"Do you have any doughnuts left?"
The abrupt question cuts into my ear without preamble. It's a weekend morning and there's a line stretching out to the front door and beyond. It's hard to say where it ends; except for that first week where people just queued up directly behind each other so that the line went directly into the road ("screw personal safety, no one is getting a chance to cut in front of me"), the line always cuts to the left down the block and past my field of vision. People are serious about the line here. On his first day to work, David was late simply because people in line would not let him get by -- it was like trying to get closer to the stage at a boy band concert engirdled by rabid fans.
I shuffle a few steps sideways to peer into the case. "Yes, we still have almost a whole case of doughnuts, although there are more coming in a bit. But it's crazy town here and they're going fast."
"Exactly how many do you have left?"
"What's the exact number of each flavor you have left?" The woman on the other side rephrases her question impatiently, as if the repetition makes it more sensical.
I take another glance into the case and do the math quickly, even if not exactly. "Looks like around 20 Vanilla, 25 Lemon, 15 Chocolate and 15 each of the Jam and the Pistachio Rose. But like I said, they're going fast and--"
There's a click and a dial tone before I finish the sentence.
I liked to think that the unceremonious hang-up has more to do with how urgently she felt the need to get to these doughnuts, and not necessarily a lack of manners.
General Porpoise, purveyor of fine coffee and doughnuts, was my home for two years. Whenever anyone asks me about it, I tell them honestly that the experience had very high highs and very low lows. I've often thought that everyone should work in the service industry for a few years, for many reasons. One, of course, is that it doesn't hurt to gain empathy for the person on the other side of the counter. Another, is that it doesn't hurt to gain empathy for the people you work with.
Incidentally, my high highs were all composed of the people I worked with and the customers I worked for. Some of my happiest working hours have been from behind that marble counter. I felt a genuine bliss on those crazy weekend mornings where the line was always a block long -- a kind of happiness doing work that I've never felt without a flute in my hand. Dozens of times, we had customers drop by before they left to compliment the flow of our teamwork. And more times than that, we had people who wanted to tell us how much they enjoyed being in that space and how welcome we made them feel even when it was busy. Back when General Porpoise, or GP, was still in construction, my manager told me that there are hundreds of cafes or pastry shops and there was never any reason just working in or creating a new one, except this: to create a space and a time and a face that made people's lives better.
I've always believed that in every exchange, no matter how small, you're either giving or taking from someone. People who work in service often feel that they're maligned or belittled. But really, you're in a position of such power when you're behind that counter, coming in contact with so many people every day. You can either add to someone's life, or do the exact opposite. Every interaction has the ability to complete change someone's day, for better or worse.
James, a customer who became a good friend whom my husband and I eventually asked to be our wedding officiant, once dubbed the weekend crew "The Fantastic Four". James and I personally assigned the roles for each of their members, more for our amusement than at anyone's behest.
Mr. Fantastic, of course, was Reed. The newest member of the cafe at the time, he was conscientious from the first day he came on board. He was a kind soul and one of the most perceptive people I've met, with a pulse point for every person that walked in whether it was a coworker or a tourist. He had the ability to bring smiles to stone-faced people who would practically glow when they got to greet him, and not just because of his goofy sense of humor. People who I assumed had just lost the ability to be happy sometime back when they discovered that Santa Claus wasn't real and the world had betrayed them would light up with a beam at the mere sound of his name. He was and is, to put it plainly, the epitome of what is good in the world. There were times when I called him "the face of the cafe" because he was the face that everyone remembered. Everyone was genuinely touched by his nature, and he made a positive difference in everyone's day. There were other times I called him a "cinnamon roll" because of how sweet he was. When I worked for him at a separate branch later, I was always impressed with how thoughtful he was in every single aspect, whether it involved human interaction or cafe layout.
