I Have a Problem
April 28, 2015
“You have a problem and it’s up to you to figure it out,” a customer said to me. She’s right and I am trying.
She was sitting at one of our tables on a Saturday morning, the busiest single time of the week for us and she had two computers open in front of her. I asked if she had finished her coffee and would relinquish the table to those who were wandering the aisles food in hand looking for places to sit.
She didn’t like at all how I asked and I pleaded with her to tell me a better way of asking; that’s when she told me it’s my problem to figure out what to say.
The day before, at a Friday lunchtime, also very busy, I had had the same experience and an email exchange with an erudite woman who called her protest “Chilly Day.”
Last Friday I made my first trip to Bread Furst and fell in love. I spent my morning eating croissants, drinking tea and working at the back table. I was overjoyed to watch the fresh breads and trays of pastries being bustled around and to see the famous baker bring a darling little girl behind the counter to personally select her glazed donut…
Unfortunately, my love affair with Bread Furst ended as quickly as it began. Apparently the famous baker’s demeanor turns frosty with the weather and after one hour huddled in a small corner of a side counter finishing my tea and rather dry scone, I was asked to leave. Mr. Furstenberg informed me that Bread Furst was not a workspace and I was going to have to finish up…
I apologize for believing that because you served coffee and tea and pastries that you would function like every other cafe in the city, allowing patrons to read, write, converse and ponder. As I’m sure was your objective in so rudely dismissing me today, you will see my face no more. But, I’ll also be informing the dozens of others to whom I had previously sung your praises that Bread Furst is not worth their time. As an attorney and writer, I have come to expect more courtesy and respect than I received in your establishment. Forgive me for assuming you were in the customer service business.
I wrote back, “Love’s Savor Lost.”
It is good of you to write to protest my treatment of you. Perhaps I was out of line…
…(but) I did not plan Bread Furst as a cafe and didn’t put into it enough seating for it to be a cafe. I wanted very much to create a neighborhood bakery at which people might find really good foods to eat here, to take away, or to eat on the run if they like to eat that way. I had many reasons for wanting to create a neighborhood bakery…
I have infinite patience for customers who arrive with their children or their friends and occupy our tables for long visits. That’s what we’re here for — to be a place where people gather and eat and talk.
You say a place for reflection and writing. I haven’t wanted Bread Furst to be that. We’re a gathering place, a place of sociability. You might argue that this is none of my business. I don’t have the right to determine how people use our bakery as long as they buy a cup of tea. That is a completely understandable position but it’s not mine…
…if people want to occupy our bakery for writing, emailing, research, reflection on Monday afternoon, I don’t mind. But if people occupy tables on Friday when I see customers looking for tables to sit and eat and talk, is it not my responsibility to see that those customers have a place to sit?…
Please come back sometime. Let me treat you to a cup of tea — or more. If it’s a Tuesday afternoon, you are welcome to stay as long as you like and do as you like. But I am going to reserve the right to divide our space during busy periods, particularly on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, among those customers who are here to eat and chat.
I hope you will forgive me.
* * *
When my sister Carla Cohen opened the Politics and Prose coffee shop she put into it free wireless Internet service. I would see there the same people day after day sitting with half a cup of coffee, settled in for the morning or the afternoon, sometimes both.
I am not Mr. Businessman but even I thought this was a bad idea. However this fit Carla’s sense of community and she thought of her coffee shop as a service to the neighborhood.
So here I am, more than two decades later trying to establish Bread Furst as something important and valuable to upper northwest Washington and I find myself from time to time asking customers not to use us as their workplace
Certainly a lot has changed in the 20 years since Carla opened Politics and Prose coffee shop. In those days coffee shops were a novelty and generally people worked in their offices or they worked at home but they didn’t think about working in public spaces other than libraries perhaps.
We don’t have public Internet here. I don’t want it. Bread Furst is a neighborhood bakery, not a coffee shop. We are here for people who want to buy what we bake and take it home or eat it here.
However, having no Internet does not stop people from connecting to the Web in other ways; and from time to time people want to use Bread Furst as their office. They write emails, compose reports and talk often very loudly on their cell phones.
Sometimes when we are busy I say to them, “I am really glad to have you as a customer but others are trying to find a table.”
Usually the people to whom I say that are gracious and considerate of others.
On one Saturday, however, on our busiest day of week a man sat at a table for an hour and a half writing on his computer while talking on his telephone. Finally, seeing customers wandering in the aisle, I said to the man what I say.
He looked incredulous. “I am a customer.”
“Yes,” I said, “I am glad you’re here but you’ve been here all morning and others would like to use a table too.”
“You want me to leave?” he asked. “It’s a coffee shop, isn’t it?”
“No,” I said, “It’s a bakery but Starbucks is just down the street.”
“And who are you,” he asked. “You think you own the place or something?”
I do think so, I told him.
“Well let me tell you what you are,” he said, “You’re an as——. “
What is our responsibility here? We are here so that people can buy food and drink from us. We have a pleasant place and people like it. What is a reasonable amount of time for customers to use our space at times when others want to sit too?
Frequently I walk past Dolcezza on Connecticut Avenue and look at customers sitting in its window working at their computers. Starbucks next door is packed nearly always with people at their computers. Those companies like having customers stay for long periods.
Indeed, this “third space” concept – a place between home and office where people work or talk on the telephone for long periods surrounded by others – has become a norm in our urban society. But in fact the third space is a place for strangers to share a room and that’s not what I hope we’ll have at Bread Furst.
I do want a third space but one that is community and I’m not at all interested in a place where unassociated people sit with their computers in physical proximity that has nothing to do with relationships. In fact their computers and telephones isolate them in those spaces. I see that and don’t think I am providing anything more than a chair and table and a cup.
On the other hand I get no greater pleasure at the bakery than in the mornings when the parents of children who go to schools nearby arrive with their children for a donut and a coffee. Sometimes they sit with their children in Shivani’s corner and sometimes they sit at our big table and talk to each other and I feel that we’re making a small difference in their lives.
As a matter of fact, I never say to people talking to each other that they ought to move on no matter how long they occupy our tables.
So I can’t answer the woman who asked me to find a better way of telling people that at busy times – breakfast, lunch, and weekends – they should give up their claim to sit for long periods in our bakery playing with their telephones or responding to email.
I will continue trying and I hope not offend too many more people in the process.