Panhandling for Birthday Cake
I have done my weekly shopping at the same grocery store chain for decades. Over the years I have spent, by my very conservative estimate, about $200,000. And that’s just personal shopping; I’m not even counting the thousands more I have spent purchasing items for the restaurant in between shipments from our usual suppliers. One time, I noticed a loose can of frozen orange juice concentrate rolling around in the shopping cart when I got to my car. I returned to the store, got back in line, and paid for the errant item I had missed the first time around. Another time, I remembered a box of diet Coke on the bottom of the cart just as I had finished cashing out. “Oh dear”, I said to the cashier, “I’m sorry but I just noticed this carton of soda I forgot to pay for.” She sighed in a hugely irritated way and said, “well you’ll just have to wait until I finish this person’s transaction.” So I did. I am an honest person.
I’ve had these experiences at other stores too. I’ve forgotten to put something on the conveyor and then remembered once I’ve gotten to the car. I always return, get back in line, apologize, and then pay for the forgotten item. But I am often made to feel like some sort of criminal, or at least an inconvenience. Every time this happens, every time I get back to my car and find an item I haven’t paid for (which, truthfully, is not very often despite how I may have made it appear here) I say to myself “ah, fuck it, I’m not going back”, but I always do. I’ve even returned to IKEA and its legendarily long lines to pay for a Fückøff, or some such thing. I am an honest person.
It is my practice to count the change I am given in a transaction. Occasionally, a cashier will shortchange me, almost certainly by accident, and I point it out. Of course, this happens less and less now that every cash register automatically calculates the change and sets it out in great big digital numbers. Less frequently, a cashier will return too much change. Rather than pocket my windfall, I always advise the cashier that she has made an error. Surprisingly, she often seems not to care. I’ve had a cashier make that familiar frustrated sigh and say “well you’ll just have to wait until I finish the next person’s transaction.” And I don’t think anyone has ever said “thank you” after I’ve stood around waiting five minutes to return 25¢. It doesn’t happen very often that I receive incorrect change and am asked to wait while some other transaction is completed, but often enough that I have said to myself “ah, fuck it, next time I won’t bother”. But I always do. I am an honest person.
On a recent grocery shopping trip, the cashier made my change and returned to me an extra $20 bill. I told her she had made a mistake. “No, I don’t think so”, she said. “Yes”, I said, “you definitely did.” “No, I definitely didn’t.” Wow. Not wanting her to get in trouble, I told her to call me if her till was short $20 at the end of her shift. “Don’t worry about it”, she said, “we are allowed to be up to $20 over or under on our deposits.” I gave her my business card anyway and told her to call if there were any problems. I am an honest person.
The next day I got a call from the store manager telling me that the cashier’s deposit had indeed been $20 short and inquiring when I would be coming in to cover it. I was astonished, to be honest. Not that the deposit was $20 short, of that I was certain. I was surprised that the manager had called asking me to return the $20. Of course I had promised to do so – but still. This is not something I would ever do in my line of work. I cannot fathom calling one of our customers and advising her that she had shortchanged us $20. Even if that customer had been aware that she had shorted us and had promised to make us whole when we managed to figure it out. I would be too uncomfortable to call someone out for $20. I would worry about offending that customer, or embarrassing her. It just wouldn’t be worth it, not for $20. Which is not to say that $20 is a pittance, or that money means nothing to me.
There’s that old story about how Bill Gates is so rich that it would be a poor investment of his time to stop and pick up a $100 on the sidewalk. That’s not me. I’d stop to pick up a dime. In this scenario, Loblaws is Bill Gates. Loblaws had revenue of more than $46 billion in 2016, meaning Loblaws earns about $20 every 100th of a second. Let that sink in. And yet they called me to pay back the $20. Talk about a poor investment of time, never mind customer relations. Of course, I brought it all on myself, because, honest. So the next day I went to Loblaws and returned the $20. I don’t believe there should be a reward for decency or honesty, but I do think someone might have been a little appreciative. I mean, as previously mentioned, I’ve given Loblaws $200,000 over the years. Make that $200,020. I’m not asking for fireworks or a sky writing display, but a thank you for the effort would have been nice.
