I Have a Problem

“You have a problem and it’s up to you to figure it out,” a customer said to me. She’s right and I am trying.

She was sitting at one of our tables on a Saturday morning, the busiest single time of the week for us and she had two computers open in front of her. I asked if she had finished her coffee and would relinquish the table to those who were wandering the aisles food in hand looking for places to sit.

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She didn’t like at all how I asked and I pleaded with her to tell me a better way of asking; that’s when she told me it’s my problem to figure out what to say.

The day before, at a Friday lunchtime, also very busy, I had had the same experience and an email exchange with an erudite woman who called her protest “Chilly Day.”

Last Friday I made my first trip to Bread Furst and fell in love.  I spent my morning eating croissants, drinking tea and working at the back table.  I was overjoyed to watch the fresh breads and trays of pastries being bustled around and to see the famous baker bring a darling little girl behind the counter to personally select her glazed donut…  

Unfortunately, my love affair with Bread Furst ended as quickly as it began.  Apparently the famous baker’s demeanor turns frosty with the weather and after one hour huddled in a small corner of a side counter finishing my tea and rather dry scone, I was asked to leave.  Mr. Furstenberg informed me that Bread Furst was not a workspace and I was going to have to finish up…

I apologize for believing that because you served coffee and tea and pastries that you would function like every other cafe in the city, allowing patrons to read, write, converse and ponder.  As I’m sure was your objective in so rudely dismissing me today, you will see my face no more.  But, I’ll also be informing the dozens of others to whom I had previously sung your praises that Bread Furst is not worth their time.  As an attorney and writer, I have come to expect more courtesy and respect than I received in your establishment.  Forgive me for assuming you were in the customer service business.

            I wrote back, “Love’s Savor Lost.”

            It is good of you to write to protest my treatment of you.  Perhaps I was out of line… 

            …(but) I did not plan Bread Furst as a cafe and didn’t put into it enough seating for it to be a cafe.  I wanted very much to create a neighborhood bakery at which people might find really good foods to eat here, to take away, or to eat on the run if they like to eat that way.  I had many reasons for wanting to create a neighborhood bakery…

            I have infinite patience for customers who arrive with their children or their friends and occupy our tables for long visits.  That’s what we’re here for — to be a place where people gather and eat and talk.  

            You say a place for reflection and writing.  I haven’t wanted Bread Furst to be that.  We’re a gathering place, a place of sociability.  You might argue that this is none of my business.  I don’t have the right to determine how people use our bakery as long as they buy a cup of tea.  That is a completely understandable position but it’s not mine…          

            …if people want to occupy our bakery for writing, emailing, research, reflection on Monday afternoon, I don’t mind.  But if people occupy tables on Friday when I see customers looking for tables to sit and eat and talk, is it not my responsibility to see that those customers have a place to sit?… 

            Please come back sometime.  Let me treat you to a cup of tea — or more.  If it’s a Tuesday afternoon, you are welcome to stay as long as you like and do as you like.  But I am going to reserve the right to divide our space during busy periods, particularly on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, among those customers who are here to eat and chat. 

            I hope you will forgive me. 

 

            She didn’t.

*                      *                      *

images-3When my sister Carla Cohen opened the Politics and Prose coffee shop she put into it free wireless Internet service. I would see there the same people day after day sitting with half a cup of coffee, settled in for the morning or the afternoon, sometimes both.

I am not Mr. Businessman but even I thought this was a bad idea. However this fit Carla’s sense of community and she thought of her coffee shop as a service to the neighborhood.

So here I am, more than two decades later trying to establish Bread Furst as something important and valuable to upper northwest Washington and I find myself from time to time asking customers not to use us as their workplace

Certainly a lot has changed in the 20 years since Carla opened Politics and Prose coffee shop. In those days coffee shops were a novelty and generally people worked in their offices or they worked at home but they didn’t think about working in public spaces other than libraries perhaps.

