Thursday, February 21, 2008

Nice Matters?

I received a "Nice Matters" nomination in my email today, from a friend who also blogs. I had to laugh. I don’t think I can really accept the honor. Because I am not nice. That fact was summarily brought home to me by a customer today. Here’s the story:

My restaurant is located directly across the street from City Hall. Which makes many of the City Hall workers regular customers. Once upon a time, anyway.

Because, once upon a time, the Old Town Café was owned by a man who aspires to buy up and build upon every available commercial lot in this town. And this guy felt it was in his best interest (and it WAS) to brown-nose every city employee in the building across the street—from the mayor to the police chief to the lowliest desk clerk.

Unfortunately, when I bought the café, red carpet treatment of city employees (who I didn’t know from Adam) abruptly ceased. Which didn’t win me any popularity contests. We lost a lot of the across-the-street business simply because I was WAY too overwhelmed with every other aspect of the business I was trying to learn/run to worry about who worked at City Hall and make sure I continued to kiss the appropriate butts.

Still, I have nothing against city employees, and I appreciated those who continued to be regular customers despite their loss of "anointed" status. As I appreciate all my regulars. There is one particular desk clerk (she could have some more Important Title…I don’t know…) with whom I seem to have developed a, for lack of a better word, dysfunctional relationship. She is a methodical, entitled, we’ll-get-around to-it-all-in-good-time government employee. I am an overworked, high-energy, I-needed-it-yesterday small business owner. Every day, we vie for the same parking spot (in front of MY restaurant…)

We really can’t stand each other, but we try to be nice anyway, because we know it’s what we should do. But because we exist on such opposite ends of the personality spectrum, we usually end up pissing each other off.

Last fall, when I needed some paperwork to be processed by the city, I took a couple of quick walks across the street to find out what the hold-up was. My inquiries were summarily blown off by Ms. Desk Clerk, who took pains to demonstrate that just because I needed something in a hurry, did not mean that anyone at the city was going to make my needs any kind of priority. In fact, it was none-too-subtly telegraphed that the more I wanted it, the slower they were going to move on it. Because they could.

Yeah, I was frustrated. And I never have been any good at hiding my emotions...

Feeling righteously put-upon, Ms. Desk Clerk proceeded to complain to my landlord (who is the former owner of my restaurant) that she felt I had been rude and impatient with her…sacrilege of all sacrileges! Mr. Landlord, of course, enjoying the feeling of superiority this gave him, immediately had to share this information with ME. At which point, for a plug nickel, I would have happily sold them both to Sweeney Todd…

And yet, Ms. Desk Clerk has continued to be a regular customer, so I have tried to put our history aside and treat her as I do all the regulars. I tend to spoil our regulars a bit…give them special service, throw a few extras into the bag now and then. So, last week, in the middle of our busiest-ever Friday lunch hour, the front counter is clogged with teachers-in-a-hurry ordering lunch. I am in the kitchen, trying to help the cook crank out the orders, but I glance out front and notice Ms. Desk Clerk standing off to one side with money in her hand. I look over my shoulder, and in the middle of our huge string of orders is her ticket for a bowl of soup to go. In deference to her status as regular customer, I grab her order, make it up myself forthwith; then I run out to the front counter (putting everybody else’s orders on hold) to take her money and get her taken care of as quickly as possible. Thinking I was doing a good thing…

I go to hand her the bag, and she says, "Are there crackers in there?"

We don’t actually serve crackers with a bowl of soup…it comes with garlic cheese bread. 

No crackers. Never has had crackers.

So I say, "It doesn’t actually come with crackers. It comes with bread."

And she says, "So I can’t have crackers?"

And I say, "Well, it doesn’t actually come with crackers…" as I’m stuffing crackers into her god-damned bag. It’s not that I was begrudging her the damned crackers. Or that I didn’t want to give her the damned crackers. It’s just that we were hugely busy and I hadn’t intuited that she was going to want these damned crackers that are NOT NORMALLY SERVED WITH A BOWL OF SOUP. And that it was going to turn into a huge issue.

This afternoon, she shows up at the front counter. When I ask her how I can help her, she starts in about…the god-damned crackers.

She wants to be sure I know how rude I was to her, and how dare I argue **twice!** about the stinking crackers. And she was so upset about the incident; but she figured that, rather than boycott the place, she would come and talk to me about it.

Today is Wednesday.  Five days later.  Mind you, it wasn't that she had stopped in to buy a cup of coffee or something, and thought she'd mention the problem while she was there.  She had made a special trip just to get in my face about Friday's crackers.

She must be the only person in the world who obsesses about a perceived slight more than I do.

Was I in the wrong? Possibly. Could I have handled the situation better? Probably.

Is it something that comes naturally to me, this ability to kiss up to people, piss all over myself when they complain, do anything, say anything, just to keep them happy?

Not in a million years.

Nice Matters? I suppose it does. But, obviously, I am NOT nice.

And, once again, I’m wondering why I chose to do what I do. And if I’ll ever be any freaking good at it.

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