| Double Take |

Corner Grocery

Why I couldn't patronize my corner grocery

Meir: Why should I pay the price for your unrealistic expectations?
Raizy: I can’t patronize your business if you won’t work with my needs.

Meir

There was a line snaking halfway through the store. Why was there only one checkout open?

I dashed into the back room. Sure enough, two of my workers were deep in conversation while they loaded a cart, ostensibly restocking the shelves.

“Dave — I need you at the checkout,” I said crisply. “Mikey, that’s great, we could do with this out on the shelves pronto. Guys, it’s Thursday, things are hectic, let’s keep the show moving.”

I’m not a tough boss by nature, but I’ve learned to be assertive. The workers exchanged wry glances and headed off. I leaned against a mound of boxes and caught my breath. Then I plunged back into the frenzy.

“Mr. Scharf, do you have cans of crushed pineapple in the back? I don’t see any out.”

“Mr. Scharf, where can I find frozen parsley cubes?”

“I bought this completely by accident, would it be possible to exchange it?”

I plastered on my most patient smile. Customer service is so important, especially for a small grocery competing against the large supermarkets out there. Baruch Hashem, business was good, and the store was five years old and counting — but I work very hard to keep those standards high, and insist on my staff doing the same.

Not that it was easy. Sure enough, a moment later, I heard a familiar young voice behind me.

“Mr. Scharf?”

I turned around. Copper curls, light eyes — one of the Goldens, of course. Cute kid, maybe ten years old. But.

I took a deep, calming breath. “What can I do for you, Moishy?”

His eyes lit up in appreciation that I knew his name.

How could I not? These kids are here all the time, and boy, do they make themselves known.

“My mother asked me to get pickles, the sweet kind, not too sour. And also olives with red pepper stuffed inside. But I can’t reach the back of the shelf. Could you get some down for me?”

“Sure.” I passed him a jar. “The olives come in two brands, they’re different sizes. Do you know which one your mother wants?”

He consulted his list with a little frown. “Um, I don’t know. I think maybe the bigger one? But I think we have a jar that looks like the small one at home, in the fridge. So maybe that’s the right one.” He looked up, anxious. “I don’t really know. Can I call my mother?”

I sighed. “Go to the counter, ask the man behind to pass you the store phone. But try to ask her all your questions at once, okay?”

The kid nodded, wide-eyed, and scurried off. I sighed again. Last time, it had taken a total of four calls to get that list right, and the next day Mrs. Golden had called about returning a few products, strictly against store policy.

Moishy was back a few minutes later, announcing that his mother wanted a big jar of the brand that only came in the smaller size. So that necessitated another phone call, of course. I pointed out the red onions and helped him navigate the freezer section — Mrs. Golden wanted chicken cutlets, the smaller size, and ground meat, but only with her preferred hashgachah.

“Mr. Scharf?” Another customer approached, looking baffled as he scrutinized a list doubtless written by his wife. “Do you know where I can find parsnip?” He lowered his voice. “What is parsnip?”

“Okay, I gotta go,” I told Moishy Golden. “Try to figure out the rest of the list yourself, okay? I need to help other people out now.”

He nodded confidently. “Sure, Mr. Scharf, thanks for helping me! I’ll be fine now.”

But he wouldn’t. I knew what would happen in a few minutes. There’d be just one more question, can-you-reach, can-I-ask, do-you-have...

I shrugged. Some customers were just higher maintenance than others, right?

Still, I wished Mrs. Golden would just come do her shopping herself.

 

Shavuos season means a run on the dairy fridge. Cheeses, whipped cream cheese, heavy cream, the lot. Good for the business, bad for the waistline.

I rang up the last few items for a harried-looking woman with three kids clinging to her skirt and whining for candy. She handed over a credit card and I swiped it, answering an incoming call at the same time.

“Mr. Scharf? Hi, this is Mrs. Golden from down the block. I’m just wondering, you don’t do phone orders before Yom Tov, do you?”

We never do phone orders. I once tried operating a delivery service, back in the early days, but the hassle simply wasn’t worth it. There were too many problems, mishaps, wrong items, and customers complaining that they needed to do returns.

“No, I’m sorry, we don’t.” I handed back the credit card and started scanning the next customer’s items.