We don’t have public Internet here.   I don’t want it. Bread Furst is a neighborhood bakery, not a coffee shop. We are here for people who want to buy what we bake and take it home or eat it here.

However, having no Internet does not stop people from connecting to the Web in other ways; and from time to time people want to use Bread Furst as their office. They write emails, compose reports and talk often very loudly on their cell phones.

Sometimes when we are busy I say to them, “I am really glad to have you as a customer but others are trying to find a table.”

Usually the people to whom I say that are gracious and considerate of others.

On one Saturday, however, on our busiest day of week a man sat at a table for an hour and a half writing on his computer while talking on his telephone. Finally, seeing customers wandering in the aisle, I said to the man what I say.

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He looked incredulous. “I am a customer.”

“Yes,” I said, “I am glad you’re here but you’ve been here all morning and others would like to use a table too.”

“You want me to leave?” he asked. “It’s a coffee shop, isn’t it?”

“No,” I said, “It’s a bakery but Starbucks is just down the street.”

“And who are you,” he asked. “You think you own the place or something?”

I do think so, I told him.

“Well let me tell you what you are,” he said, “You’re an as——. “

What is our responsibility here? We are here so that people can buy food and drink from us. We have a pleasant place and people like it. What is a reasonable amount of time for customers to use our space at times when others want to sit too?

Frequently I walk past Dolcezza on Connecticut Avenue and look at customers sitting in its window working at their computers. Starbucks next door is packed nearly always with people at their computers. Those companies like having customers stay for long periods.

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Indeed, this “third space” concept – a place between home and office where people work or talk on the telephone for long periods surrounded by others – has become a norm in our urban society. But in fact the third space is a place for strangers to share a room and that’s not what I hope we’ll have at Bread Furst.

I do want a third space but one that is community and I’m not at all interested in a place where unassociated people sit with their computers in physical proximity that has nothing to do with relationships. In fact their computers and telephones isolate them in those spaces.  I see that and don’t think I am providing anything more than a chair and table and a cup.

On the other hand I get no greater pleasure at the bakery than in the mornings when the parents of children who go to schools nearby arrive with their children for a donut and a coffee. Sometimes they sit with their children in Shivani’s corner and sometimes they sit at our big table and talk to each other and I feel that we’re making a small difference in their lives.

As a matter of fact, I never say to people talking to each other that they ought to move on no matter how long they occupy our tables.

So I can’t answer the woman who asked me to find a better way of telling people that at busy times – breakfast, lunch, and weekends – they should give up their claim to sit for long periods in our bakery playing with their telephones or responding to email.

I will continue trying and I hope not offend too many more people in the process.

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45 thoughts on “I Have a Problem

  1. Thanks, Mark: It seems to me you have a reasonable and reasonably flexible policy. I’m reminded that the current version of Politics & Prose provides wi-fi access, but disables it at busy times, and says so.

  2. I admire your patience. Those persons mentioned in your newsletter were rude and their responses ignorant or irrational. How sad their social relationships must be.

  3. I throughly enjoyed this blog and agree that there is a conundrum between what people perceive Bread Furst to be and what it actually is. I think you did a good job of trying to address that issue. I applaud your focus on community, discourse among patrons and special dispensation for children/families. You are correct there are any number of places within walking distance where people can choose to work/telework whatever. I frequent Bread Furst for the excellent food (fresh ingredients, locally sourced, etc.), wonderful and responsive staff, sense of community and people watching. Carry on and cheers C. Kirk Lazell

    Date: Tue, 28 Apr 2015 17:24:29 +0000 To: ghanatulip@hotmail.com

  4. Good job!

    Some of this is a matter of courtesy and awareness. Theirs, not yours. People talking loudly on the cell phone while in a room with others; people getting into their parked cars while you are waiting to park in their space and they take all the time in the world to put on lipstick or check messages. It’s one in the same, to me. And there are shared work spaces (e.g., WeWork) where you can rent a desk or an office.

    You are providing guidance really on matters of courtesy and good sense.

