When anyone asks how have we lasted so long when other, arguably better-run businesses have faded, I inevitably answer, full of gratitude, “Word of mouth.” We have never paid a dime toward advertising, not because we don’t want to, but because we are waiting to grow big enough to have a marketing department, and someone, anyone, to run it.
In the meantime, we have had professional word-of-mouth: The New York Times was an early champion in 2002, and then delivered the slam-dunk review in 2008 that I am certain saved us from the worst days of the Great Recession. Other publications, such as Time Out and New York magazine, repeatedly added their blessings. If, however, our teacup runneth over, it is not only because of such amazing articles, but because friends, and friends of friends of friends, have ushered in most of our clientele over 12 years.
In those 12 years, too, the Internet has been a steadily influential, ramped-up version of word-of-mouth. So many people have posted so many great things that I can hardly take them in, and when they write about how the plate was arranged to reflect some order or concept, I think, “Really? I did that?” A long time ago, I wrote books, and when someone reviewing a title pointed out some particular piece of structure that they appreciated, I had that same sense of surprise.
We have been so lucky. We’ve made a few top-eight and top-ten lists, and all I can say is “THANK YOU!!!!” But I also hear of grumblings on review sites, of customers who actually never sat down at a table in here but who nevertheless posted about their negative experiences. I have tried to answer them, publicly and via email, but I feel a little like Sisyphus, rolling that rock up a hill, only to see it crash down to the bottom again. Or, another story, when we took out the leaky rowboats of my summer childhood on the lakes of Minnesota; no matter how hard we bailed with a rusty soup can, the water kept rushing in. (Yes, we were allowed to touch rusty soup cans, and tetanus was never mentioned. We also rode around in the backseats of rattling station wagons without seatbelts, steel-belted radial tires, or sober parents. These observations, to my mother’s chagrin, I am saving for future posts.)
The negative word-of-mouth is always shocking. I have 14-hour days as the norm, not the exception, so I know we work hard. I source the best ingredients and teas, and we pay a premium. I watch the room and it appears that everyone is having a good time. I ask about the food, the service, the experience, and even if I discount half the praise for people feeling on the spot and forced to say something nice, it’s a lot of positive feedback.
When people write about the “old lady” behind the counter, I have to check the room to find out it’s ME. When they make a post a bad review about the fact that we don’t have coffee, I look around to see why they came in at all. There are no signs that say “coffee.”
I’ve lit on one answer, which came to me this summer when no one was here, even though it was tea time, around 4:00. Bracketed as it was by two busy days, I was happy for the down time it provided, because I was ready for some tea. I could not keep my eyes open. Without customers in here to take care of, all I could think of was sleep. And then I remembered as a child, wanting to sleep through afternoon classes. In college I learned to take morning and evening classes, and go home to “study” in the afternoon.
The revelation is that I am a morning person. I am a night person. I am even a very late night, pre-dawn person. And I wake up cheerful. But there are much better people to be around at 4:00 in the afternoon when I have a natural crash, and am primed for possible meltdowns. While watching various young women handle the counter for me in downtime, I don’t hear their tone change at all over the course of the day. But my tone in the afternoon is, seriously, “I need to take a nap now, and it’s not your fault.” And people hear it, even though I think I sound normal. When you are tired, as when you are drunk, you have different perceptions of how you are behaving.
So, even though afternoons are, literally, my bread and butter, I have to assess the fact that I am in those hours, bad for business. The word of mouth train leaves the station without me, then, while I staff up for afternoons. Elspeth may be facing early retirement. You will find a kinder, gentler persona in her place, I hope, very soon. And thanks for putting up with me for these 12 years. I am really grateful.