The man waiting to place his order at the register taps his fingers on the counter to the beat of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” which is playing over the ambient din of the restaurant. He is tan and wearing a circle scarf—dad-age, but the kind of dad who knows the difference between Kobe and Wagyu beef and who has been on the receiving end of a manicure. He looks a bit like what I imagine Barbie’s boyfriend would look like at 50.
I’m dealing with a grade-A diva on the phone at the moment, and I can tell “Ken” is losing his patience by the way he keeps checking his Apple Watch for the time or non-existent notifications. I catch his eye and roll my own. I mouth the word “Sorry,” wrinkling my face to let him know that I’m also annoyed with the diva.
The woman on the phone wants to know what size pizzas we offer. If we can make a pizza half-gluten-free and half-normal. If I have any recommendations for picky eaters. Oh, she informs me, her husband has just walked in the front door. They have now reached a quorum. Off the line, she holds council with various key players in the family. “But will Mikey want onions?”
Why can’t people figure out their shit before calling? I think to myself. I also think of other things that are less interrogative and more potty-mouthed.
Neck-cradling the phone so I can keep tabs on Mikey’s ruling re: onions, I begin to ring up Ken, who has just let out a vigorous huff, sending a cascade of ripples across his circle scarf. He adds biscotti and drinks to his family’s order. His voice and the diva’s voice on the phone overlap at non-harmonic frequencies, and I’m getting the sort of headache I get when I try to read in a moving car. My neck, still bent in an acute angle to pin the phone, is beginning to feel like a paperclip pulled out of shape.
As I hand Ken his credit card and receipt, the woman on the phone finally solidifies her order and, thankfully, hangs up. I hurry through the next few customers, anxious to take their orders while the phone remains blissfully silent. The tricky part, of course, is not rushing people: It is rushing people while giving them the impression that you are receptive, relaxed, and ready to take care of their needs in as great or as painful detail as they require.
I never quite mastered the art of customer service during the time I spent working at Audrey Jane’s Pizza Garage in Boulder, Colorado. The Garage, as we call it, is a fine family establishment featuring saucy meatball grinders, greasy slices the size of a Yeti’s footprint, and a princess of a kale salad that has to be massaged with gloved hands.
Over winter break, Rooster, a local magazine sustained mostly by ads for high-THC strains of pot, gave the Garage a rating of four and a half out of five pies. This February, it appeared on Guy Fieri’s cooking show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Since the airing, business has picked up. My friend who still works there says she now makes $50 a night in tips. When I was there, the summer before college, a good night’s tips topped out at $35.
I continue to pick up shifts when I go back home over breaks. I take orders, make change, toss salads, man the ovens, and slice and box pizzas. In my admittedly limited experience, I’ve found that annoying customers come in three main strains.
There are the high-maintenance ones, whose orders read like java code, with nested “if” statements. (“I want the peppadews only if you can put them on before heating the slice, and I want garlic only if there are peppadews and you don’t melt the parmesan, but if you can’t get the peppadews heated, then no garlic and put the parmesan on instead.”)
Let’s call these customers the Sallys, from Meg Ryan’s notorious apple pie order in When Harry Met Sally. A customer is a Sally if their order can’t be parsed into the should-be comprehensive choices programmed for me on the iPad register. Instead, I have to scribble their preferences on a printed ticket with the pencil by the register that seems to disappear whenever I need it.
Then there are the oblivious customers—first-timers who study the menu like it is an ontological proof, people who come up to the register but then think about their order for whole minutes, while I try to keep my poker face as blank as the queen-of-hearts’ and stifle my panic about the size of the line creeping up behind their clueless musings. Phone addicts are an especially invidious strain of oblivious customers.
Finally, some customers are just mean—if not downright rude, then posing as self-righteously oppressed. Like, isn’t it just their luck to have ordered the one slice that got burned all morning—isn’t that just typical, isn’t that jussssst typical. And no, they would not like a complimentary slice along with our apologies; instead, they would like us to know that they can take their business elsewhere. These types of customers are rare but are a real bummer.
At heart, Boulder is a sleepy town, and it runs on a schedule that would be unthinkable here in New York. The Garage closes at 8:00 p.m. By 8:03 p.m., Shane has gleefully checked the time and unplugged the neon OPEN sign, Melia has turned up the music—something loud and offensive we can’t play around customers—and Matt has departed with the day’s leftover slices to barter with the liquor store on the other side of the strip mall for the nightly six-pack.
My coworkers and I laugh as we collect parmesan dispensers and slosh mop water into buckets. We tend to the shattered remains of a booth after it has seen the heavy combat of a six-year-old’s birthday party. We wipe surfaces until they meet our (admittedly low) standards of shininess. No one will be seeing their reflection in the cold stainless steel, but after a sweaty shift spinning pizzas in a 500 degree oven, maybe that’s for the best.