    Relationships are struck and strengthened at Bread Furst. And your face reflects the pleasure when parents bring in children before or after school.

    Glad you wrote this.

  5. BRAVO. Not long ago I came into Bread Furst with a friend and looked for a table where we could chat while having some coffee and a snack, but no luck. Not a single empty table. With P&P also crowded and noisy, we were forced to drive all the way to quiet-in-the-afternoons Bread and Chocolate near Chevy Chase Circle.

    Phyllis Gestrin

  6. If I were a conservative I would bemoan the sense of entitlement and absolutism I see that when I have a seat, accompanied by my laptop and cell phone, I have an absolute right to the space and on Saturday from 7a.m. until closing at 6p.m.

    Years ago when traveling in Rome with my late wife Carla Cohen (the sister Mark referenced) I complained at the outrageous coffee prices at the cafes. Carla explained to me we were renting space. This wasn’t like my favorite spots: a self service cafe. I got it. I learned to rent space but I knew I didn’t have it for the day’s eternity. When I stay long now in a coffee shop I increase my tip.

    Carla had people share table during the busy hours in the P&P Coffee Shop. That seemed to work.

    David Cohen

    One thought would be to say space is limited and you get more time in designated hours but in these busy hours or day (whatever you determine, Mark) we have to limit time to give everyone a chance. Thanks for cooperating.

  7. One supportive customer’s two cents: I agree with you wholly here. Bread Furst isn’t in my neighborhood, so I usually only get to come on the weekends during these extremely busy times. It’s very nice to have a place to sit and enjoy the goods we’ve just bought, and I appreciate when people move on when they’re done dining (and we do the same). I hope others that feel the same way offer enough support to offset the disgruntled types that would rather camp out.

  8. You are completely in line. While people may have different expectations of what they can and cannot do in your shop, the fact is that is that it is your shop and you get to set the rules. So if you want to have a rule that cellphone conversations are not allowed (funny how the bigfooting, important phone call guy ironically called you a name I would ascribe to him) or if you want to limit the tables to those enjoying the food and conversation, that is up to you.

    Apparently, some folks have difficulty understanding that the reason the sign says “no wifi” means that Bread Furst is not a place where internet browsing and emailing is encouraged. Perhaps you can no longer be so subtle. A sign suggesting “Please enjoy your meals at Bread Furst, but be considerate when others are seeking places to sit and enjoy theirs” might help.

    As for the Third Place issue – this concept was always thought to be more about finding community than it was about taking up space, texting, emailing and yapping on the phone. Nobody needs a third place for that. Third places are for enjoying those around you.

  9. Tough one. Personally I prefer to pick up and go and think that hogging a table in a small place is rude and insensitive but I get that current culture permits something else. I think your only options are to grin and bear it or get rid of all the tables. Since you say you enjoy certain visitors sticking around, the former would seem to be the way to go.

  10. The problem isn’t you or your policy. It’s people who can’t see beyond their own selfish interests. Anyone who loves a good business wants to see that business succeed which means serving as many customers as possible. Thank you!

  11. Mark,
    I’m with you. The bakery should be a place for enjoying food and socializing. It should not be a place for social media.
    Stan

  12. Ben Barker here, formerly of Magnolia Grill, spouse of your baking colleague, Karen Barker.

    I have enjoyed reading your op/eds(?), missives (?), diatribes (?), plaints (?) as you’ve gone through development, construction, growing pains, staffing and pricing and sourcing, seeking the bakery that reflects your vision and experience.  It has been quite illuminative to read and I really hear and feel your desire to be a neighborhood entity at the same time as you have a business with standards and integrity. Such a challenge! I have found myself agreeing with you in both principle and in fact, but acknowledge that I was rarely to entreat folks to remember that we were a business founded on sustainable guidelines, one of which was that in order to be sustainable, the next guest ultimately needs to get that seat.

