There is no Pepsi in our cooler. We offer regionally-made kombucha. There are no Snickers bars on our counter. We bake fresh pie every morning from local fruit. We don’t fry eggs to order. We can’t grow enough eggs to supply our local customers’ demand for fresh eggs as it is. We don’t sell sandwiches. The menu is gluten-free, and outside of the occasional home-smoked side of bacon or ham, we don’t make processed meats. We never made a conscious choice to exclude Pepsi, Snickers, fried eggs and sandwiches from our offerings. They simply never even entered our consciousness, because they didn’t make sense with our mission and our business model.
But, it turns out, their exclusion became a source of controversy.
We bought the cafe building a little over a year ago. Around January, Clint, our butcher, drove over and removed the overhead doors once used for moving the town’s firetrucks in and out of the garage. Larry, our contractor, promptly installed the cafe windows in their place. And as best I can figure, that’s when people started talking: West Fulton is getting a general store. West Fulton is getting a bar. West Fulton is getting a diner.
We put up a sign to correct the rumors: West Fulton was getting a farm store and a cafe.
It didn’t matter.
The first day we opened this past July, it seemed that for every customer who walked in and stayed, there was one who walked in and left. And a surprising number of them left with sour looks on their faces.
Some would look at the cooler offerings, turn on their heel and walk out without a word. Others would glance over the menu. “Can’t you fry up some eggs?”
“I’m sorry. I don’t have enough eggs on hand to fry.” Out they’d go.
“Can’t you make me a sandwich?”
“I’m sorry, our farm doesn’t have processed meats.” Out they’d go.
There would be eye rolling. Head shaking. I had let them down by not meeting their expectations. I grew sore at the subject. Our friends and family thought it was funny. They’d send buddies in to sidle up to the counter to order fried eggs, Pepsis and turkey sandwiches, just to watch me writhe.
I could laugh at the joke, but I wondered if I was shooting myself in the foot. I remember meeting with the owner of a successful general store up in Vermont before we opened. “You have to make compromises,” she told me. “You have to meet the community’s needs.”
But we don’t need Snickers bars and Pepsi, I told myself. We don’t need more sandwiches. Snickers, Pepsi, fried eggs and sandwiches can be found within 10 miles of the cafe in three different directions. (And, for the record, I absolutely hate making sandwiches.)
We needed, in my estimation, a place that celebrated local food. We needed a place where people could find something nutritious and feel good when they left. We needed a place for people to gather. We needed to help build community, but not with the price tag of factory farms, climate change or type II diabetes.
The tipping point came one morning when a tall man with a German accent blew in the door, his girlfriend beside him. He looked at the offerings, then hollered out over the heads of the customers I was serving, loud enough that the guests at the other three tables fell silent:
“I. VANT. SANDVICHES!!!”
I pushed aside the ipad I was using for checkout. I had a sharp reply on the tip of my tongue. Would your mother fix you a sandwich if you spoke to her that way? I stared down at my hands and drew in my breath, considering, briefly, that there might simply be a language barrier, and not open hostility, at play.
And in that moment, I missed Bob horribly. On Saturdays, he goes down to the farmers market while I run the cafe with Mom, Kate and Saoirse. Before he and I met, he’d worked for years at LLBean. Customer service is in his blood. He would know what to do. The art of customer service, he has often told me, is telling people to go to hell and having them thank you for it.
I don’t know whether it was a stroke of luck, or a gift from the divine, but Bob’s words ran through my mind in that brief moment while the entire room waited for my response. I slowly lifted my head, finding my biggest smile on the way. “I know a great place to go!” I exclaimed. “Let me give you directions.” Go to hell. And let me tell you how to get there.
And they thanked me for it!
A few minutes later, a woman and her granddaughter came in, hoping to find fried eggs on the menu. She was much kinder. I drew her a map to a place. She left, but not before spending $20 and offering words of gratitude.
And I realize that for some people, Snickers bars, Pepsis, sandwiches and eggs cooked-to-order are real perceived needs when they come in the door. Those are common cultural norms around here. But I don’t have to fill them in order to be a good neighbor or a good businessperson. I have to honor the other need the cafe fills besides coffee and meals: a community space, where people can get news, information, and help. And in honoring that, I have seen a gradual shift over the summer, where the angry and annoyed early customers weeded themselves out, and a celebratory, lingering crowd has settled in to populate the space. Between waiting tables and pulling their lattes, I meet lots of other folks who are just passing through: seeking directions, help with their cars, or fried eggs. They don’t want our food. But they still need our help. They are still part of the community. And the faster we help them, the faster we can take care of the people who want to linger in our space.