Joshua could only be Johnny Storm. He was never as flamboyant as the Human Torch, but he could stop traffic every time he got a haircut. There was something about the swoop of his hair that made everyone swoon, even if he would have died before screaming "flame on!" for any reason. In fact, he looked like he wanted to crawl under the table the time we drew attention to him by singing happy birthday to him at Poquitos. Above all else though, he would bend over backwards to please. One time, someone called to ask if our doughnuts had holes in them and to argue that they shouldn't really be considered doughnuts if they didn't. Joshua, with all sincerity, said "well, it's not a traditional hole, but there is a tiny hole on the top of each doughnut which is where they pipe in the filling." Coming from nearly anyone else, this would have just been an acerbic comeback, but Joshua was 100% earnest. If he felt behind or not up to a task at all, he put his head down and worked until he was up to it. If you needed someone to back you up, or someone to listen while you told a story -- good or bad -- he was the one. No matter how he felt about a person or a situation, he always answered with an "of course" and an assurance that every choice you made as a customer was the right one. He was the kind of person that only grows with the more confidence you give him, and every ounce of that confidence was merited.
TJ, by default, was the Thing, not because he was the type to yell "It's clobbering time!" before breaking down a wall like the Kool-Aid Man, but because he had an exuberance that could knock down cynicism. TJ, with the big beard and flannel, on his first day of work was explaining pour-overs and the mod bar to a customer. He was always so eager to expound on coffee that I swore he had some sort of sonic hearing that activated if you said the word "coffee" -- sometimes, across the room someone would be asking a question, and he would coming bounding over with his explanation, so happy to talk about tasting notes (herbaceous was a word I started using more because of him), what his favorite crop of the year was, or the best brew methods. For all his gruff beard and large presence, TJ had a heart of gold, often able to sense the shapes of feelings and emotions of the people around him before anything was put to words, and always wanting to alleviate them. He didn't have a selfish bone in his body, but always got genuine pleasure from praising others. Sometimes he'd sing "toastin' those seeds, just toastin' those seeds" which was apparently his anthem for days he roasted coffee for Elm. Other times I'd head bang to Drake or Alvvays at the cafe with him.
And me? I guess I was Sue Storm, Invisible Woman. That made a lot of sense to me, because although I'd been working at the cafe the longest, customers were always surprised to hear that I even worked at GP at all. I flew under the radar. But Sue Storm had some nifty forcefield powers too, and I like to think that I supported my teammates. Above all, I just wanted to take care of everyone, although I'm not sure how well I did in the end.
It was important to us that we served something exceptional - not just the coffee, which we hand-selected, dialed in, and tasted amongst ourselves every week and every day - but in interaction. No matter how busy it got, we always knew where every drink went. If a person wasn't at the end of the counter to pick up their drink, we brought it to them. We never let a drink sit there or had to shout it out. No matter how long the line got, we always focused on the person in front of us, however long that interaction was.
There are countless other people I had the honor of working with at GP, from Edith who had my heart from her first time behind the counter with her sparkly "What can I do for y'all?" to Damian and his "Oui Chef" to the two days I worked with Jared during SCA week that cemented my esteem of him. I have always considered myself incredibly blessed to have known all of these people. The temptation is to write pages on pages of all the amazing things I saw everyone do and to go into all the little intricacies of our job, because I was, and still am, immensely proud of all that we accomplished together. There were countless industry professionals that I had the privilege of sharing a space with, and countless wonderful customers who we were able to interact with.
I could tell you how our workflow worked, and I actually did write it out -- there was a science to each of the four weekend positions. But the nitty gritty isn't that important (although I think talking about bar flow is so fun, so please ask me about it sometime). But what's more significant about what made that job work, what made the line go quickly, and what made everyone so happy to be there whether it was behind or in front of the counter during that golden time -- was the fact that we worked for each other. We didn't work quickly because there was some sort of record or quota to match (although we did at one point have a manager who used to time our transactions with his phone's stopwatch). We worked quickly because we were constantly working for each other. When I was out of milk and crushing the empty gallon, Reed had the fridge door open and the next gallon of milk held out for me. When I saw Joshua over by the bar restocking napkins and checking on the water, I started refilling the next pitcher of water so he could take it back. If I got caught up in an extended conversation with a customer, TJ could slide into my spot to keep the line flowing. I could start grinding a big batch brew for drip coffee and get called away by a customer and come back to find that the process was already finished by someone else. We were aware of what was going on and we took care of each other. We were the sort of the team that could finish each other's sentences and sandwiches.