    Anyway, we are in the development stages of trying to create a new restaurant with our son, who has been and continues to cook in San Francisco, but we want to entice him home to Chapel Hill to pursue a family business. So reading you has been particularly poignant, as we contemplate the facets of the service industry that have been transformed by many individual’s sense of entitlement. Ultimately, I’m thanking you for expressing your thoughts and trying to help your most valuable customers understand Bread Furst’s goals.

    Retired Curmudgeon and Former Restauranteur, with Renewed but Cautious Optimism about the Industry

  13. Your sign seems well-worded; thoughtful people will understand it. It’s a different kind of person for whom you can’t find the right words. Years ago some etiquette guru, probably Miss Manners, gave guests this rule about accepting hospitality and then moving on: at the end of a meal when no food as been served for 20 minutes, it’s time to begin your good-byes and thanks to the host.

    You are looking for a rule like that for your public setting. Years ago at Starbucks’ advent, I told my young teen-aged daughters that they could do their homework at Starbucks but they needed to buy something every 30 minutes. And after awhile, they needed to leave their space for someone else and come home!

    Your challenge is to try to run a healthy business, make rules like an etiquette expert, and teach them to grown customers the way a parent teaches children. The conflicts are unavoidable!

    I thank you for worrying about there being a place for me when I come in.
    Katherine Stevens

  14. Right on Mark. I am totally supportive of your philosophy. And by the way, I met with friends today who enjoy Bread Furst. You have a fine establishment with yummy breads. LOIS

  15. Sadly, some people are just not, to use your words, considerate of others. Perhaps customers might be more receptive to your sign if it incorporated that concept.

  16. Brilliant, just brilliant… You see,, SIR, there are always people in this world who want to take advantage… and I can see from sitting here in Italy that it is really up to you to show those who are taking advantage of your generosity that there is indeed another place for them to sit … your bakery, for example, does it hold a license to become an office…
    Maybe, Sir, you might like to put a very diplomatic, and certainly a very clear, notice that unfortunately you are not licensed to have an office space but a bakery.
    Yours
    Pauline N. Fromer
    Capestrano Italy

  17. i would allocate just a few tables for people who are working leaving the majority of them for the people you intended to create this bakery for. Once they are filled, then too bad….. The working customer can just find somewhere else. Similar to a smoking section back in the day. You want a smoking or non smoking table? You wait or leave.

  18. I remember spending countless time in line at Breadline when Mr. Furstenberg operated it – not because it was a place to be seen when the food scene scarcely existed in DC, but because the food was so satisfying and the attention to detail impeccable (wouldn’t say that about Breadline for some time since Mr. Furstenberg’s departure). I’m glad this wonderful community bakery exists and wish everyone would respect it on its terms (and many do). It’s not a café and it’s not a Starbucks. The library is a great place to work without interruption — Tenleytown Library is fantastic and less than a mile away, there’s a Starbucks and Whole Foods across the street and all three provide unlimited food, coffee, wireless access, and restrooms.

  19. ugh, this makes me sad. mark, i’m with you, you’ve established the rules of your business, and then it’s up to others to respect that. awful that some of these people would react in the ways that they have.

    i will say that on the occasions i’ve been lucky enough to stop into bread furst (i live on the other side of town but occasionally make my way to van ness) i’ve very much enjoyed spending an hour or so drinking coffee, munching on a sandwich or snack, and reading my book. i do get that it’s not a cafe, though, and if i were asked to move on, i certainly would, but maybe with a twinge of disappointment.

  20. I wouldn’t have tried hard to reason with someone who says “As an attorney and writer, I have come to expect more courtesy and respect than I received in your establishment”. Do attorneys and writers command more respect than others (especially in a bakery setting)?

  21. I don’t allow electronic devices at the dinner table in my house and you are perfectly within your rights to make them unwanted in your bakery.

  22. You’ve fervently and correctly addressed your issue and sometimes I find it remarkable how some restaurant customers are so rude and self-involved.

