Au Bon Painful

Subject: Staff Infection

Dear Sirs,

I am writing to bring to your attention a staffing -how should I say this? -situation that exists at the Au Bon Pain located on Fifty-Second street in Manhattan, just off Fifth Avenue. This is where I went this afternoon for lunch.

I walked up to the counter and the two lethargic countergirls were leaning back against the soup tureens, chatting. One extended her hand out in front of her face and picked at her very long, imaginatively painted nails. I cleared my throat and they ignored me. I stood patiently until finally, one of the girls caught my eye and slowly pushed herself back from the counter and lumbered to the register, twisting a long tendril of her waxed hair extension between her thumb and forefinger. With flat black eyes she said, "Yeah?"

I ordered the turkey club. She said, "That it?" I said, yes. She managed to operate the cash register but was unable to actually hand me the change, instead smacking it down on the smudged glass counter top before walking back to her friend who was by now chewing on her thumbnail.

I walked to the far end of the counter where the sandwiches are, theoretically, prepared.

Here I encountered a grubby young homeless man -or so I thought because of his smell- behind the counter, in full Au Bon Pain uniform. I was quite surprised, but then figured that maybe he was so dirty because he was some sort of janitor.

But no.

He was preparing sandwiches. He laughed hysterically at something one of his coworkers had mumbled and as he did this, I watched a fine misting of spittle spray out of his mouth and cover the food preparation area in a wide arch. He wiped his mouth on the back of his gloved hand. The gloves, I should mention here, were rubber, filthy and had gaping holes in the fingers.

His method of sandwich preparation involved the placing of a leaf of lettuce onto a slice of bread and then a pause for scratching. Then he shifted his weight onto his other leg, added a squirting of mayonnaise and here he inexplicably did a complete 360 degree turn, in place. This was a slow revolution. He seemed to be searching for something and then not finding it, returned to the making of the sandwich.

More people gathered around me, waiting for their food. An attractive woman with a blunt haircut, velvet black hair band and crocodile Kelly bag (there’s a nine-month wait list for that, you know) sighed deeply and rolled her eyes.

Time passed.

Eventually my roast turkey sandwich was presented, wrapped in paper and steaming warm. I’ll give you that; the sandwich was warm.

It’s difficult living in a big city. We must all make compromises. We must all accept one another. However, I must say that it seems Au Bon Pain has hired what must be the absolute lowest common denominator of functional human life to staff this particular outlet.

As you must be aware, the people behind your counters are "the face of Au Bon Pain." It is not your advertising, not your point-of-purchase, and not your web presence. It is the person who is behind the counter with jheri curls and long nails who is too disinterested in her job to even look up at the customer.

I can hear your answer now. Yes, you say, but it’s not always possible to ensure a quality employee at each location. To this I would remind you that I am speaking of the Au Bon Pain on Fifty-Second Street and Fifth Avenue, one block west of Gucci, less than five-minutes from Tiffany. If Au Bon Pain cannot manage to attract and keep at least a Barnes & Nobel level of employee here, then Au Bon Pain does not deserve to be in New York City.

I counted ten employees. Two were actively engaged in productive work. The remaining eight were occupying space in the room. The young man filling the bin with plastic spoons took well over seven minutes to fill one bin with plastic forks.

On a lighter note, I was pleased to see that a Krispy Kreame section has been added. I picked up half-a-dozen of these delectable disks to add to my sandwich for lunch. Although at the Krispy Kreame location on West Twenty-Third street I was actually served by a toothless woman with a large bald spot. So maybe the world really is going to hell in a hand basket.

Yours truly,

Augusten Burroughs

Subject: re: Staff Infection

Dear Augusten,

Thank you for informing us on this most unfavorable situation. I am responding on behalf of our Vice President of Operations Mr. (X).

I forwarded a copy of this email to him immediately and as it happens he is in New York touring some of our cafes. He has changed his flight arrangements in hopes of meeting with you today or at the very least speaking with you.

He is appalled and would like the opportunity to address this with you at your convenience.

Please respond back to me with perhaps a day phone number that I can pass on to Mr X so that he can speak directly with you.


Donna X
Customer Relations Manager
Au Bon Pain

Subject: Re: re: Staff Infection

Dear Ms. X,

I’m surprised and pleased that my note elicited such a swift and concerned response. That a note from an alarmed customer could be moved so quickly through the right channels of your organization is a very positive sign, and tells me that somebody is indeed steering the ship

The fact that your Vice President of Operations is, at this moment, touring cafes in the area speaks volumes about the Au Bon Pain commitment to quality. I hope he is able to witness for himself the grim situation at the Fifty-second Street and Fifth Avenue location. In fact, he might want to spend an extra day or two visiting this café at different times during the day. I’m certain he will come to the same conclusion that I came to: this particular café may require a full staff revision.

As a contrast, he might enjoy visiting the more highly-functional café located at Fifth Avenue and Fifteenth Street, just below the penthouse apartment of actress, Uma Thurman. If he is an Uma fan (and really, who isn’t?), he might take a ten minute break from his rounds, cross the street and walk North on block. From this vantage point it is often possible to see Uma leaning out her open window smoking a cigarette or fanning her face with the pages of a script.

