Monday, April 21, 2008

Service With A Snarl, Ire

© 2008 Leighann Lord

I've been on the receiving end of poor customer many times but nowhere is it more consistently abysmal than in a Jamaican restaurant. I now suspect my maternal grandfather left the lovely isle in search of un-surly service.

I went to my Local Jamaican Bakery to buy a dozen beef patties for my monthly book club meeting. The club is called Chat & Chew and to facilitate the latter everybody brings a little something to nosh on.

When I ordered the patties the lady behind the counter proceeded to put them into a brown paper bag. I thought a dozen, at $1.50 a pop, rated a box. When I asked for one she said the box would be too big. Okay, how about a tinfoil pan? “No. Too small.” All the while, she's steady stuffing the patties into the bag. Finally I insist that I'd prefer a box as I was going to a function and wanted something presentable.

At last she stopped shoveling and sashayed off to get a bakery cake box, looking extremely put out. Yes friends, I had to talk her into giving me customer service and she acted like she was doing me a favor. I wish I could say this was a unique experience but alas there are a few certainties I've come to expect when patronizing a Jamaica restaurant.

One: There will be an item on the pre-printed menu that they will never have. “We ain’t got dat.”

Two: They will have just run out of the dish you most wanted to order. “It finished.”

Three: – And this is one you can take to the bank – your waitress/counter person will have an attitude. There will be eye rolling -- assuming you can catch her eye -- teeth sucking, and an overt hostility because your presence is taking her away from something very important, which in no way involves serving you.

Astoundingly, the economy of the island of Jamaica depends on tourism. You'd think their customer service skills would be on point. But either these skills are lost in translation, or tourists are too drunk or high to realize how poorly they're being treated.

Location is key so it may be no small coincidence that this bad service is almost always local; and by local I mean in The Hood. One time, while on line at my Local Soul Food Take Out Spot, the man on line in front of me said, "What comes with the fish sandwich?" The lady behind the counter said, "A napkin and a smile." And she wasn't smiling.

I ordered a breakfast sandwich from my Local Burger Joint. It came with cheese on it. I had specifically said no cheese. When I brought the error to cashier's attention she unabashedly said,
"What's the matter with cheese?"

This is not my experience alone. My Dad was in another Local Fast Food Purveyor and the cashier gave him the incorrect change. When my Dad pointed this out and asked for the proper change, the cashier said, “Man, you gonna sweat me for a penny?” Hmm, let’s see: a man who was raised during the depression? A man who intuitively knows where the cheapest gas station is and will drive out of his way to get there? A man who throws NOTHING away on the belief that it will one day come in handy? A man who knows the cheapest Dunkin Donuts within a five and a half mile radius, and even knows the fact that they all charge slightly different prices based on their respective rent and insurance costs, but combats this by only buying donuts when he has a coupon? Hell yes, that man is gonna sweat you for a penny.

We have since dubbed any retail employee who gives us bad service Mr. or Ms. Penny Sweater. The original Penny Sweater went on to become the restaurant’s manager.

This is the reason I go to Starbucks. My Dad has never stepped foot inside a Starbucks, and he never will. He can’t bring himself to pay more than fifty cents for a cup of coffee. But at Starbucks you’re not just paying for coffee. You’re paying for consistently good customer service.

One of my very good friends went to a no name coffee shop. She asked if she could order a cup of half coffee, half hot chocolate. The young man, a Penny Sweater in the making said, “No.” Granted it wasn’t on the menu, but she was willing to pay whatever price he wanted to charge. He still said, no. Under normal circumstances she would have taken her business elsewhere, but there was no where else to go. She resorted to buying one cup of coffee and one cup of hot chocolate and combining them herself.

When she shared the story with me we both agreed: if that had been Starbucks, not only would they have given her what she wanted without hesitation, they would have immediately began offering this concoction on their regular menu. Starbucks never says no, which is probably why you don’t see too many of them in The Hood. This may also explain why men go to prostitutes. When you pay, you don’t have to hear no; unless of course they’re Jamaican prostitutes and then there’s probably lots of no’s, eye rolling and attitude.

There are exceptions to every rule. Late one Saturday night, a man under the influence stumbled into my Local White Castle, looked at the menu and ordered, "A couple of glazed." Unless Glazed was the name of his girlfriend, the man walked into a burger joint looking for donuts. That's what I like about White Castle: you get dinner and a show. The cashier, who judging by her accent sounded African, seemed confused. She called over her manager who, judging by his accent sounded Haitian.

"What would you like, sir?"

Sir? Wow he must be new.

"A couple of glazed," High Guy said.
"Glazed?” said The Manager. “What is glazed? I don't know this
word. Is it slang for something?"

Now it was High Guy's turn to be confused. Someone was actually trying to help him? Usually at this juncture, high or not, he would have been asked to leave. I was impressed. Had it not been late and the restaurant short staffed I believe the manager would have personally escorted High Guy to a Dunkin Donuts. Easy enough to do. Here in New York, there are twice as many Dunkin Donuts in The Hood as there are Starbucks in Manhattan.

It used to be that urban areas of color were famous for their plethora of churches, liquor stores and funeral parlors, but the Double D is catching up. Had High Guy only walked another block, he would have been able to order himself a couple of glazed. He still may not have actually gotten them because we are, after all, in The Hood.

Overall I know I’m painting a poor picture of the urban food service industry. Not every place is like this, but it’s pervasive enough to make me grateful that I have a car and can eat where I want. But there are some things you can only get in The Hood, like beef patties.

I may have to start making make my own. Unless, Starbucks gets hip and adds them to the menu. Then, of course, they’ll be $5.00 each plus $2.00 for an injection of espresso; served without attitude in a box sporting the colors of the Jamaican flag. Yea, mon. Too rich for me. Service that good is not in the budget.


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