Posted Sunday, April 8, 2018.
“PB Boulangerie general manager Kathleen Morris explains the bakery’s new self-service cash register system to customer Jim Carey of Boston.” Photo by Merrily Cassidy/Cape Cod Times.
This makes sense for a small bakery that can’t afford to hire regular cashiers and extra counter help, but it feels like one more step on our way to living inside Me-Sized bubbles in which we don’t need to interact with other human beings.
SOUTH WELLFLEET [MA] — The staff at PB Boulangerie Bistro have their hands buried deep in dough every day making the bakery’s delectable pastries, breads and treats — but they no longer have to have their hands in a cash drawer making change.
In December, the French bakery and restaurant purchased a new cash register system that allows customers to insert coins and bills to pay their bill and get change back, all without the bakery’s staff having to handle any money. After an employee rings up the purchase, the customer can feed in coins and a stack of bills and get back the precise change in seconds.
Even in a society that is moving more quickly toward mobile payments and has embraced debit and credit cards, the machines are proving a hit with customers — aided, in no small part, by the 5 percent discount given to cash customers and the no-fee ATM outside the bakery’s front door.
For the staff, it means an end to needing to constantly put on latex gloves to handle the food and rip them off to handle the money, said manager Kathleen Morris.
“I would have put new gloves on four times already by now,” she said Thursday morning, about 15 minutes after the bakery’s 7 a.m. opening.
Another answer here would seem to be that instead of having the baking staff take turns pulling their hands out of the dough, peeling off their gloves, and racing to the register to help ring customers up, having people work the register in short shifts. But that would likely leave them short staffed in back during a rush.
Over the past few decades, Cape Cod has become in large spots a year-round destination. More and more people are making it their first home instead of their summer and weekend home. But the farther out you go, the less that’s the case, and Wellfleet is pretty far out there. It gets pretty empty after Labor Day. Businesses need to make a lot of money in the summer to cover them through the winter. The more you can save on operating costs, the more you can put in the bank. The biggest operating cost for businesses of all kinds and sizes is labor. The fewer people you have to pay to work for you the better for your bottom line.
Bob of “Bob’s Burgers” is not a particularly good businessman. He pays too much for his supplies and charges too little for his food. He stays in business because he has no labor costs. His only employees are himself and his family and they all work for free. “Bob’s Burgers” is very realistic for a cartoon, but just so you know I don’t take my ideas on how the world works from a cartoon sitcom, my great-grandfather owned a corner grocery store and soda fountain in Troy, New York. His wife and son worked for him. His only paid employee was his stock boy and soda jerk. That would be the teenaged Pop Mannion. And he was often paid in comic books, baseball cards, and ice cream sundaes.
But what do little family restaurants and Mom and Pop corner groceries do if they don’t have that kind of family or don’t have a big enough family? They need to hire employees and pay them more than comic books and ice cream. But how much more can they afford to pay? This is why I’m ambivalent on the subject of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. It’s $9.70 an hour in New York State (outside the City). Higher than most other states and it needs to be. It’s expensive to live here, even here in Mayberry. But it’s more than many small businesses can afford. Raise it to $15 and there goes our local hardware store.
Republicans like to praise the owner class as job creators and reward them inordinately for doing us parasites the favor of letting us do their heavy lifting for them, but the fact is the owner class doesn’t want to create jobs. It looks for ways to eliminate them. It must be a constant source of frustration for many corporate execs that every job they eliminate through outsourcing and automation creates a job necessary to directing the outsourcing and maintaining the automation. Little businesses like this bakery can’t outsource. The can automate. The automation is creating jobs, somewhere. Not in South Wellfleet though. The people of South Wellfleet aren’t getting any new neighbors. The company that leases and sells these machines is in Hopkinton, which is east of Boston, 115 miles to the northwest of South Wellfleet. And they don’t make the machines there.
That’s who all the people who work in our towns are. Neighbors. That’s one of Mr Rogers’ lessons. Neighbors aren’t necessarily friends but there are bonds of affection between them. Our connections and interactions with them are based on more than economic self-interest. We are engaged in the shared work of making a neighborhood, that is, a community, a civil and civilized place to live.
Libertarians seem to think this will happen naturally through individuals pursuing their own economic self-interest. More to the point, they seem to think they can do without community and enjoy the benefits of living in one without having to put in the emotional and social work required to build one. They simply have to pay for it. And if you want it, you can pay for it too. And if you can’t pay for it, well, tough luck.
More and more of us live without neighbors. We live among people we call neighbors because there’s no good word for people who happen to own the house next door but with whom we interact mainly on our way to the car to go to work or the store and our conversation consists of “Hey, how you doing?” And “Some weather we’re having.” We interact less and less with our friends and family too. Physically, that is. Virtually? That’s hard to measure. Once we get out of school and join the adult world, our main human contact is with co-workers, and the main bond between us is economic self-interest. It is in fact purely economic. We aren’t sharing the work of building a community. We’re sharing the work of making money---a little for ourselves, a lot for our bosses and the owners of business. Sure, we have a few real friends at work, if we’re lucky. But mostly what we have are a bunch of economically useful associates, many of whom we have nothing truly in common with and many of whom we don’t even like or want to have anything to do with.
