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Telling Regular Customers “No” – Why the Lenzig café lost me today.

I had a strange, but not completely atypical, experience at Lenzig, a neighborhood café, today: I ordered food and “Leitungswasser” – tap water.

Lenzig is a nice neighborhood café – the kind of place where most customers are regulars, the food predictable, and the atmosphere pleasant. It’s nothing I would travel out of my way for, but it’s a short from my house and, therefore, some place I will go once or twice a month.

It must have been the first time that I’d ordered Leitungswasser – and the waitress immediately told me that this wasn’t allowed. She could bring me Leitungswasser with another drink, but that she couldn’t just bring me plain Leitungswasser.

To say I was surprised would be an understatement – it was the kind of thing that took me a few seconds to process as I tried to figure out what I wanted to do.

Keine Getränk,” I managed to say – and as she started to turn away, I kept thinking and then continued, “und kein Essen.”

No drink… and no food.

I walked out as she was trying to apologize for the restaurant’s policy.

Too little, too late. Had she been smart, she would have recognized that I’m somewhat regular and that this house rule (if it is indeed a legitimate house rule) was one that should be ignored because now I will never return to Lenzig.

It’s not the first time I have stopped going to a restaurant because of an interaction like this. Back in Bloomington, I used to go two or three times a month for breakfast at Opie Taylor’s in Bloomington. The waitress knew me and after the first few visits, I don’t think I had to order again.

Problem: the owner kept turning down the lights while I was reading my newspaper. I asked him to stop and he gave me some bullshit excuse about how it was too bright (now that it was too dark to read the newspaper) and that it was using too much electricity.

As I paid my bill that morning, I told the waitress that I wouldn’t be back, that it was too dark to read and that her boss had, effectively, driven me away. I still haven’t been back – and when I visit Bloomington, it never occurs to me to set foot inside Opie Taylor’s.

I had a similar experience with a coffee shop here in Berlin. One block away from my office there are two coffee shops – a local chain with fairly decent coffee, Einstein Kaffee, and an international powerhouse, Starbucks.

My choice was Einstein – stopping by most mornings for my “grosse Latte mit lactosefrei milch.” I only had to say what I wanted when there was a new barista.

The baristas were, for the most part, friendly, save for one girl who seemed not to like working – whether it was because she was there when the shop opened at 7:30 (or 7:00 when they started opening earlier) or because she hates working in a coffee shop, I never could tell. I just put up with her grouchy attitude because it didn’t really affect me all that much.

Then, one morning, I took a picture of the bakery display case.

For the record, it was not the first time I’d taken a picture inside this Einstein Kaffee. Whenever the foam on my latte was especially pretty, I would take pictures of my latte and post them to Twitter. I’d never had any cause to think that taking photos would cause any offense.

Kein Fotos” – it was delivered as a snarl across the shop.

Here’s the deal: there were absolutely no humans in my photo – only the bakery display case – as I’ve thought about the situation, I cannot come up with any particularly good reason why Einstein Kaffee might have a corporate policy against customers taking pictures of the bakery display case – I could see plenty of argument in favor of allowing customers to take pictures (e.g. reference for when taking group orders at an office).

So I was mystified and pissed off. Even if Einstein Kaffee has a corporate policy against photos of the bakery display case, surely the baristas should ignore it unless the customer was getting in the way of other customers. It’s not really an important (or useful) policy.

The end result was that I stopped going to that Einstein Kaffee that day.

It took me awhile, but eventually I gave in and because a Starbucks customer.

There’s something I never thought I would say: I am a Starbucks customer. I even earned a gold card. I have elite status with Starbucks. Most of the baristas at the Starbucks know my order and I don’t have to say a word.

Now the girl who snarled at me has been transferred to another location – so my reason for not going there isn’t quite so strong – and I actually went last Wednesday because when I stepped inside the Starbucks, I discovered that the queue was literally to the door – I would have been standing outside.

My loyalty to Starbucks is not that strong, especially since I’d forgotten to set my alarm for Wednesday morning and was running more than an hour behind schedule and I had a meeting in 15 minutes, so I went over to Einstein.

The barista working recognized me, remembered my drink, and asked me why I had stopped coming to Einstein.

Explaining all of this in German was too much for me, so I resorted to describing the colleague who had snarled at me (she’s easy to describe) and explained that “Sie ist ein arschloch.”

Surprisingly he did not seem surprised to hear this news – and he told me that she was now working at a different shop.

The problem for Einstein Kaffee is, however, that I’m now a Starbucks customer and I am loyal to Starbucks (in part because Starbucks is the only coffee shop with locations open Sunday morning at 8:00).

This girl barista, by enforcing either a corporate policy or her own made-up rule, pushed me out the door, losing about 90€ worth of revenue each month to their competitor.

Lenzig is not going to lose that much revenue a month from me – more on the order of 15-20€/month – but it seems to me that it is foolish to have rules like no tap water unless you order a real drink.

4 comments to Telling Regular Customers “No” – Why the Lenzig café lost me today.

  • mateo

    That’s odd that you couldn’t receive a tapwater. In the States, they practically force it on you, even if you say you don’t want one. It’s sad when one little experience can ruin a place to the point you don’t ever want to go there again.

  • It’s a shame — but I’m not super attached to Lenzig, it was more about being a short walk from home than about inspiring cooking. It was a nice place to go for a ginger ale with a friend if I wanted to sit outside and talk, or some place to go for a light meal if I didn’t have time/energy to cook.

    There are a plethora of other choices in the neighborhood, they seem not to understand the concept of competition.

  • tg

    Selling beverages is vital for German restaurants. Beverages are quite expensive and provide the most important part of the overall profit. Most Germany-based customers know it and buy beverages. Therefore, German Restaurants very rarely offer free tap water. Sometimes they will provide it when you ask, but it is as unusual for them to provide it as it is for a customer to ask for it. It is as unusual as bringing your own bottle to a restaurant. It may seem strange to customers from the US but customs are different. If you want water, you buy it bottled. Bying your beverage is just part of the deal of eating out. It is the way it works. Like generous tips are part of eating out in the US and important to keep the industry running. German customer service may suck but in this case it might just be a “cultural missunderstanding”.

    • Hi TG– After living in Germany for over a decade, I can assure you that there was no “cultural misunderstanding” here — I’ve ordered tap water in restaurants before without any issue. Two points to that, though: first, I’ll completely agree that it is a rather unusual request. Second, I will admit that I only request tap water about once every four or five months — and until Lenzig, I’ve never been denied.