  23. I agree wholeheartedly that it’s a place of business (bakery) and that you can stop to have a croissant and a coffee but it is not an office.

    I noticed that The Pain Quotidien on Mass. Ave. has the same problem. You have business people and students who come in and take up a table that seats four. They will order a cup of coffee and work on their computers for hours. It is rude and they are totally oblivious to a party of three or four who come and are looking for a table. It also takes away tips from waiters who need to earn a living.

    I think Starbucks (which I don’t frequent) started this. One could almost consider it loitering. You are completely in the right. We want you in the neighborhood.

  24. People who are conducting their business at Bread Furst should certainly be a little more attuned to Bread Furst’s business, which is being a bakery. You don’t bake in their office, if they have one, or their kitchen if they work from home. There is no particular way to deal diplomatically with someone who is so narcissistic as to hog a table while people are waiting and then impugns the bakery owner who is making a thoroughly reasonable ask. People will need to learn the rules and economics are different at an owner operated bakery than at a Starbucks mega-cafe.

  25. I live near Dupont Circle, and I had a wonderful coffe shop called Nola across the street from me. The young woman who opened it could not sustain her business because of this exact problem. So because of this selfishness, we no longer have a great coffee shop in the neighborhood.

  26. Dear Mark, liberty is limited in a finite world. Some learn it faster than others but you do you part in raising awareness for a respectful behavior. If somebody thinks that it is discriminating to distinguish between customers that way, it is certainly obvious that self-reflective qualities to understand liberty from different perspectives is necessary to judge your decision. Thank you for this and the delicious foods and drinks. Oliver
    PS: I hope her friends will help her to understand that she might not be that erudite in this case.

  27. The “attorney and author” sounds like a self-important narcissistic snowflake with her head up her patootie (as does the other patron who didn’t want to share space).

    Mr. Furstenberg is 100% right in this case and the attorney-author has a case of cranial-anal impaction.

  28. I think the reason you’re getting the pushback from some of your customers is that you don’t have a clearly articulated policy about table use. You want to do something different from what people are used to (obviously they think you’re running a cafe where they can park for hours), and then they feel attacked when you call them out for not following rules they weren’t aware of in the first place. I completely agree that it’s not cool to monopolize a table when people are waiting, and customers who do so are being inconsiderate; you’re in the unfortunate position of needing to remind them to be considerate, which is not easy to do when you’re providing a service.

    I think you’d have better luck with different wording on your sign. The sign you have now is a bit vague — for example, it says it’s ok to “daydream” — who determines whether the customer is daydreaming as opposed to working? Instead, I suggest a sign with wording along the lines of “hey, we’re so glad you’re here, but during busy times/if people are waiting, please limit your table time to 20 minutes” or whatever. Then, if someone abuses that policy, you can point to your sign and ask them to please move along because others are waiting.

    • It really is not hard to distinguish between people who are daydreaming and those talking on their cellphones and answering email. Moreover, although some people come here and visit with each other for long periods — a use of Bread Furst I love — I have seen no one sit here for hours daydreaming. We do have a customer who spends many hours here apparently editing a film on his computer. But he comes at mid-afternoon on weekdays and I don’t care as the tables are empty.

      We have signs about computer and cell phone use but — well, they somehow disappear.

  29. I dropped out of college at 19 to deal with serious mental health issues. Over the next several years, I spent most of my time at the Politics and Prose coffeeshop. It was the only place I felt safe being, and I would sit and read or write for hours.

    You say that strangers working together is not a community. You say that you are only supplying a table, chair, and tea. I couldn’t disagree more. I made so many friends at the time from the coffeeshop community, and I desperately needed connections. Politics and Prose was the only place I was making them. Not everyone has the family to come to the bakery with – sometimes sitting there is the only community people can scrape together. And that community is so important – I’d say, as important as the families coming in to eat croissants together.

