shop with a limited product output. She wants to make sure that one or two customers don’t come in and clean her out leaving nothing for the rest of her customers. It makes some sense.
But the issue for me is customer service. If you’re a good customer and you want to exceed the buying limit by one, why can’t the proprietor make an exception once? My problem with what Cynthia did was that she had rules and by God she wasn’t going to bend them for anyone. She didn’t even come forward to explain herself to me. She let her clerk do it.
All I can say is that I felt damn disappointed and let down. When I walked out of her shop I knew I wasn’t coming back (that’s what I meant above by saying I lied when I said I’d come back again another time). One thing about what I did bothers me. I should have had more of a conversation with the clerk and told her why I was leaving so that she understood how I felt (not that she wouldn’t by my turning on my heels and marching out). I owed it to myself to explain myself more fully. I even checked Cynthia’s website but there’s no e mail address so that I can write to her. I might even drop her a note explaining how I felt. Not that it will make much difference. I’m fairly sure Cynthia feels perfectly within her rights to do what she did. If anything, she may be PO’ed that I acted so classlessly (in her eyes).
One added word: the night before all this happened we had dinner with a couple whose son attends our own son’s school. The wife asked me what I thought of Cynthia. I explained that I loved the bakery. But that I thought Cynthia was probably a shy, slightly retiring person. Not that outgoing. But that this never bothered me because I’m shy in my way too. The wife proceeded to tell me a story about going to Sweet and Savory with her two young sons and having Cynthia ask as she was ordering: “Can you take that to go?” Apparently, Cynthia thought Ginger’s two sons were too boisterous for her small shop and preferred that they leave after buying their food. To her credit, Ginger stood her ground and told Cynthia: No, that she intended to stay and eat in the bakery. Cynthia, she said, wasn’t terribly happy but accepted Ginger’s decision. But it left a bad taste in her mouth.
After my latest incident, I talked to Ginger, who hit it on the head. She said: “She just feels rigid.” I think that’s it. There are some people who are very disciplined, follow rules, set them for themselves and others. They keep to them and don’t bend them. To her credit, perhaps this allows Cynthia to run a small bakery successfully. It’s got to be a hard occupation to get up at 4 AM every morning all for the love of French pastry. You have to have discipline.
But I guess for me perhaps the discipline got in the way of feeling like a valued customer. So I won’t be going back to Sweet and Savory anymore.
As I walked back to my car after leaving the bakery last Thursday I said to myself: “There are other bakeries in this town that know how to treat customers right.” I drove over to one of my other current favorite bakeries, Columbia City Bakery, and there I ordered everything I wanted to order at Sweet and Savory but couldn’t including those cupcakes. Columbia City makes absolutely delicious ones (see Settle Bon Vivant’s picture of one). I was sad about losing my relationship with Sweet and Savory. But I felt I needed to patronize a store where I wouldn’t feel patronized by the owner.
Maybe I’m being overly harsh. Maybe I should be more sensitive to the needs and vagaries of a small, struggling business. Maybe I should’ve been more flexible in the situation. Perhaps. But I did at that moment what my gut told me to do. That’s all I can say. It felt like something I had to do despite whatever needs Cynthia may’ve had to maintain product for her other customers. It was a clash of needs and if hers were going to trump mine then we both needed to do what we needed to do for ourselves. And for me that meant leaving and not coming back.
UPDATE: Cynthia called me saying that since I’d left her store “in a huff,” she wondered whether I still wanted her to bake a tart for my son’s school charity auction as she’d earlier agreed to do. I called her back and told her I didn’t want her to make the tart. I took the opportunity to leave a more detailed message telling her some of the my feelings about what had happened. To her credit, she called me back and left a message saying she was sorry that I felt the way I did and sorry that I would no longer be a customer.
At the time I thought: that’s nice of her to make the effort. I thought I’d return to the bakery and resume being a customer. And probably I will. But something has held me back so far.