José is mopping the floor with perfect economy. He has added detergent to the stinky, frothy mop water, thick with floury semolina and bits of tomato sauce. He handled a total Sally of a customer today. “This one woman tried to convince me that we had pineapples!” he says. “As if I were lying to her and hiding them away!”
José squeegees the mop water into a sumo-wrestler-sized manhole in the ground. To get the cover off this manhole, you have to lean way down, which means getting your nose far closer to the underground sewer system than you’d prefer. You jam your fingernails in the crack around the manhole cover and try to lift straight up. By the time you’ve popped the cover off, your hands look as if you’ve just used a bicycle chain as a rosary.
Once the cover is off, the manhole is giant and yawning and José Luis likes to pretend to push me in. (José Luis is not the same person as José. There are actually three different people—José, Luis, and José Luis. José Luis, who speaks very little English, goes by “El Bigote” to prevent confusion. His mustache is fearsome.)
I am drying dishes—the lemon squeezer, knobs from the soda machine, giant cookie sheets that once held biscotti—when the phone rings. Everyone stops what they are doing and looks at me. Since most customers know our hours, the phone rarely rings after we close. I think I know who it is, and I’ve been dreading this call.
The fiasco occurred earlier this shift. A woman arrived to pick up the pizzas she had ordered, and I gave her someone else’s order. This fiasco was really more like a fiasco and a half, because not only was this woman in for a nasty surprise, but also the pizza makers then had to hold off on making all the other orders to frantically remake the pizza I had just accidently given away.
I’d been staring down the phone ever since, praying that it wouldn’t ring, jumping every time the bell on the door jingled and someone walked in. I don’t like to deserve my scoldings. Tricky customers are the worst when they are right.
I pick up the phone but hold it a little away from me, as you would hold somebody else’s dirty gym sock. “Hi,” a woman says. “I came in to pick up a pizza a little while ago and I didn’t check to see if it was the right one and—”
My heart sinks. It’s her. I can only imagine this woman’s evening: arriving at the Garage full of hope, hunger, faith in a benevolent God, and then…
On the phone, she tells me her side of the story. After a long drive home in a pizza-fragrant car, saliva building in anticipation, she’d opened the pizza box and discovered the worst kind of culinary betrayal. “The worst part,” she says, “Is that I am vegetarian, and the pizza was some sort of meat-lovers’.” It was, in fact, a Spicy Pig, one hundred pi square inches of sausage, pepperoni, roasted jalapenos, and grease.
I’m haggard—Obama-in-2016-level haggard. I’m making the sort of grotesque face that makes parents tell their kids to cut it out or they’ll get their face stuck. José and Melia and Shane pause in their tracks to giggle at me as I stumble over my apologies.
I inform the woman on the phone that her rightful pizza is still here, staying warm on top of the oven, but she informs me that she lives far away and won’t be coming back. I offer her a free pizza next time she comes in and apologize some more.
I get off the phone feeling awful. There’s a difference between judging impatient Kens or needy Sallys and screwing up someone’s dinner plans. There’s a difference between giving someone the customer-service smile (a bit plastic, doesn’t quite reach the eyes) and giving someone the wrong pizza. The first is just insincerity, the second is straight incompetence.
I have no qualms with insincerity. I don’t think two strangers exchanging money for pizza need to be their genuine selves, and I think it’s silly to expect them to be.
Incompetence is a different matter. Like most of my coworkers, I take great pride in the pizza we serve at the Garage. I get real satisfaction from seeing people go from hungry to full, from stressed to sedated, from tensely vertical to languorously horizontal, with hands resting on their pizza-pregnant bellies. I love watching parents blow on a slice of pizza and feed it to their babies for the very first time.
At the Garage, I feel the Platonic urge to do a job well. It is a question of duty and fulfillment, of principle and loyalty, a question of pursuing excellence in everything I do.
A few feet away from the computer, where Shane is bent over an Excel spreadsheet fighting the day’s accounting, José Luis has built up a backlog of dishes awaiting my drying rags. All I can say about the speed with which José Luis washes dishes is that it boggles the mind.
“Sophia,” he tells me. “Los trastes te esperan.” The dishes are waiting for you. I pick up a fresh rag and start drying. The dishes may feel endless, but they are rarely impatient. And never vegetarian.
When I finish the dishes, there will be chairs to hoist on top of tables, salad toppings to Saran wrap, songs to queue on Spotify. Someone should take the last round of trash out, although of course there will be another last round of trash after that. Then we will gather on the picnic tables outside the entrance, pick at the leftover slices, and laugh at some of the sillier things customers said today. There will be more Kens and Sallys and grade-A divas to tend to tomorrow.
Have fun leafing through our eighth issue!