My typical answer to “what do you do?” sometimes invites a metric tonne of questions that I do not feel like answering. I have learned to say “Internet marketing.” in a tone that does a pretty good job of closing the topic. But today I have stumbled upon a better answer. Please.
There is a signature look that one gets from the employees of a certain establishments where morale is low. The first part of that look is that it is a look at all. In general, as a customer, I am grateful to to be acknowledged and left alone. In this dynamic, I’m one of a faceless blur. A healthy company’s employees treat me as if I were special, but they do this as a rule, to every customer. It’s when I sense that I’m being looked at by an employee as an individual that I get uncomfortable.
Despite everything corporations say about treating every customer as if he/she were the only one, endowing a customer with the kind of individuality that I’m talking about, that is, treating a customer as a human, belies an imbalance in the viewer. There is something lacking in an employee who sees a customer not as a customer but as a person that makes them bigger than they ought to be. They are discontent, and it manifests itself in various ways: resentment and lust being the two popular ones.
That I am seen at all is disquieting. Then there is the matter of the sentiment of the gaze.
It is not so much what is in the look, but what is lacking from it. There is no sense that we are sharing in a symbiotic relationship of consumer and provider. Rather, it is a look from across a divide, it is an “us vs. them” look. It is a look that leaks wariness. I saw that look tonight at Frita Batidos when we walked in. Again as we left and two employees trained their eyes on the mess our children had made underneath our table.
And then there was the employee who rolled her eyes at the customer in front of me as he walked away. As a rule, eye-rolling at customers is not good for business. If I see you roll eyes at another customer, I can only assume you’ll roll your eyes at me when I turn my back.
This look, it is the result of bad management. There is only ever one explanation for discontented employees, and that is a management style that alienates and demoralizes.
There are two other examples that come to mind of local businesses suffering from poor management: Plum Market, which I have always understood to be a place where unhappy people with disposable income go to shop. The now-defunct Merchant of Vino is another one from a few years ago. Merchant was coincidentally run then by the same founders as Plum. I shudder still when I remember the frequency of the tensely surreptitious looks from the produce stockers when you walked in the door. The Beckettian I can’t look, I must look conflict of a person at odds with their own discontent. They were horribly ashamed to be so pathetically bored.
It is offputting to be made aware that you have that power as a customer. I tend not to want to go back.
I can’t go back. I must go back (because I always convince myself that this time… this time it’ll be different).
I am not in the habit of writing reviews of restaurants as I rarely feel compelled to force my bitchiness judgments of a particular establishments merits on another’s subjective experience, but tonight’s dinner at Frita Batidos was so piss-poor that I feel obliged to warn others for their own protection.
This was my fourth meal there. The first two were fine, a little shaky, but charming enough to warrant further inspection. The vibe was a bit much: the staff seemed to be high on the fresh start (according to an unimpeachable source, Frita’s owner, Eve Aranoff, stiffed investors and staff alike as her last venture crumbled), and sold the concept of every item in booming uber-enthusiastic voices that made it hard to taste the food for yourself, and I had a hard time hearing my companion(s) because of the canyonesque acoustics of the room, but the sandwiches were good (can you go wrong with chorizo and french fries?) and, despite inconsistency and items that failed to live up to the hype (conch fritters), most of the ingredients and combinations were thrilling and novel, so I was willing to go back for more.
The second time we casually commented to an employee about the noise. “We’ve heard that, yeah.” the server said. “The Roadhouse had that problem,” I said, “they put up some baffles in the dining room and that was that.” I half expected to find baffles the next time I went in.
The third time was not-so-charming. The fruit flies arrived at Frita Batidos in late summer (big, juicy, jungular ones – they must have ridden in on a carton of mangos), and were a nuisance while we ate. It was also disquieting to have a half dozen buzzing around with me in the cramped bathroom. And to my surprise, after a lapse of more than six months, nothing had yet been done about the cacophony.
All of this prelude to tonight’s dénouement. Shall we begin? How about with the flies.
Apparently, they loved it so much this summer they moved in permanently. We (Courtney, Henry and I, and our friend and her two children) decided to try the furthest-back table, hoping to keep our kids’ high chair legs out of the crowd by the order counter and also hoping that it would be beyond the canyon of noise. It worked for the former. We couldn’t gauge the latter. More on that later.
Behind our table, against the wall, was a trash can. Above and around this can, clinging to the wall and the pile of napkins and the bottles of condiments on the shelf at the end of our table, were somewhere between fifty and a hundred fruit flies. It took us a few minutes to notice them (they were mostly still, and small enough to blend in to the dark nooks and crannies of the whitewashed brick) but by meal’s end they were restless or hungry enough that they had come off the wall and into our circle and we were vigorously shooing them from our faces and food.
At one point, after noticing them early on, I joked with an employee that had sent them flying when he moved some decorative bamboo stalks near the trash: “Mind those flies now,” I said, and he chuckled. “A shop vac will really do the trick.” I tried again when he missed the subtle call for help. He walked off with the bamboo and I did not see him again. It would appear that that early booming enthusiasm has been replaced by chuckles and apathy.
Our food came moments later. I liked my chorizo sandwich. But then I found a hair in it, nice and dark and curly, facial or pubic I couldn’t decide without my gag reflex activating. I set it aside and finished my sandwich – I compartmentalize well. I understand that this happens. Still, it can’t help but be added to the negative impression I was cumulating.
I will venture that it did indeed seem quieter in the back with the flies and the pubic hair, at first. But then the music coming out of the speakers directly behind and above our table was turned either on or up. Whichever, it was so loud that we all paused in our conversation, waiting for order to be restored. When it was not I turned and got the attention of the employee behind the counter and motioned a request for him to turn it down. He did not understand my gestures for a long moment. Someone out of view turned it down at last.
Twenty minutes later we were finishing our food. Henry asked for another of the pretty umbrellas that came with a drink. The music volume had also crept back up to an unbearable level. “I’ll ask,” I said, and got up with Henry. There was a man ordering at the counter. I did not notice anything remarkable about his manner. He finished and turned away, and I looked at the clusters of customers milling abjectly near the counter, waiting for, I presume, to-go orders, to make sure that I wasn’t cutting in line. Satisfied, I stepped forward and looked up at the woman, who had just completed an eye roll to her (bearded! off-duty or non-employee) companion (about, I presume, the man who had just ordered). She was nice to Henry and I, took time to offer him his choice of pretty umbrellas colors, and made small talk. I thanked her and asked her if she could turn the music down. She said she would. I am not certain she did.
We left soon after so that we could hear ourselves finish a conversation. I considered warning the couple I saw eyeing our table about the flies as we prepared to go, but decided against it. I could not gauge them and wasn’t confident that they would appreciate my input. We walked out, through that abject crowd, and as we hit the air outside I felt noticeably relieved. I turned around as we waited for our friend, and looking back in it was clear. It was written all over all of their faces: “I can’t come back to this place anymore,” I said after a moment. “There is something really off in there.”
Frita Batidos In summary:
Flies: Really, really, really gross. Reported, observed, ignored.
The Hair: Ick.
Inordinate Volume: Requested. Ignored.