Coffee Shop Blues

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After spending last night watching probably my favorite cult movie of all time – one of Pittsburgh’s greatest contributions to cinema, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead – and then feeling a need to watch My Cousin Vinny again, I got a later than usual start to my day this morning. I eventually crawled out of bed, got ready to step out into the world, and went to my favorite coffee shop/hangout here in Gahanna to nurse a cup of house blend forever while trying to finally finish reading a book I’ve been piecemealing for too long – Pub Theology by Bryan Berghoef.

When I got to the shop, a sign on the front door announced that they were now under new management. Honestly, it didn’t come as a terrible surprise. From personal past experience, I recognized the small signs of struggling ownership, I noted mysteriously disappearing employees, and I overheard occasional bits of tense, under-the-breath telephone conversations about money issues during recent visits. I guess I hoped my perceptions were mistaken, but honestly, the signs were all there for those who had lived it themselves, to those who had eyes to see.

This would actually be the third ownership of the shop since I started hanging out there shortly after it opened. To be honest, most of the people that made the place so enjoyable for me had left when the second owners showed up. They seemed nice enough, and a couple of the old regulars provided some continuity, but over time they’d sort of drifted away, too. And now there would be new owners.

I stepped inside and walked up to the counter. Everything looked pretty much the same, except the menu board was slightly different. The price of a medium house blend had gone up a quarter, but no big deal. There were two people working behind the counter, a young woman and a middle-aged man. The woman was preparing a drink for a customer, while the man was doing some staff-type thing with his back turned more or less to me. I stood there at the counter – not for an excessively long time, but long enough that I should have been acknowledged. I wasn’t. The woman, no more than five or six feet away from me, never even looked my way. After a little while longer, the man did look over at me – giving me the same sort of look that a scientist might give a mold sample in a petri dish; a kind of disconnected observance with no real emotional connection of any kind. He just stared at me for a moment, then, without a smile, without a nod, without a “Hi, how are you?” or a “We’ll be with you in a moment,” he just turned back around and kept doing whatever it was he was doing – which actually wasn’t much. Once he got done doing his not much, and while his coworker continued to ignore my presence, he turned and looked back at me standing at the counter – now with a couple also standing behind me. Ah, I thought, now he’ll come take my order. Instead, after staring at me for another while, he turned his back on me again, and, putting his hands on his hips just stood there, back to me and the people behind me, looking around for something else to do that he must have considered more important than waiting on his customers.

I turned and walked out, muttering incredulity as I did. Time to find a new coffee shop.

To be honest, I’ve waited lots longer for service any number of times in this place in the past. But there was always some clear reason for the wait. And even then, there was a smile, a greeting, an acknowledgement that I was there, and that I wasn’t being viewed as an intrusion.

Maybe I just caught the new ownership at a bad time. For their sake, I hope so. I hope they understand that a customer doesn’t have to come into their particular place; there are coffee shops all over, and for the most part, the quality of the product and the atmosphere are not all that different. What matters is attention to the customer/visitor, and making human connections; acknowledging them, making them feel welcome and a part of things. And the window for fostering those connections is surprisingly small – make someone feel unimportant or unwelcome even once, and there’s not likely going to be a second opportunity (under the previous ownerships, I felt comfortable enough to wander behind the counter to get my own free refills if the staff was busy; here today, I was mold). Churchy types, it wasn’t my intention to do so when I started writing this, but feel free to draw the obvious ecclesiastical parallels here. He who has ears to hear, and all that.

So, darn. Where’s my new coffee hangout going to be?

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