16 May 2011

The Day I Served Gilda Radner the "Ugliest Pastry"

Gilda Radner
You never know who your customers are unless you get to know them.

One of my first jobs in New York was as a baker's assistant at Natural Source, a small bakery on 72nd St and Columbus Ave.

Most of my time was spent running baked goods from the kitchen on 71st and tubs of hand-packed ice cream from the basement to the shop on the corner.

It was the early 80s, a heady, gentrifying time on Columbus Avenue.  New York Magazine dubbed it the "New Left Bank," with Charivari's high-end fashion store, the orignal Silver Palate restaurant, numerous galleries, and even a Texas bootery called "To Boot."  (I still have a pair of Noconas they tossed because of a tear in the snakeskin.)

I learned a lot about baking from the baker, a woman named Lesley who went on to work for Sarabeth's Kitchen. (We sold Sarabeth's marmalade when she was still making it out of her apartment.)

But I also learned a valuable lesson about customer service.

Occasionally, during my runs I'd find the shop crowded and offered to lend a hand at the counter.  The counter crew didn't like a bakery "bus boy" crowding in on their territory and tips.  But there were two times where I couldn't resist.

The first was when a woman dressed as a bag lady came in.

"I'll take the ugliest pastries you have," said the woman. 

"We don't carry ugly pastries," said the impatient counter help. "Why don't you try another store."

The woman looked annoyed.  I stepped in and said, "If you want ugly pastry, come back with me to the kitchen.  We've got a bunch that will just be tossed otherwise."

She followed me to 71st Street.  I explained the situation to Lesley and she gave me a paper bag full of discards.  I handed it to the woman.

"Thanks, sonny.  Do you know who I am?" She looked familiar, but I couldn't place her. She shouted, "Live from New York, It's Saturday Night!"

After that, whenever the "bag lady" Gilda Radner came by the shop, she asked for me and I brought the ugliest pastry I could find.  I never told anyone at the store who she was; it was our little secret.

What are you doing to get to know your customers? Are you giving them what they want or what you want them to have?

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