Rural Customer Service: Are these People for Real? Am I for Real?

September 4, 2008

Last weekend I tasted, well actually I was refused a taste, of the world before consumers took it over. It was strange and frustrating, yet in the end, a wonderful thought-provoking experience.

Our family’s cottage is located minutes from a very small village, or perhaps it’s technically a hamlet. In any event, it is a picturesque tiny gem of a place, a throwback to a time when a handful of small storefront businesses served as the hub for a community’s social and commercial interaction.

The village is anchored by the general store which sells and rents bits of everything except what you happen to need at that particular moment. From videos to hardware to magazines and milk, a hodgepodge of hard and soft goods share shelf space with seemingly little organizing rhyme or reason. A few steps down from the front porch, gasoline chugs from a classic old curbside gas pump featuring the most contemporary of prices. Tourists and locals come and go.

Attached to the general store is the bakery, a sparse hole-in-the-wall of a place with unusually tasty baked delights. But this is no ordinary bakery for each and every day customers wage psychological warfare with the proprietor over whether the croissants or muffins that tantalized their pallets yesterday will be available today, or ever again for that matter. In fact, every morning holds the dual promise of discovering something totally new or finding your favorites gone for good. Add quantities that are seemingly randomly generated, and it becomes impossible to predict what you will find at any given time. Wondering aloud if your addictive favorites will ever reappear prompts predictable responses of ‘sold out’ or ‘there are none today’. Rather than harass the cashier with questions of ‘why’, it is accepted practice to lower your head and leave.

There is also no point attempting to outsmart the baker, an Oz-like oven wizard of unknown gender who never emerges from behind the curtain leading to the kitchen. Just this past Saturday we ventured early to the bakery only to learn that there would be no muffins on this day. Since we were already there, my wife tried to get a jump on the lunchtime menu by asking about the sandwich selection (always outstanding by the way) planned for later that morning. In particular, she asked if possibly, just possibly her favorite vegetarian/pecan/pear wrap might be available thus making a return trip worthwhile. The young cashier responded that those decisions would be made as the lunchtime period approached. We would simply have to come back, stand in line and take our chances, like everyone else.

The other essential service in town is the coffee shop, which is owned and operated by a delightful and capable individual. It is a lovely sit- down establishment housed appropriately enough, in an old refurbished wooden house. The owner concocts an array of delicious brews, many accented, even individualized with homemade ingredients. The shop is at one and the same time ‘above’ the crass urban Starbucks scene, yet not so above it as to charge any less for its brews.

As you can imagine, this is a popular place. But as you stand there, awaiting your turn, you cannot help but notice that the owner appears to be the only person who possesses the secret barista codes for the place. While supported by personable and seemingly capable staff, all orders go through the owner’s hands and thus the line-ups move as she moves, and she alone. Equally important, her health, her hours, her vacation schedules are the sole determinants of whether or not the shop and its caffeinated treasures will be available for her devoted customers on any given day.

Urban jungle dwellers can be forgiven for being bewildered and frustrated by these alien customs. We expect establishments on every corner, each impersonally efficient and boasting zip-through convenience. We expect the retail world to worship at the altar of our impatience. We are busy, over-programmed, over-worked and we have little tolerance for lineups let alone idle chatter. The supply chain starts and ends with us, and we will cross the street to the competitive dark side at the drop of a call if an establishment disappoints us.

But the rub, and it does rub, in a village like this is that there is no other side of the street. And so the city-dwellers stew at being inconvenienced and delayed in our rush to get back to our cottages to relax. And while we whine about these ‘country’ proprietors and their need to ‘smarten-up’ and ‘get with it’, it is of course us whose own advice we need to take.

It is altogether likely that the woman who runs the coffee shop is not concerned with matters of efficiency or optimizing her return on investment. She is interested in her community, conversation, friendship, brewing quality coffee, running a contributing business, and getting to know everyone by their first name. She hosts the real ‘third place’, that oasis away from home and work that Starbucks mass markets to its urban customers. She brews the coffees and makes the lattes because she sees it as her responsibility to create the best coffee experience possible for her valuable customers. And she hopes everyone will understand that she too needs rest, uninterrupted by crass concerns of commerce.

As for the baker, it may be that he or she is motivated by creating ever changing tapestries of pastries and baked goods which will delight customers. It may be that the routine of making the same baked goods each and every day pales to the challenge of crafting something truly outstanding today. It may be that he or she hopes that loyalty lies in quality and variety rather than the predictability of Tim Horton’s chocolate doughnuts.

Last weekend, for just a moment I began to see that maybe, just maybe, the smallness I feel in that little village is in fact my small mindedness and that it is they who have the most to teach me about service and life.