My greatest lesson in restauranting was one which I could not have anticipated without actually having owned a restaurant. Perhaps the only adversary of the restauranteur more daunting than the contractor is coffee row. This is especially true in a small town and was exponentially more so in Humbug. The conundrum lies in the fact that, by definition, restauranting is a hospitality industry. That being said, the restauranteur is often reliant upon a general sense of decency when it comes to customers not taking advantage of the hospitality offered. Humbuggers, unfortunately, had absolutely no sense of decency when it came to not overstaying their welcome.
Even before opening day I knew that coffee was a problematic menu item. Customers who order a full meal anywhere in Canada expect free refills on their coffee, so charging for each mug full was not an option. I was trying to keep prices low by eliminating table service and that meant allowing customers to retrieve their own refills on coffee. The catch 22 was that the cost savings of eliminating table service would be completely reversed by leaving someone to guard the coffee urns only to charge certain customers for refills. My solution was to charge a premium price for a refillable mug and then discount that against food orders. As simple as this solution seemed, this was Humbug.
The first half of the problem became apparent on opening day. The polarized reactions to the rather expensive, yet refillable, mug should have clued me in immediately. On opening morning, upon placing her first order for ‘regular coffee’, Earla Hueber balked at the price. When I explained that the price could be reduced by ordering food but either way the mug came with free refills, her eyes got as big as blue grease-paint coated saucers.
“Free refills?” she exclaimed.
“Uhm, yes. The price is actually discounted on any food orders,” I explained.
“Free refills?” she exclaimed again.
“Uhm, yeah. Did you want some toast, perhaps?”
She ran to the coffee urns so fast that she actually did a bit of a side slide rounding the corner. She wasn’t the only customer to react thusly and I began to wonder how they could be so excited about the idea. I shudder now to think of the horror that I had unleashed. If there is one unforgivable transgression in the restaurant industry, as I was to find, it was allowing coffee row leeches to have free refills – regardless of the cost of the first cup.
The other reaction I got was actually more difficult to cope with. Upon placing her first order for ‘regular coffee’, the crazy lady who owned the boutique next store balked at the price. When I explained that the price could be reduced by ordering food but that either way the mug came with free refills, her eyes got as big as green grease-paint coated saucers.
“Well how much coffee do you think I can drink?” she whined.
“I don’t know. As I said, though, the price is actually discounted on any food orders,” I explained.
“That mug is HUGE! I don’t want that much coffee and I’m not here to eat.”
“I’m only selling one size mug to simplify things,” I explained.
“Well I’m only paying for half,” she proclaimed.
“Then you’re not getting a mug.”
She plunked down a pile of nickels, dimes and a few quarters and demanded a mug. I told her that this wasn’t a pay what you want sort of place, and I especially didn’t want her nickels and dimes. We argued back and forth and finally I said, “Look, lady, I’m not selling coffee by the ounce here. If you want a tiny cheap cup of coffee there are fast food drive thrus for that. If you don’t want to pay for a seat then I suggest you find another restaurant.”
She was horrified. Then she stood up as straight as she could and said, “You’re coffee shop is never going to make it around these parts. We’re German!”
“It’s a restaurant! The coffee shop closed almost a year ago now!” I barked back.
And so it went, one after the other. Humbuggers either got so excited about the idea of a refillable mug that they neared losing bowel control or they demanded a by-the-ounce price and threw down nickels and dimes. There was no way in the world I was going to get the door costs covered if I had to spend hours rolling up small change, and there was definitely no way I could ever afford to pay someone to sell coffee at such anachronistic rates.
It didn’t take long to figure out why some of the Humbuggers were so excited about refillable mugs. I could barely brew the ‘regular’ coffee fast enough to keep up with their bottomless bellies. I had never imagined anyone could drink so much coffee. I started counting the number of pots I had brewed and dividing by the number of people seated and to my horror I realized that the average consumption was almost 32 ounces per person. Then I realized that not all of the cheapskates had actually left. Some of them were actually sitting, with no cup in front of them, amongst their gluttonous friends.
I spied on them to see if the cheapskates were stealing slurps of coffee from the caffeine-aholics and couldn’t spot such activity. Repeating my calculations for only those who actually had mugs, I nearly fainted when the results indicated an average consumption of 42 ounces per person – and they weren’t even finished yet. The volume of cream and sugar being used was astounding and, although I didn’t see a single empty packet anywhere, the artificial sweetener had disappeared.
I didn’t panic immediately for I was convinced that this level of consumption was impossible over any extended period of time. As the days drew on, however, they seemed to be developing increased tolerance and consumption actually crept up. That was when I first started catching some of the cheapskates (yes, they actually came back) sneaking their own tiny cups in and having their caffeine-aholic friends hook them up.