    You say it’s about fostering the real life connections people make. Honestly, this just sounds like moving people along so you can turn over your tables faster. If you came up to me and told me to leave because I was savoring the community at Bread Furst, I would be very upset. I would probably not return. And I’m a lover of yours from way back – I remember when Marvelous Market opened. I grew up right nearby, and my family used to come in on Saturday mornings and eat a baguette straight from the oven.

    I know that you really do believe in fostering community and being a part of it. I just think you’re misguided, here. I’d invite you to reconsider the value of otherwise disconnected people connecting in a space. I’d say loners were as valuable as those with screaming three year olds. Just because we don’t come with families or friends shouldn’t limit our legitimacy.

    • This is a thoughtful response and my sister would have loved hearing from you.

      I have never and will not ever ask someone sitting here daydreaming or watching other people to leave. On the other hand I do not think that I am obliged to provide work space to those who are at their computers or on their telephones. I do not believe that they are fostering community or making connections.

      I am really glad you got that from P&P.

      • Thanks Mark. I’m glad you’re back in the neighborhood (although I no longer am).

        Carla was wonderful. As a kid, MM and P&P were my two favorite places to be. So glad you’re there again. I will always be a supporter of yours.

        • Mark, I know this is an old post, but I’ve been thinking about it. First of all, congrats on the James Beard award! You totally deserve it. Your bread has always been something I’ve loved, since childhood. I’ve been eating it for almost 30 years!

          I have a question.

          If someone is reading by themselves at a table, is that as offensive to you as working on a laptop? It’s just as solitary. But I wonder if that’s a bias toward old technology vs. new. I know I met a lot of people at P&P who were working on laptops while I was reading. I don’t know if it’s fair to write off people working on computers or on phones as illegitimate, especially if you’d be fine entertaining someone reading there for hours. As a writer, I often want a cafe to work in to get out of the house, but also for the social aspect.

          Again, I’m so excited about the Beard award. I’ve supported you for 30 years. I hope you get back to me, and I so appreciate your earlier response. You and Carla definitely shaped my childhood, and I want to gently push you to consider that maybe people working on their laptops can be as much of a part of the community as the families you can easily see enjoying your space.

  30. I think it is simple to have a clear policy which states, “We only have limited table space, which we provide so that people may consume their purchases here if they so choose. If you have finished eating and you see others waiting for a place to sit, please consider allowing them to do so.”

    That way, people can’t get offended that you are singling them out over others. I get that you *do* want to show a preference for people who are there visiting friends over people who are there working, but 99% of the time, the person who has been there lingering the longest after their purchase will be the person working, rather than someone talking to friends. Unless you want to spend way too much time arguing with the people with laptops and seeing them say crappy things about you online, your energy is probably better spent elsewhere, and a blanket statement like above would do for the vas majority of problems.

  31. Sorry I didn’t read all the comments but I have heard of places that have just a few tables but they are very large and long so you know you are meant to be sharing the space. If you knew you would be sharing your space with a bunch of chatty women or bouncing families you would probably set up camp somewhere else. Best of luck.

  32. I’m fine with the policy and I think signs help. But I’d get rid of the last sentence (distinctions seem arbitrary — e.g. so it’s ok to linger at a table while reading a book, but not while reading a screen?) or replace it with one asking patrons to be considerate of others, offer to share tables, etc.

  33. I read Mark’s latest blog with interest and understanding.The Yelp world is a dead-end, though currently it seems to thrive.

    Not unrelated: ours is an age of self: MY opinion counts (although I have no background as a critic) and MY seizing this table counts because I want to have this table.

    The issues Mark raises through his work as a small business are reflective of much that now cheapens and coarsens urban daily life.

    The better, less curmudgeonly point: Bread Furst is a wonderful addition to the neighborhood :I have breakfast there 4 or 5 times a week, always enjoy it and am always happy that it has added quality and taste to an area that has been pretty much a desert.

    This stretch of Connecticut Avenue would still be unhappy without Bread Furst in the south and the exceptional Politics and Prose in the north.

  34. Pingback: | Robin Dance

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