This is, I think, the epitome of small business. Not just in Seattle, but all around. The experience at GP was completely unique, but also not unique at all. All around us are small businesses that subsist because people care genuinely about what they produce, about each other, and about their customers. Be it coffee, be it clothes, plants, books, pasta, or hand rolls. There are whole worlds percolating with activity to produce the plate that goes in front of you, training to talk about your t-shirt or specific cut of tuna, and genuine passion to recommend a pile of books for that 12-year-old niece.
GP is, of course, part of Renee Erickson's culinary kingdom here in Seattle. In case you haven't heard, Renee is Seattle royalty. She's a James Beard winner, a celebrity that makes people around her gush (I heard about so many Renee encounters from random customers that it rivaled the number of customers who came in to crane their necks around and ask in hallowed tones: "Is she here today?") and swoon (if she ever threw out a handkerchief, droves of surrounding people would faint), and a hardcore advocate of better living for people, better living for the environment, and an unmistakably chic style that has people nodding sagely when they find out that this is another Renee establishment. And yet, the day that the toilet exploded and was gushing water, Renee Erickson was the one that was mopping it up so that the baristas behind the bar could keep helping the customers.
Our lives are enriched by these small businesses. Not because they make good food or coffee or ice cream. Or at least, not just. But because they provide jobs for us - jobs where we can genuinely care about what we create and for each other. But more than that, because these small businesses take care of us. I still walk into GP at Pioneer Square or Capitol Hill, not just because of the exceptional coffee there, but because of the beautiful human beings. At Bateau, Head Chef Taylor told me once that he serves his own dishes from time to time so he can interact with customers and see how they react to the food he's providing them. There are countless ways that these people take care of us, and a thousand unseen things they do to make sure that our days, and by extension, our lives can be better. These small kindnesses are not actually small at all. They feed our souls as well as our bodies.
I've heard service being explained as the perfect balance of presence and non-presence. When I worked in food service, it was important that each person feel taken care of...not just because of our pride as a company or because we were hardworking. We didn't do it for the lucrative money or so that we'd be praised. Sometimes I'd see a regular drive by the front of the cafe, looking for a parking spot and I'd have her drink ready on the counter when she walked in. On clamorous days, I'd keep an eye on the mouth of the person at the register while I stood at the espresso grinder ten feet away, so I could see whether the lips shaped the word "Americano" or "Latte", and I could get the drink started as soon as humanly possible. Some people would want to shoot the breeze, to talk about their latest project or to inquire further into what different espressos we were serving. Some people just wanted to take their drink, say hello, and go. Some people want to be coaxed out of their shell, and others just want their corner spot with a cappuccino and the paper. Whoever and whatever, we're in service because we see these people. It's important for people to be seen, to be cared for, in the way they want to be. Service, done correctly, is one of the most difficult things to do because it requires both technique and compassion. My favorite memories of restaurants, whether working in one or being served in one, are not just of the quality of the food but the quality of human kindness in them.
This is an ode to the people I had the privilege to work with, but also to these small businesses that are struggling right now. Last week, I was chatting with the wonderful Ash (from 6 feet away) at a GP and we talked both about how this Covid-19 situation is unprecedented and also how we're not handling it well at all. It's crazy out there, but we can find ways to be kind to each other.
Think about the small businesses that have nurtured you and try to help them -- support their businesses now (responsibly, while respecting distance and health concerns), buy gift cards, sign petitions, donate tickets/money to theaters and music schools. These are businesses that don't have low overhead or money stashed away to tide them over. If you're not in a position to help monetarily, that's okay too! Send good thoughts, send well wishes, but most of all be kind to each other. If you're thinking of someone, send them a message. We only grow richer by giving. And it has never been about whether we can fill someone else's cup, but that we pour from our own.
Wherever you are, be safe and be healthy! And as Reed would always say: thanks a latte.