“Would you mind…” Mrs. Golden paused to give some hurried instructions to a child, then came back on the line. “It’s just that I have a long list, but I don’t want to come out to the store unless I know what’s in stock. So if you could just check for me what’s in at the moment…”

“Sure.” I always try to accommodate, especially since she was clearly hoping to do a large pre-Yom Tov shopping spree. Besides, I pretty much knew the inventory by heart.

She started running through a long list of items, which I quickly checked off.

“Oh, and then the dairy stuff. Condensed milk?”

I hid a smile. The ingredients that no one ever asks for except the week before Shavuos. “Yes, we do have some in stock. There’s been a lot of sales though, so come sooner rather than later.”

Mrs. Golden hmmed. “Thing is, I’m not sure when I’ll make it. You know what, could you put aside two bottles for me? Just mark them reserved or something? Then I’ll come when I can and pick them up with the other shopping.”

I hesitated. I don’t usually set things aside for specific customers. But hey, what would be the harm?

Besides, I wasn’t going to sell any condensed milk once the Shavuos rush was over. I might as well set two aside for her, use the stock that I had.

“Sure, I’ll do that,” I said, making a mental note.

By the time the phone call was over, though, the mental note had at least six items that Mrs. Golden wanted me to reserve — cheeses and dairy creams and condensed milk and a container of the heavy caramel cream.

I shrugged and went to put them aside, wondering if I should’ve agreed to this. Hopefully, she’d come soon, pick up her items, and I could mention that this was a one-off, I didn’t usually do reservations. And maybe it would be easier than having little Moishy come and try to decipher the various cheese brands and ask a zillion questions.

The store was busy. It was only a few hours later, when we neared closing time, that I realized Mrs. Golden hadn’t turned up to collect her groceries.

Business was brisk next morning. A new delivery arrived, we had to stock the shelves, and customers were coming in droves. I didn’t have a minute to breathe between answering and advising and giving rapid instructions. Why did we always feel short-staffed, even though I’d had my workers coming in for extra shifts this week?

“Mr. Scharf?” A customer approached, holding one of the bottles of condensed milk, clearly marked RESERVED. “Do you have any more of these?”

“There aren’t any others?” I stopped short. One of the magazines must’ve run a recipe using a lot of condensed milk; we never usually ran out so fast.

“No, just these two. Why are they reserved? Maybe I can take one?” She looked a little desperate. “It’s just that I’m in a huge rush, and I really can’t make it to another store, and I just need one…”

I sympathized with her, but I’d given my word to Mrs. Golden. “I’m so sorry,” I said, genuinely feeling bad. “Another customer called in yesterday and asked to put them aside.” Although, I thought with a bit of resentment, she hadn’t bothered to actually pick them up. And I never did reservations. It had been a one-off, and now I was upsetting another customer. Not a good move.

The woman looked deeply disappointed.

“I’m sorry,” I said again. “I’ll check the back of the store, maybe we have something there…”

But I knew that we didn’t.

After all that, I hoped Mrs. Golden would actually turn up quickly and pick up her precious reserved groceries. But the day crept on, and no sign of any Goldens.

“Mr. Scharf, phone call,” someone called from the checkout.

It was Mrs. Golden. Of course.

“Hi, I was just wondering.”

I knew that tone of voice and it meant bad news. “Yes?”

“Well, it’s like this, things are very hectic here, and my stuff is mostly reserved anyway… you wouldn’t be any chance be able to make an exception and send over a delivery? I’ll pay,” she added quickly.

I nearly snapped. “No, I’m sorry, I really can’t,” I said. “We don’t do deliveries. We don’t really do reservations either, but I made an exception for you, and some of the items have been requested by other customers. I can hold them for another hour or two, but please make sure to have them collected this afternoon.”

Mrs Golden sounded flustered. “Okay. Right. I see. I’ll try to send someone soon.”

She hung up the phone.

I half-expected to see a string of Golden Juniors arriving to collect the items , but an hour passed, then two, with nothing doing. Two other customers had requested the condensed milk, we were out of the caramel topping, and I’d just about had enough.

This time, I called Mrs. Golden.

“Hello? This is Scharf, from the grocery.”

