One less rule

We used to have a rule. It seemed like a good idea at the time. It was to do with our pricing.

We had two prices for coffees, one for in-house and another – about 10% less – for take-away. It wasn’t something I invented myself – everyone knows that food and drinks often cost more when served at a table rather than taken to go. A beer at a pub costs multiple times what you’d pay for the same beer off the shelf in a shop. Nothing controversial about that. And our price difference was only 10%.

There are lots of extra costs of serving in-house: the service itself, the cost of renting the space, the renovations needed to turn it into a place where people actually want to spend some time, and then all those tables and chairs to buy and replace from time to time.

For the customer, the “rule” part of it wasn’t really a rule at all, more of an assumption. Nowhere was it actually written: “If you buy a take-away coffee, then please take it away”. (Just as it wasn’t spelt out that if your coffee comes served in a porcelain cup, then please don’t take it away.”) Strangely enough, we took it for granted that that’s what people would do.

And most of the time, that’s what happened. But not always. From time to time, someone would ask for a take-away coffee, get the discount, then sit down at a table. We were most indignant! How unfair was it, not just for us but for the other customers who were paying a higher price for the same thing? Maybe we needed to tighten our policy, enforce it more strictly?

And then came the Trip Advisor one-star review from hell.

The title: “Beware of rude and potentially racist coffee shop”. The customer recounted what happened after ordering a coffee: “Got it to go and sat down for a moment to figure out our next step. We were asked to leave as we were told they needed the tables for lunch people. […] With their rude and possibly racist attitudes, I would definitely not visit this place or give them our business.”

I was shell-shocked. Apart from plummeting our average rating, it would be the first review that anyone would see until the next was posted, which could be days or even weeks away! I assumed the worst, that it would cause our business to plummet along with our ratings.

Fortunately, it didn’t. In fact, it picked up, though that may have been a coincidence.

Anyway, I felt the need to reply. I pointed out that the accusation of racism seemed a little unwarranted, firstly because the adjectives “potentially” and ‘”possibly” indicated a slight lack of confidence in the claim and secondly because, at the time, the ethnic origins of our staff included Arabic, Jewish, French, Australian and Scandinavian, and we all got on very nicely together thanks very much.

I felt quite good about such points scoring, and I also felt quite confident that none of the staff has actually been rude. Nevertheless, I didn’t doubt that the customer was genuinely annoyed at being told that his takeaway coffee didn’t give him the right to sit down.

I started seeing it from his point of view. He might not have even realised he was getting a discount for a take-away coffee. He was probably used to getting coffee from Starbucks or similar chains where they make no distinction. Or maybe he fully intended to take it away when he ordered and then changed his mind. None of which sounded like a criminal offence.

I also thought back to a couple of times after coming to France when I was sure I was a victim of discrimination myself, only to realise later how wrong I was. When in a foreign country and things don’t go right for you, even small things, it’s easy to jump to conclusions.

I wondered what it must be like for people who really are victims of discrimination, over issues that really do matter.

Soon after, we threw our own version of logic out the window and stopped with the price difference. Much simpler to manage. One less rule. It means that customers pay more for a take-away coffee than they otherwise would, but then again it discourages the use of disposable cups which are still an environmental problem and cost money too.

And ever since, no-one has found a reason to call us racist.

  • Danny Freedman

    Your multicultural staff make it even more tempting to pass by (and sit down ;-), and certainly not “stray” away from having a coffee at your place next time I’m in Versailles (we live in Bougival and regularly go to Versailles 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment, Danny – look forward to the next time you stay our way!

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