“Hey, you can’t just bring your own mugs in here!” I yelled.
“It’s just coffee!” one of them retorted.
“It’s shoplifting, even if it’s just a nickel!”
“Well you offered it for free!” another blurted.
“To those that paid. It’s not a refill if you haven’t paid for the first cup!”
“So I can’t share my coffee with a friend?” Earla Huebert exclaimed.
“No you can’t. From now on, if you haven’t bought anything you don’t sit.”
“You can’t tell my friend she can’t visit with me!” Earla barked.
“I can when she’s a thief. I’m phoning the police.” I said, heading for the phone.
And, with that, the deadbeats scrambled. I had never before seen such audacity. The coffee row caffeine-aholics actually stayed and slurped up as much as they possibly could. It became clear that they had now set their sites on drinking me out of business. To make matters worse, any morning that I didn’t keep a very close eye on them I would find wrappers for granola bars and trail mix left on the floor when I cleaned up after them. This was going too far and it seemed ridiculous that I would have to assume a vigil at their table to guard against outside food.
I did stand guard, however, and it was a more ridiculous task than I could have imagined. Within a few days I realized that not a single one of them used artificial sweetener; yet every single day the bowl of packets would be empty before they left. As if to tempt me, they each took five napkins every single day. It was obvious that they had decided this was a volume at which I could not protest but one which was still more than I had accounted for in the pricing. With each refill they took as much cream and sugar as they could stomach and used a new stir stick. The tension was mounting but there was no way that I could back down. Like a hunter I stalked them, waiting for the weak to fall behind the pack, waiting for one of them to reach for a granola bar. The average age of the group was somewhere in the mid-fifties and I knew they couldn’t consume this much cream, sugar, and caffeine on empty stomachs on a daily basis for long without it taking a toll.
One morning I decided to press the issue a little harder, but in a passive-aggressive style suitable for Humbug. I broke a magic-marker into the bowl of artificial sweetener packets, and then covered up the ink with some more packets. I have no idea when the attempt was made to grab the packets, I hadn’t even heard anyone move when I turned to grab the next urn of coffee, but when I turned around there was blue ink smeared across the condiment bar and all eyes of coffee row were on me and beaming with anger and guilt. I looked to their hands to find the culprit and, instinctually protecting the conspiracy, every single one of them put their left hand in their coat pockets. I stared at them accusingly, not saying a word, and also not putting up the next urn of coffee. Moving as one they all got up and filed out the door, finding safety in the numbers of the heard.
Although I didn’t catch anyone red handed, or blue handed as the case may have been, Earla’s husband was conspicuously absent from coffee row for the remaining two days that week. He returned the next week - although he never again looked me in the eye. I had begun to exert some control over them and I plotted my next move. If passive-aggressive was they way of these hicks then I had been well prepared, for my Catholic grandmother was the biggest passive-aggressive bitch to walk the face of planet Earth. I thought about how she might handle this situation and I could hear her sneering voice clearly.
On the morning that I planned to crush them with some down-home Grandma Spoonheim passive-aggressive venom, I made sure to be as cheerful as possible as I sold each of the parasites their refillable mug. I smiled and hummed as I filled the creamer up, not with half & half but with 18% table cream. I bustled about wiping sugar off the condiment bar with the table cream in hand, making sure that every single one of them got a good look at it. When several of them began to stare at the table cream and whisper to each other, I made my move.
“You know, you are all so lucky. I guess it must be the country air, or maybe growing up doing all that farm work. You all have such high metabolisms. If I were to drink down so much table cream and sugar, I’m certain I would have put on at least five pounds by now.”
The eyes of the coffee row women betrayed the group as they began to shift anxious glances at each other. “Thank you Grandma,” I thought, as I went in for the kill.
“None of you looks like you’ve gained a pound. It’s incredible. I have to be so careful what I have before Christmas. Once that holiday eating starts it’s impossible for me to keep my weight down. I can’t imagine how hard New Year’s would be if I put on ten pounds even before Christmas.”
Suddenly all the men clasped their wives’ hands in a gesture of solidarity. The women would not react, not betray the horror I had just unleashed, until they were well outside. Their composure was stoic and the restaurant was completely void of echo. I had not just won this round – I had completely dominated these pathetic hicks. The fear in the eyes of the husbands revealed the damage I had done. The complete lack of emotion on the women’s faces only served to illustrate the pressure that must have been brewing just below the surface. I have no idea how they held it all in, but at very least their consumption slowed dramatically. By the time they left, I calculated an average consumption of 32 ounces per person.
As I chopped and diced in preparation for lunch I chuckled at my little victory. Little did I know that the battle had just begun.