With a steady stream of snow and a wicked northeastern wind, the streets were surprisingly desolate and traffic-free this morning. Therefore, I decided a special out of my way detour for coffee was in order. And my coffee du jour? Dunkin’ Donuts.
Walking into Dunkin’ Donuts, I am greeted with a rare sight – an empty store with no line. Two faces appear behind the counter; Rama and Geeta. It doesn’t matter when I go there – weekdays, weekends, even Christmas Day, Rama and Geeta are standing behind that counter. For them, it is always time to make the donuts.
For over a year, they didn’t say much to me. In fact, they didn’t even seem to understand me. Half the time, my medium coconut with cream became a medium coffee with cream. Absolutely not the same as coconut coffee with cream. Two completely different things. One worth driving out of my way for, the other not worth two cents.
But lately, I noticed that they’ve perked up a bit. Maybe they’ve been hitting Dunkin Donuts’ new line of lattes or maybe they’ve just realized that they are in the customer service business as much as they are in the donut business.
Whatever the case, they seem to have picked up on the fact talking to customers equals happy customers and happy customers are more frequent customers and more frequent customers equals more money.
No sooner did I form this hypothesis than my suspicions for their money-driven niceties were confirmed. You see, around this time I also noticed that a peculiar cup appeared on the counter. Scribbled across the cup in bright yellow and black letters was the word TIPS.
It’s bad enough I drive out of my way for coffee, bad enough I pay good money for what I can easily make at home, bad enough that they charge me over $1.00 for something probably worth 10 cents. And so, if I was going to part with any more money, Rama and Geeta were going to have to work for it.
I was very willing to tip, but there were going to be a few rules. First, get my order right the first time. Second, don’t try to sell me anything else. Third, make me laugh. And that was the key. If I was going to go out of my way to part with more money, they had to go out of their way to make me laugh.
At first, this didn’t go so well. I stopped by the store for a bagel and coffee after an early morning swim. The conversation went a little like this:
“Can I have a wheat bagel, toasted,” I said as clearly and concisely as possible.
“You want a bagel toasted?” Rama asked.
“Wheat bagel,” I confirmed the flavor.
“You want it toasted?” Rama asked, as if in asking me I would change my mind? Turn one bagel order into a dozen? What, what what was she looking for?
“Yes, toasted,” I said, thinking to myself haven’t we covered this three times already.
“Wheat bagel toasted,” Rama confirmed.
“Yes,” I said, for what felt like the hundredth time. Next time, remind me to just eat the damn bagel at home.
“No cream cheese?” Rama asked, curiously, as if it would be unhuman to request a bagel without cream cheese, like asking for peanut butter without jelly, coffee without cream.
“No, but do you have peanut butter?” I thought I’d take a long shot. Risky, but really I wanted peanut butter that morning.
“Dunkin Donuts does not sell peanut butter!” she screamed as if I should have known better. I had violated the very core of what this woman believed about Americans and bagel spreads. Cream cheese goes on the bagel. It's that simple. No peanut butter, no butter, no margarine, no jam. I had no business throwing the peanut butter request in there. She looked ready to ban from me from ever returning, ready to post a sign with my picture that read let this be a lesson learned – peanut butter does not live here.
“Cream cheese. Dunkin Donuts sells cream cheese,” she asserted, making it clear that this is no place for peanut butter and no place for my ridiculous request.
“No cream cheese?” she asked, making one more attempt to make my bagel right.
“No, thanks.” Oh for the love of god give me the damn bagel and GET ME OUT OF HERE.
“Wheat bagel, toasted – no cream cheese.” Rama reiterated suspiciously to herself while looking at me from under her glasses like she didn’t trust me with such a suspect request because no normal person would eat a bagel without cream cheese.
Needless to say, I did not throw my coins in the tip cup that morning. It was going to take more than being hassled about my choice in bagel spreads to get some spare change out of me.
There I was, just a few weeks later standing at the counter faced with the same tip cup. It was filled with coins. Coins from generous people or coins from those that had simply learned if you throw a few coins in the cup you avoid a few minutes of pressure to buy a breakfast sandwich or turn your one donut order into a dozen. It's your call.
“Medium coconut with cream,” I requested, confident that this morning I would escape this line without being haggled about donuts, peanut butter, or whatever else was on Rama or Geeta’s mind.
“Just the coffee?” Rama asked. Immediately she puts doubt in my mind that I have made the wrong choice. Just the coffee? I don't know. I'm filled with doubt. Oh shit - is there something else? Should it be more than coffee? Should I break down and buy a blueberry donut? But if I do will I be coerced into buying a blueberry donut each and every time I return? What the hell do I do? I should turn around and run out of here and never come back. Screw you Dunkin Donuts! Screw your lusciously creamy coffee with fake coconut flavoring! AH!
“Yes, just the coffee,” I can handle this. I can do this. I can just order this coffee.
“No donut?” Rama asked again. She was relentless. She would accept nothing less than a donut in my hand. She was damned if I was going to walk out of that store with just a coffee.
“No, no donuts.” I stood firm.
“Why no donuts?” Rama probed. Like I couldn't see that one coming. Must we get into this? Must you probe me about all of the things I don’t like? I don’t like cream cheese and I certainly don’t like donuts. For that matter, I also don’t like eggplants, beets, potatoes and pizza. What do you have to say to that!?
“I don’t really like donuts.” I had to do it. I had to tell the truth. The hard cold truth. I do not like donuts.
“You don’t like donuts? No donuts?” This was sacrilege. This was totally un-American. How can you live in this country without liking donuts for breakfast. There must be a panic button. Somewhere under that counter she has pressed a red button that signals the junk food police to scoop me up and ship me off to Canada because I don’t like donuts, and if they find out I don’t like pizza, I’m not even sure Canada would take me.
“No, no donuts,” I said. Still waiting to be deported.
“You are too skinny. You need donuts.” This was the softer side of Rama. The motherly, caring, and concerned side. She wants me to eat donuts. She wants me to be happy and only a donut would make me happy. Here, have a little piece of happiness. It was a clever marketing approach – the maitronly, I will care for you approach. Eat my little cakes and buy yourself some happiness. This woman is pure marketing genius.
But really it was just a segueway into her next sinister statement. “She used to be skinny. Now she eats too many donuts,” Rama said pointing to Geeta, a woman about my age with a pretty face but with years of making, and eating the donuts, settled around her waist.
Geeta looked at me and smiled. And Rama, well she stood there in all of her own skinny sarcastic glory. I bet that woman never ate a donut in her life, I thought. And I bet Geeta eats about a dozen a day just to displace her annoyance with Rama all day long, a woman who will jab, poke, and probe at you until you crumble and buy a donut or order the darn cream cheese.
I stood there for a moment thinking of what to do or say next. They had gotten rule #1 - getting my order right the first time. They had completely violated rule #2 – don’t try to sell me anything else. But, they had nailed rule #3 – make me laugh. So on that day, I left Rama and Geeta a significant amount of spare change, walked out with coffee in hand and laughed all the way to work.