But back to the issue at hand. One activity I think Mr. X might find helpful would be to take a walk to the -I believe it’s called- Bread Market Café, which is just down the block from your café on Fifty-second Street, toward Sixth Avenue on the South side of the street. Clearly, in this neighborhood this is the preferred lunch choice for workers in this very busy, thriving area. This establishment has certainly hired from the same pool of workers available to Au Bon Pain. Yet the difference is remarkable. Here, the busy staff is friendly. Or, if not necessarily friendly, at the very least they are extremely efficient and productive. In addition, this establishment is extremely clean. And clean, I must say, is the point of entry.

Mr. X may also find it helpful to tour various other "chain" establishments in Manhattan. As a long-time resident of this great city, I’d be more than happy to provide you with a brief and doable list of possible locations which you could then fax to him while he is on his travels:

  1. Barnes and Nobel, Union Sq. Note how even the lowly workers "in the stacks" are helpful when approached and asked a question. General employee moral seems particularly high. One can only assume this is due to the high-quality college-based employee pool that is in the immediate area.
  2. Most any Starbucks. This establishment seems to have created such a strict and layered role of functionality that even an unmotivated worker is too busy following protocol to be useless or unhelpful. In addition, I have noticed that Starbucks tend to be slightly understaffed, which also helps to keep the employees busy.
  3. Gap, Banana Republic, et all. Generally these establishments are able to obtain a higher quality staff. It would be worth exploring the employee benefits and particular motivation vehicles these companies offer.

Mr. X could glean more insight by visiting any Duane Reade pharmacy in the city. Among New Yorkers, Duane Reade is known for particularly surly and unhelpful staff. Honestly, it is a stunning experience.

Worse still would be Burger King and McDonalds. Which I must here make comment on. The New York City Burger King and McDonalds customer is generally not expectant of, nor interested in "helpful" staff. So in this way, it is excusable.

However, Au Bon Pain, with it’s European brand character, it’s café environment and it’s more sophisticated, upscale and modern menu, cannot -must not- employ a Burger King or McDonald’s caliber staff. Ever, in any location.

It would behoove your organization to undertake a series of focus groups. If I were your director of marketing I would immediately:

  1. Order qualitative focus groups in various regions of the country. These groups should include existing -not potential- ABP customers. Here, you want to learn if there is a general dissatisfaction with the ABP staff, a regional dissatisfaction or if mine was an isolated incident.
  2. Additional qualitative focus groups of Gap, Banana Republic and Starbucks employees. Here, you want to learn how these workers feel about their jobs, the level of respect they feel from their employers and what their employers do to give them whatever sense of respect they have.
  3. Focus groups of ABP employees. From these groups you could learn of any existing problems.

If it turns out -and I expect it will- that you are suffering from some sort of internal employee dissatisfaction crisis, you should then devise a creative plan to correct this situation before your quality suffers to a degree than cannot be repaired.

In addition, you might want to revisit your current advertising strategy. Does it speak to your employees as much as to your customers? Are you absolutely certain you have positioned your restaurants in a relevant, meaningful and motivating fashion to consumers? Is there room for real improvement?

While certain changes may need to be made, change is opportunity. So I would hope that your management sees whatever "problems" they encounter as exciting entry points into a newer and more successful restaurant. A restaurant that is a "first choice" among lunchers, as opposed to what I fear it in fact is: "The line’s too long at Bread Market, so let’s go to crappy Au Bon Pain and pray that the employees washed their hands."

Of course, these are large issues. And far beyond the scope of my original email. I hope some of the above is helpful. At the very least, I hope Mr. X is able to visit the offending ABP as well as the Bread Market Café just down the street.

In terms of speaking with me further on this issue, I have to be perfectly honest. Meetings are the last thing you people need to be thinking about. You need to be out there on the streets and in your stores. Not setting up meetings in glass-walled conference rooms and then writing six-page conference reports to forward throughout the corporation.

Yours truly,

Augusten Burroughs

Subject: Re: Re: re: Staff Infection

Hi Augusten,

Mr. X just faxed me a reply to your recent email:

Dear Mr. Burroughs,

Thank you for taking the time this week to share your thoughts and concerns regarding Au Bon Pain in New York City. Your feedback specific to our cafe at W 52nd St. was of great concern and I am personally working to resolve the concerns you brought to our attention.

Au Bon Pain is a wonderfully passionate organization committed to outstanding food and passionate service. We are, though, only as successful as our weakest performance and it appears that our W. 52nd St. cafe is a weak performer.

Creating an environment where people want to excel is our culture. An environment where people are proud of where they work, respected for who they are and rewarded for the right reasons is the catalyst for a wonderful guest experience. An experience you deserved, yet did not receive on your last visit.

I had hoped to speak to you personally but I understand you have reservations. Should you change your mind I will make myself available either by phone or in person.

Mr. Burroughs, thank you again for your candid feedback and genuine interest in our cafes.


VP of Operations
Au Bon Pain

Read about his new book 'Running With Scissors'

Submitted By: A.F. Waddell
Jul 16, 2002 12:25

This joke is rated: PG