Stephen Horenstein
Music, Arts and Society

My ethical café adventure

Today I had the strangest of occurrences. While visiting the local café that has of late become my office, I sat down in one of my usual tables. The waitress, obviously new, came over to me and said: “Sir, this table is for four.  Can you move?” I said to her, “Someone else will be joining me, and besides there are other four-people tables with only one or two people.” She said, yes, but those people are elderly. I normally would be totally flattered, but said, “I am elderly too!” She looked at me in disbelief and walked away. I should have been elated that she though me young, but the interaction still annoyed me.

Soon my son Jacob Yona joined me and we stayed at that same table for over two hours. No-one bothered us, nor were we asked to move. On the contrary, more and more tables were freed up, with the crowd’s mean age declining. I thought to myself, “I wonder if they will be asked to move?’

It turns out that this approach to loyal customers was the brainchild of the new manager; or perhaps she was merely following orders from “above.” The purpose was, no doubt, to maximize profit. What the “powers that be” didn’t realize is such an approach to customer relations minimizes profit, and ultimately leads to closing of enterprises. The beauty of a neighborhood café is that everyone is neighborly. For instance, I have entered that establishment hundreds of times; everyone knows me (except, unfortunately, the poor new waitress relaying the message from “Garcia”:  i.e., my eviction notice). Unfortunately, the staff had to grudgingly play the “game.”

Later in our discussion and meal (my son and I ate heartily), the café manager saw me and scowled. That was really stupid on her part because before us were huge plates of food, half-way consumed (we were mid-way in our meal). She had to have seen that we ordered a lot and were simply not nursing cups of “Joe.” I laughed to myself and wanted to walk up to her and say something, but didn’t want to embarrass my son. He was embarrassed enough when I introduced him to one of the “veteran” waitresses who I knew me from my morning coffees.

I guess the moral of this story is: What have we become?  To what degree has the profit motive exceeded the desire to create a welcoming family-like place? My own father, Wolfe, knew that well. I am thinking about him, because tonight is his yahrzeit (may his soul rest in peace). Of course I will go to shul. What I remember most about Dad was how he ran his shoe stores in Manchester, New Hampshire. Everyone loved “Uncle Wolfie” (as he was affectionately called). First of all, he employed his workers for 20 years or more; they loved the work atmosphere and his generosity.  His was a family enterprise, and he wanted it that way. Every customer was king/or/queen; he cared about every worker like a son or daughter. To walk into his store was to walk into a sea of smiles.

My father, Wolfe Horenstein z”l, with granddaughter Eliana

So what would my father had done if he ran a neighborhood café?  He would have walked up to the two men sitting in a four-some table (i.e., US), and ask, “Excuse me, would you mind if I split these two tables so they are doubles?…We would have said, “Of course! We don’t mind at all.” He probably would have said to us, “And for your trouble, coffee’s on me!”

So in this cockeyed world, profit has become loss. I made aliyah because I was missing something abroad. I thought I could make a difference, after all I was moving “back” to family. I think about this often. How quickly we have changed; overnight the store chains have given way to grumpies and instead of saying “Have a wonderful day!” most facial expressions say, “How are we going to get through this day?”.

Ok, I am being a bit pessimistic. But it isn’t every day that, as you are served your morning coffee, you are asked to move! Well, perhaps we need to lighten up the game and teach all waitresses “musical chairs,” where everyone gets up and moves to music. When the music stops, every person sits at the closest chair, but cleverly, one chair has been removed. At least that way the music would lighten people’s morning load, and they would leave the place with smiles.

My advice: Next time you are asked to move to a smaller table, please kindly ask the waitress if she could turn up the music and let people have fun! Life is short! And to the new enterprises, we should say: “Please help us lighten our load, not make it heavier!”

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About the Author
Stephen Horenstein is a composer, researcher and educator. His repertoire of musical works has been performed and recorded worldwide. He has been a recipient of the Israel Prime Minister's Prize for Composers and the National Endowment of the Arts (USA). His teaching has included Bennington College, Brandeis University, Tel Aviv University, Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance; residencies at Stanford University, York University, California Institute of the Arts, and others. He is Founder and Director of the Jerusalem Institute of Contemporary Music, established in 1988 to bring the music of our time to a wider audience.
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