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Counter Etiquette: Deli Dilemma

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Does anyone else feel homicidal when they unwrap the heavy, white, one-side waxed deli paper and unfold a battery of mistakes forced upon the sandwich you had hoped for? When Americans have an idea for a sandwich that involves sliced meats, cheeses, and condiments, they most likely possess a very limited and specific recipe for this delight. It is also entirely possible that when they have this sandwich, it is always the same way with the same meat, the same cheese, and the same condiments. We don’t vary much when it comes to delis. We find a great deli, or at least a deli that looks sanitary and carries name brands like Boar’s Head. We have a sandwich that we like very much and may only stray from the regular if we want a round roll instead of rye one day, or a bagel instead of sliced bread. Otherwise, you have a sandwich, we all do, and all we are asking for is to have it prepared exactly the way in which we have requested. Is that too much to ask for these days?

My husband and I were boycotting our kitchen as there is a determined mouse that will neither run into the box trap we have set nor step onto the glue that is strategically placed under the range of the stove. As much as I revel in cooking and my husband in eating that food I have made, we will not cook another morsel until this two-and-a-half-inch bugger has seen his last day. We are getting close to trapping the furry terror but decided to dine on breakfast to go, nonetheless. Unable to decide upon which brunch spot we wanted to brave at ten thirty on a Saturday morning in Brooklyn, we finally reached an agreement; we will have egg sandwiches from Terrace Bagels on Ninth Avenue, the best bagel in all of Park Slope. Off we went up to the dough Mecca, only to discover that the last man entering kept the door propped open with his derriere due to the bulging line of people with the same idea. They didn’t all have a stubborn mouse, Terrace Bagels is that good.

Discouraged but not faltering, we headed back down to Fifth Avenue and hit Bagel Factory, on the corner of Seventeenth Street, across from our house. There was no line to speak of inside. The place makes me nervous with it’s countertops cluttered with hand decorated cookies of Spongebob Squarepants and the Little Mermaid, Ariel, along with a random and lone jar of Nutella that looks like it has been opened or is for sale? There are too many hands behind the counter and none of them ever seem to know who is next, who has been helped, or how to instruct customers to form a real line. Since we were past hungry I was happy to get the quick service but knew I was in for it immediately.

I watched the counter server not listen to me as I was placing my order. He was snapping his gum and glazed over as though I was still boring him about what a bad guy George W. Bush is or how it may or may not snow today, depending on the level of precipitation in this cold weather we’re having. My order came out clear, simple, concise, and separated by a perfectly tangible pause in between sandwiches. “I would like two sandwiches. The first one on a poppy bagel with two eggs and tomato please.” Pause. “The second one, do you have red onion? … Okay, the second one on an everything bagel scooped out, with egg whites, Swiss cheese, and red onion please.” Pause while he looks at me, shifts his attention somewhere else, and then walks away. He didn’t give me any indication that he had heard me or that he was confident that he had quickly memorized my order without writing anything down. Usually, there is a brief exchange where I repeat myself; this is to remedy the fact that my order wasn’t really listened to. “Did you want any cheese on the egg whites?” Something like that. Only this time there was complete silence. I knew I was in trouble. He was going to make me do something I didn’t want to do.

About six minutes passed. Another man altogether asked me what I was having; he wanted to expedite things and ring me up. I took this opportunity to reiterate my order, hoping the man who had originally helped me would overhear me and correct any mistakes I was sure he had made. I stated to the register man that I would like an Earl Grey tea with milk, medium. He poured hot water over my tea bag and asked if I would like lemon with it. I kindly said milk would be fine and no sugar, thank you. He took my money and I waited for my bagels.

When the sandwiches came out, they were placed in a small brown lunch bag with napkins, and I carried them off with my tea in hand. Before leaving the Bagel Factory I stopped at the window counter, placed the paper bag on the wooden bar, and quickly inspected my order. Make sure the tomato went on the eggs and poppy bagel, double check that the everything bagel was scooped out and all the ingredients were correct. I didn’t want to climb my three floors and turn around to fix it. My order looked good to go; I was pleasantly surprised. 

My husband set up our TV tables in the living room so we could enjoy our order while watching The Soup that I DVR’d the night before. We unwrapped, got the ketchup ready, and there it was. My sandwich was certainly on a gutted everything bagel with egg whites, Swiss and red onion, that much I saw at the bagel shop. What I didn’t catch under their fluorescent lighting was the fact that he had used a whole wheat everything bagel. And yes, I know, that’s probably what I should have been eating anyway, but that’s not what I ordered! That is not the sandwich I ordered! Is that too much to ask for? Should we have to accept what others may seem as small infractions but to us mean the difference between what you have been craving and something you do not want to eat?

This is where my real question comes in. What is proper counter etiquette? Is it rude to ask someone at the counter to repeat the order you just gave him or her to ensure that it is made properly? One feels quite comfortable doing that sort of thing over the phone, actually, repeating a food order is commonly offered over the phone. The concept sounds rude to me but how many more sandwiches do I have to eat that are missing the honey mustard or have lettuce and tomato when I have only asked for lettuce? And again, yes, I know, you can just pull the unwanted tomato off but why should I have to? Would writing orders down and handing the paper over the counter after saying hello solve all these problems? You don’t always have pen and paper but I don’t see any other way. If I insist on having my order repeated back to me then I am a bitch. If my sandwich is not prepared properly I act like a psycho. Maybe we all need to carry around those little police detective pads with small pens to avoid this situation altogether.

When I was bartending I rarely got a drink wrong. I listened intently to the customers ordering; I may not have always been a sunny and optimistic looking bartender but I wanted to make the drink that the customer asked for, if for nothing else then to avoid having to speak to them any more than I already had to. Are there too many variables involved with sandwiches? If that is the case, then all counter helpers should feel obligated to record orders when they are dictated. When weighing the anguish from a mis-made sandwich against the turbulent and unpredictable world we live in it’s all silly and insignificant, however, when isolated, I think a fudged up sandwich is very annoying. Think about it. Doesn’t everyone get a slight tinge of anxiety when ordering something customized with multi-ingredients? You never really trust they got it right. 

As upset as I may sound I did eventually “get over it” but that is not to say I believe my next sandwich will be everything I have hoped and asked for. With enough ketchup and some encouraging words from my husband like, “I totally understand,” while I was insisting the counter helper didn’t listen to me because I am a woman and this would never happen to him when ordering bagel sandwiches, I choked down that whole wheat sandwich. And to tell you the truth, it was pretty good. I felt better for having whole wheat and my hunger and craving was pretty much satisfied. But that’s not the point!


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