I’m in Wendell Berry mode here, and Berry would say we are meant to be useful to each other. But he wouldn’t mean only in helping each other make money for our own use. Economies are the bases of communities. But economies aren’t cold-hearted exchanges of goods and services. We’re helping each other keep ourselves fed, clothed, sheltered, healthy and alive, true. But there’s a moral element to it. We don’t just do it because we have to. (“I was hungry, and you fed me. I was naked, and you clothed me. When I was homeless you invited me in. When I was sick, you comforted me.” Matthew 25:31-46, more or less. My translation based on the Revised Standard Version and my personal reading.) And healthy and alive includes spiritual and emotional health and well-being. Five minutes of exchanging pleasantries with the clerk at the Post Office or a waitress at a diner does more good for our health and well-being—is more useful---than an hour in a meeting with co-workers discussing what color to paint the bathrooms in the Poughkeepsie office. Remove that mutual usefulness, says Berry, “people relate to each other increasingly as random particles.”
“We work for our customers,” the owner of the bakery says. “This allows us to improve our service.” It probably does if improved service simply means more efficient service, and this isn’t working for the customers, it’s putting the customers to work for him. He pays them. A five percent discount on twenty-dollars worth of pastry. That’s a whole dollar for two minutes of work! Thirty bucks an hour!
Anyway the customer being served isn’t you. It’s the one in line behind you who might lose patience and leave the place without buying. Business owners have to consider this and make decisions that are in their financial interest. But there’s no pretending this is more about the customers as human beings than about them as open wallets.
I’m hardly a Luddite on the matter. That would make me a hypocrite. I use the self-checkout at the grocery store sometimes and I’m grateful for it. With my back problems, I can’t stand in long lines anymore. I couldn’t get along without ATMs, although I make a point of going inside the bank as often as I can, often enough that the tellers and the manager know me by name and smile when they see me walking in. I do it not just to be neighborly, though, but to make sure they know me as a neighbor so that when I have a problem or a question they’re enthusiastic about helping me out. And it’s always to the benefit of my heart and soul when I can deal immediately and directly with a live human being rather than try to work my way through a company’s voice mail only to finally give up in frustration and despair and go to their website where I’m presented with a new set of frustrations and reasons for despair, all the while doing a job for free the company should be paying a human being to do. I pay the live human beings back for their trouble by being as pleasant and patient and level-headed and level-voiced as I can be.
One of the McDonald’s around here where I routinely stop for coffee recently installed an automated order and pay station---an actual waitron---one-upping the machine at the bakery. I was going to ignore it and place my order at the counter, but a member of the staff invited me to give it a try. She punched in my order and took my money and then, to my pleasant surprise, she told me to take a seat and someone would bring my coffee out to me. Instead of cutting me off from human contact, the waitron doubled it. Two people served me. It was almost like going to the diner. A worker---a waitress?---even came around with a pot to refill my coffee. This would be great if it’s the future of fast food. But I’m dubious. I suspect I’m being trained for the day when all McDonalds are essentially automats.
In principle I’m all for resisting the trend to complete automation. I do believe automation creates jobs. I’ve seen suggestions that every state should adopt New Jersey’s law requiring that all gas be pumped by employees of the gas station. But there aren’t many gas stations anymore. Routinely on the internet people play the game of “Tell the kids something that existed when you were a kid they have no experience of.” Here’s one: service stations. Who gets their car repaired at the place where they buy gas? “Gas stations” are mostly little grocery stores that happen to sell gas along with other stuff customers buy on the run. You get your gas and with it a grab a newspaper, a gallon of milk, a loaf of bread, a cup of coffee or a Slurpee, and rather than coming out to pump your gas for you, an employee rings you up inside. But I also think we should be like the Star Trek universe in which people do jobs computers and robots could do just so that people have a reason for being and for interacting with each other and depending on each other and therefore caring for each other. Caring for and caring about. Caring that each other is alive and well.
I don’t know what people will do if they don’t live with each other and don’t have to care for each other anymore. Live inside a virtual world of their own creation? That sounds like hell to me. It’s one of the reasons I hated the book “Ready Player One”. It presents life inside your head---that’s really what virtual “reality” is---as a preferable alternative to life among other human beings.
(It presents the ideal self you imagine you’d like to be as your real self and that self’s imaginary life as your real life. Don’t get me started on that one.)
Bob Belcher may not be a great businessman, but he is ambitious. He’s determined to make and serve delicious food---his burgers are terrific---and run a nice place to eat, a place people come to not just for the food. I have no doubt the owner of PB Boulangerie is similarly ambitious. But I’ll probably never go there no matter how good the éclairs are. (I'm pretty sure Uncle Merlin has gone there for the éclairs and once taunted me from there by text in French and with pictures.) When we used to go to the Cape regularly, we tended not to wander too far from Chatham and Orleans. When we directed ourselves north to the vicinity of South Wellfleet it was to go to the drive-in or visit the Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary. It sounds like a nice place though. The regulars--- “the book club” --- find a community there. I don’t blame the owner for not hiring the extra help. But if I’m ever in the neighborhood, I’ll still avoid the place. I’d just cause trouble if I went there. I’d refuse to use the machine and insist on dealing with a live human being who'd have to take their hands out of the dough, peel off their gloves, and come ring me up, inconveniencing customers in line behind me and interrupting the creation of another excellent batch of éclairs. And that seems rude and demanding and...unneighborly.
Hat tip to Oliver Mannion for the editorial advice on the bits about “Bob’s Burgers”.
To read Sean Driscoll’s whole article, follow the link to Hands off for PB Boulangerie Bistro staff at the Cape Cod Times.
Top photo by Merrily Cassidy courtesy of the Cape Cod Times. Second photo courtesy of me and my phone.