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Behind The Counter – Field Notes Essay

 

When our class was first introduced to the field notes assignment, I somehow felt both overwhelmed and underwhelmed with choices. I knew that finding and focusing on one subculture would be incredibly difficult as there are so many to choose from. Somewhere along the way, I decided that I would study a bagel shop, but more specifically the customer’s behavior in a bagel shop in my neighborhood. Bagel Corner, a 50-year-old bagel shop in the Bronx, happens to not only be the most popular in the area but also happens to be my previous workplace. As a former employee at Bagel Corner, I have plenty of experience with customers and well as memories of when a co-worker has had to deal with and accept poor customer behavior.

In order to make sure it was okay to observe and interview I contacted my old boss Steve who was delighted by the idea. I had originally planned on visiting on a Wednesday, a day I do not have class, but Steve felt I may get better customer interactions if I visit on a Sunday, their busiest day of the week. Setting up a date was simple but waking up was not. Bagel Corner opens at 6 A.M. for customers, but employees must arrive at 5:15 to get bagels in the oven and coffee brewing for the early risers in a rush to get where they need to be as soon as they can. The smell of the bagels at this time consumes the area entirely. I live about 2 blocks away and can smell them from the moment I leave my building. Walking in, the morning is quite dark, the broken neon sign in the window is so apparent at this time. Having worked at this location for a couple of months shy of 3 years, I knew exactly how set up goes, but I was not there to work, solely to observe. The heat from the oven in the back fills the store-front entirely, with the aid of the small heater that they have. I took my place on one of the bright orange stools at the windowsill with my pen and notebook at hand ready for the day. I sat chatting with the openers Danny and Gaby until about 5:55 A.M. when anxious customers start to arrive to get their morning brew and bagel. It was a chilly-ish day, of course, it is October what more can you expect. The customers stroll in one after the other at a steady, but not busy pace. Most seem to be returning customers as Danny knows their orders without them having to ask. The customers wait patiently by the glass case which holds the pastries that they receive bi-weekly from a bakery in Astoria, always looking, but never seem interested enough to buy. Or maybe their order is just too routine for them to switch up.

Slowly the time ticks on and eight o’clock comes around and business starts to pick up. A third employee, Alma, enters from the back, she had just arrived. According to Danny, they have 3-4 employees working behind the counter on any given weekday. Two come in to open and a third comes in at 8 to help with the rushes they know are coming. Shortly after Almas’s arrival, Steve, one of the owners/managers arrives. Due to my experience working here I know Steve does the register when it is really busy so that the counter people have less to worry about. I always wondered why one person would not just be assigned to the register, so Steve didn’t have to be involved at all. “8, 9 and 10 are the busiest hours on Sunday. We take orders and Steve rings. It works better like that cause then we don’t have to keep taking off and putting on gloves to handle money and bagels”, Danny told me. This was new to me when I had worked the entire store was set up differently. They did a remodel not too long ago they wanted to make it more modern. When the first rush had died down I figured this would be a good time to ask questions. Since my focus was on rude/unruly customers I asked when they typically come in or if they get rude customers on a daily basis. When I asked this question there were zero customers in the store with all four employees – Steve, Danny, Gaby, and Alma – all behind the counter. It was almost like they had rehearsed the sigh they let out when they heard my question. “We get the same ones everyday…” Gaby said, “I work weekdays too they’re awful. Entitled, rude and really just mean”. It seemed she had more to add, but stopped talking quickly as a customer walked in. The store gradually got busier. No rude customers at this point, so I started to look around. I had never really thought too much about the fact that I had always been on the other side of the counter, I was now looking from a customer’s point of view. The new glass spread display was nice considering before the list of cream cheese flavors was laminated and taped to the back of the cutting board.

During my revelation of the point of view. I began to hear a customer raising their voice making comments at the workers. Gaby and Danny, both of Hispanic backgrounds, were speaking to one another in Spanish when a customer got angry and said, “We’re in the United States you should be speaking English!”, he made it very clear that he would not be returning due to the action which seemed to have been an egregious offense to him. Both workers looked unphased by the customer’s comment. Another customer butted in apologizing on the offender’s behalf. The workers went about their business. In the absence of their boss, Steve, not much could have been done about this customer in particular. After about thirty minutes the rush died down again, and I was able to address the terrible thing I had just witnessed. I asked Danny what had led to that, what they were saying since I could not really hear, assuming maybe they said something about the customer, at least trying to give her the benefit of the doubt. “We were talking about a movie, honestly I don’t know why she bugged out,” Danny said. “She did that a couple days ago too, came in when Fernando [one of the bakers] was restocking the fridge and I was telling him we needed more water. Steve was here he told her that Fernando doesn’t speak English.” Gaby added. It did not make any sense to me why she would be so mad they were speaking a different language.

After consulting a journal source Dysfunctional Customer Behavior And Service Employees Tactics, this sort of interaction is very common. “…that employees directly involved with customers suffer from verbal abuse every 3.75 days, threats every 15 days and acts of violence every 31 days” (pg.2). It is not just Bagel Corner workers who are subdued to this customer behavior. I realize that there can be a sort of training provided for employees to deal with such customer behavior, but Steve informed me Bagel Corner does not provide that for their employees. The day is slow now around one o’clock, employees start to clean up and prepare everything for closing. Having been in the hiring process before I know that everyone must be trained at least 2 days to ensure they have the skills for the job. Most of the training itself is dealing with customers. Workers have varying backgrounds, but most have a Hispanic background, this does not define the workplace though. Anyone is welcomed to work at Bagel Corner as long as they are willing and reliable.

Time at this point, is flying. Less and less customers coming in now. I have spent over nine hours observing customers walking in and out, some saying more than others. Employees dismissing poor-customer behavior as if its normal and okay though it is the complete opposite. They are used to this schema that “the customer is always right” and they have to bite their tongues and hold back no matter how hard it may be. “The good customers out-weigh the bad. I’ll take one ‘good job’ over five ‘eff yous’ any day. I keep a smile on my face and bagels in their stomachs that’s all that matters. At the end of the day I’m here to work” Danny says while covering the cutting board for the day. I tuck in the bright orange stool and head out, happy that the workers are unbothered by the rude customers.