Meet me in the middle

by clav2014

I own a KitchenAid stand mixer, received as a gift from a dear friend, and one of my great joys in life is actually using it. Using it 1) means I have the leisure time to bake, 2) indicates that dessert is forthcoming, and 3) provides evidence for my argument to my husband that the mixer deserves to occupy the valuable real estate of our kitchen counter. That said, more often than not, I will remove sticks of unsalted butter from the freezer, leave them on the counter to soften in preparation for creaming with sugar, and then sigh as I’m forced to put them back into the freezer because it’s 11:30 at night and sleep trumps baking every time.

My sons’ recent birthday was one such occasion. I found this fabulous-sounding recipe from Magnolia Bakery that I wanted to try. Alas, I’ve been working really hard lately and just couldn’t set aside enough time to bake it. Being the good little hippie-yuppie locavore and small-shopper that I fancy myself, I headed for a local bakery whose heavenly cupcakes I had sampled. I figured I’d pay through the nose, but I’d be getting a convenient and delicious cake while supporting a small business. I asked whether they sold whole cakes. The woman said they did, but seemed uncertain about what the (hefty) quoted price included, took down my name and e-mail address, and promised me that someone would get back to me. A few days later, an e-mail arrived asking whether I would like to pick up my cake in Brooklyn or Manhattan. I responded Brooklyn, as paying a lot for convenience was pretty much the point of my buying a cake instead of making one. The day after that, a different person e-mailed me, explaining that cake orders could only be picked up in Manhattan.

Now, let me get on my high horse for a minute. Clients ask me all the time to get things done as quickly as possible for them or make life easier for them. Whenever possible, I oblige. I’ve dropped everything to carry things to the printer through snowstorms, hand-delivered documents, postponed dinner to trudge in the freezing cold from one FedEx drop off point to another, taken conference calls in Frontierland, dragged my kids into the office with me, etc., because I am a small businessperson, my clients are my bread and butter, and I genuinely care about them and want to do the best work I can. Here, I encountered a small local shop in the business of selling baked goods, with several days’ notice, that was unwilling either to bake me a cake in a location that, although apparently fully-equipped and used for baking other items, was different from their normal baking location, or have an employee deliver a high-priced custom item to their Brooklyn outpost for customer pickup. This is not consistent with the entrepreneurial spirit that the small-business movement prides itself upon. Unwilling to devote any more precious energy to this endeavor, I picked up a $15 ice cream cake from Key Food and called it a day, figuring that at least Key Food is a local New York business and all I had to do was pay for it and lug it home.

The ice cream cake went over pretty well at the birthday party. I had loaned my big coffeemaker to a friend for her wedding, so I figured I’d head out before dessert to pick up a box of coffee at a good local coffee place. I knew they did boxed coffee because I had previously picked some up for a school event. Two of my guests offered to run the errand for me. I asked them specifically please to stop at the local place. This wasn’t a particularly tough sell: one of these guests has done volunteer work with children afflicted with HIV and also spent a year of his life working at a small hospital in rural Nepal through a charitable organization. Needless to say, sensitivity and do-gooding are not lacking in his personality. About twenty minutes later, he returned with a big ol’ box of Starbucks and a tale to tell.

“Okay, here’s what happened. We walked in and saw shelves full of flat coffee boxes, and we asked the woman behind the counter for one. She told us that she didn’t really know how to put them together, so she couldn’t sell us a box of coffee. There was another guy working there, so we asked if he knew how, and she said no. We asked if she could get one of the boxes down and said maybe we could help her figure it out, and she said no. So we went to Starbucks.”

I imagine that the markup on boxed coffee is something like 3,000%. Even though my friend basically offered to do the job FOR her while still paying, she declined.

Please, small businesses: meet me in the middle. It is very, very, very difficult to muster sympathy for gripes about high rent and chain competition when a bakery won’t sell me a cake and a coffee shop won’t sell me coffee even though I am willing to pay a premium for the local services.

By way of illustrative contrast, I use a wonderful local printer, 7th Avenue Copy & Office Supplies. The proprietor and his employees always have a smile and a kind greeting for me, ask me how quick a turnaround I need, go out of their way to deliver things if needed, and frequently make helpful suggestions. The business appears to be thriving and the shop has been a neighborhood fixture for years. Coincidence? I think not.