Obviously I’m not just handing money over to Loblaws for shits and giggles; I get my groceries in return. It’s a fair transaction. And I don’t expect and would never dream of asking for anything for free. Sure, I’ve been to known to scarf some of the free deli samples. I can make an entire meal out of that shit. Who hasn’t spent lunchtime at Costco’s? But no one has ever waved me through the cashout saying “thanks for your business over the years, groceries are on us this week”. I’ve never gone shopping on my birthday and been offered a congratulatory pack of toilet paper. Loblaws is a business after all. They are in the business of making money, just like my restaurant is in the business of making money. So why do people expect free stuff from restaurants that they wouldn’t expect of any other business? How come someone waits fifteen minutes for her reservation at my restaurant and expects a free drink as compensation? I’ve waited longer for a bus in a snowstorm and still paid full fare for the privilege. How come a restaurant patron wants a free dinner because, I don’t know, she didn’t get the table that she wanted, or her meal didn’t arrive fast enough, or we didn’t constantly adjust the room temperature to accommodate her hot flashes? I’m not even kidding about that last one.
I can’t tell you the number of times someone calls my restaurant to make a dinner reservation and asks “so what do you do for birthdays?” I always want to say, “well, when my kids were younger I’d get balloons, have a party, maybe hire a clown. Birthday cake of course. And ice cream. Now that they’re older we just have a nice dinner and I make their favourite dessert. On my birthday I’m often working but maybe I’ll start drinking earlier than usual. Why do you ask?” Of course, I know exactly what “so what do you do for birthdays” means. It means “do I get a free dessert”. No. No you don’t. You get a candle in whatever dessert you choose to order and pay for. If you’re lucky, one of my operatically-trained sons is working and will sing a “Happy Birthday” to bring the house down. The performance is free. The dessert is not. I don’t get how an expensively-dressed woman who valet parked her Mercedes has the nerve to panhandle for birthday cake.
The other evening there was a party of three women at the restaurant. One of the women took me aside after their dinner but before dessert and asked the dreaded “so what do you do for birthdays” question. Apparently, all three women were celebrating their respective birthdays and she figured I could help them out by giving them three free desserts. Up to that point their combined bill amounted to about $100 and she still expected something gratis. I didn’t know these women. I had never seen them before. They’re not related to me and they’re not friends of mine. I wasn’t invited to their birthday party but they still expected me to give them a present? Giving away free desserts to the tune of about $30 means I wouldn’t make any money off this table. In fact, I would lose money. The reality is that a lot of people go to restaurants to celebrate birthdays. Sometimes I think that’s why restaurants, or birthdays, were invented. If everyone got a birthday dessert gratis I’d be giving away free stuff several times every single night. How does this make business sense? How does this make sense at all?
I saw a post the other day listing 75 restaurants that offer free food on your birthday. They are all American restaurants: Applebee’s, Denny’s, Baskin-Robbins, Chipotle’s, Hooters, Cheesecake Factory, Red Lobster, etc., but there are probably Canadian restaurants that do this too. Here are some things all these places have in common, so far as I can tell: each requires you to join their “birthday club” (which means you are on someone’s subscriber list FOREVER) and each is a huge corporate conglomerate. These places have budgets for that sort of thing. They aren’t wondering how they’re going to make the next mortgage payment or whether the cheque for the orthodontist is going to bounce.
This is how a restaurant is able to offer you a free birthday dessert: it’s not actually free. There is no such thing as a free lunch, or any other kind of free food for that matter. If you are given a “free” dessert on your birthday it is because someone, maybe even you, is being hosed elsewhere. Maybe the wine is marked up 400%. Maybe the kitchen staff is paid less than a living wage. Maybe the restaurant serves inferior quality food at grossly inflated prices but you are otherwise seduced by the restaurant’s interior design or Instagram feed or some such bullshittery. Likely, and particularly with the sort of restaurants that offer free birthday cake, all your food was prepared in bulk days ago in some offsite commissary kitchen by factory workers using lesser quality ingredients and earning minimum wage if they’re lucky. If you want free food on your birthday you might want to try one of those places. Or Costco around lunchtime.
My professionally-trained and highly-experienced chef husband makes every dessert, and everything else actually, daily, using only the highest quality ingredients like real cream, real butter, cane sugar, vanilla beans, Swiss chocolate, hand-selected produce, and so on. To the extent that he is able, he sources local, sustainable, and organic ingredients. All of our kitchen staff, some of whom earn more than we do, are expected to employ their significant expertise, technique, skill, and attention to detail in preparing every item that leaves the kitchen. Our bottom line is integrity not the bottom line. Would you prefer we sacrifice that so that you can have a free dessert on your birthday?
We are flattered and delighted that you want to spend your special day with us. We give you food and you give us money. That’s how it works. That’s how restaurants like ours stay in business so that you can come celebrate your birthday with us again next year. The next time someone asks “so what do you for birthdays” I want to tell them I got a great deal at IKEA so the birthday girl will get a free Fückøff. I’m just being honest. I am an honest person.