Active Rain June 6, 2011

A Brief Thought on Service

The venerable Southside Market, home of many happy memories and lessons from my youth. It is under different ownership but is now very established in the neighborhood.  I worked the deli counter at a small market a block from Sing Sing Prison for much of my youth. The place was open from 5:30am until after midnight, specifically to serve the 3 shifts of prison guards from the Big House. They came in tired and burned after 8-12 hours or more with inmates, and we had them leave happy. I worked the night shift, and after a huge rush of dozens of sandwiches and hot dinners, I had to completely break down and clean the counter & steam table and close up shop before leaving at 1am. I seldom stayed more than 15 minutes past closing. My best friend’s father owned the place, and it was one of the best working experiences I ever had. 

Recently, dutiful husband that I am, I called my wife en route home to ask if she wanted me to pick anything up before returning home. “YES,” came the reply. “I’ve had a day. Luke has tons of homework, Catherine is being difficult, Gregory…wa wa wa …” You get the picture. Dinner, if I wanted it, would not come from the skilled hands of my bride. 

LICENSE TO SPEND MONEY! I could get anything I wanted, but the trick is waiting. The answer: a deli. Substantial, quick, relatively inexpensive. And off to the main drag went I, where there was a sidewalk fair to mark the summer season. Live music, tables with goods outside, and a festive atmosphere. I love his town. 

I walked in at 6:40pm, and gave my order: A nice Italian combo. 


The cold cuts were closed. 

I checked my watch and glanced back at the cold cuts. Twenty minutes until closing, and the cold cuts were open in the meat case. 

“I already cleaned the meat cutter.”

Stunned silence. 


The cold cuts were closed TWENTY MINUTES before closing in a delicatessen? In New York

I flashed back to large, hulking prison guards from Sing Sing knocking on the glass door at Southside Market and asking me to open up after locking the door and sheepishly asking me to get them something before their 40 minute commute home after working a double shift with felons and murderers. I opened the doors and cleaned my counter a second time. It was my job, and I was making $3.50 and hour (it was 1985). Wedge, coffee, chips, napkin, soda, straw. 

I came back to my counter friend in 2011, and paused for a moment, and decided that I’d prefer not to argue. I couldn’t explain my thoughts to this guy and still eat before putting my kids to bed. So I said “OK,” and turned to find another place where they wanted to feed me. 

Seeing I was leaving, he said “wait” and offered me something which wouldn’t require the meat slicer. And I went home with a chicken cutlet. After which I went on Yelp and posted the following two-star review:

Great food. Well prepared. Huge selection. 

All of which is completely useless if you are going to tell a  patron that the cold cuts are unavailable 20 minutes prior to closing because you cleaned the meat cutter. 


In this counter worker’s mind he may have saved a customer, but he didn’t. He saved a $6 sale because I was hungry and food was 3 feet away. I have worked in hospitality and food services plenty in my life and that may be why real estate does not seem as hurculean as it does to some. I understand that kitchens close at a certain hour and I know that if you don’t run a business like a business you won’t remain in business. This is not one of those times. If you really want to give good service in any industry, you may have to clean your metaphorical meat slicer twice.