I could hear a baby screaming in the background, children bickering. The Goldens had a bunch of little kids, I knew, but so did lots of families, and they managed to make it work.

“Yes, yes, I was about to call,” Mrs. Golden said hurriedly. “About the reserved items. You can put them back on the shelf, I’m going to have to leave them. I can’t get out the house, it’s too much for the kids, and we’re trying to figure out a delivery instead. Thanks for holding it for us, though, it’s a shame it didn’t work out.”

She said it all in such a rush that I wondered if I was imagining the slight accusation in her tone. What, exactly, was my fault here? That she couldn’t get her act together? That our store policy didn’t allow for deliveries? That she expected service beyond what anyone else asked for, what with kids and phones and reservations and constant calling with questions?

And besides — I felt myself getting hot just thinking of it — I’d now held a whole array of items for her, as a one-off favor, for almost two days. I’d upset other customers and lost potential business and now, now she was deciding to go elsewhere?

“I see,” I said into the phone, wondering if I should say something.

I didn’t get the chance. She’d already hung up the phone.

If I could tell Mrs Golden one thing, it would be: Why do you think that my customers and I should pay the price for your unrealistic expectations?

Raizy

“I seriously don’t know how you do it.” My sister Minna looked around admiringly. “I mean, I would go crazy in your position. Literally crazy.”

I giggled a little. “Oh, c’mon, you work full-time and volunteer and you have no cleaning help. Stop pretending to feel inferior.”

“Yeah, but Mendy’s home all evening, I wouldn’t manage otherwise,” she says, still serious. “You’re amazing, Raiz, really.”

I was quiet. I didn’t think I was so amazing. I mean, yes, it was hard, with Ephraim away all week. But I worked from home, part-time, so I didn’t have any commute. Plus I had cleaning help three times a week.

I’m not pretending it’s easy, being the only parent at home from Shabbos to Shabbos. But I was used to it, and Ephraim had a great job. There were ups and downs to everything, and I was okay with this. At least for now, it was working.

“I don’t have such high expectations, to be honest,” I tell her. “Like I never cook adult food during the week, why bother, right? And my mother-in-law usually picks up the kids from school, so I don’t have to rush out every afternoon. And I have this great system with the boys, whoever goes to do the grocery shopping gets to pick a treat for the whole family. It’s win-win, they love going.”

And it’s lucky we live just down the block from a grocery. I sent the kids so often, we practically support the establishment. When Mr. Scharf opened up a few years ago, most of the neighbors steered clear, preferring the tried-and-tested large supermarkets, but I’ve never regretted giving him steady business. His store is family-friendly, it’s close by, and the kids are comfortable asking for help if they can’t find their way around.

Like I said, win-win.

“Built-in shoppers, what could be better?” Minna yawned and stood up. “Okay, I wish I could stay, but I’m rushing. Had two free periods but I need to be back in school already. It was great to see you, thanks for the break!”

She disappeared in a whirlwind of teacher paraphernalia and fresh lipgloss. I waved from the door, slightly conscious of my snood and slinky skirt.

Then I shrugged. The baby was crying, I had to get started on a project for my boss, and the kids were due home in a few hours. Who cared what I looked like? My wardrobe was comfortable and kid-friendly, and it wasn’t like I was going anywhere.

My mother still thinks she has to call me every night, even though it’s been two years since Ephraim started his arrangement at work I guess she still can’t come to terms with the idea of her daughter holding down the fort the entire week all alone.

“Hi Raizy, how’s it going?”

The house was quiet, kids settled for the night. I’d been waiting to crash, sit down with a good novel and a cocoa, but hey, I could clean up the kitchen while we talked. Moishy had gone shopping earlier, and I hadn’t finished sorting it out yet.

“All good, Ma, baruch Hashem. How’s by you?”

I unpacked the milk — yikes, that should’ve gone in the fridge already — and started sorting through the rest of the groceries. Ma was talking about Shavuos. I really hadn’t even thought about it yet.

“Wow, Shavuos. It’s been hectic here. I need to really start planning,” I said, absently. Shucks, Moishy bought tomato paste instead of the crushed tomatoes. And Mr. Scharf from the grocery was so strict about returns. Maybe he’d let, it was just a day later, and seriously, it would be the simplest exchange.

“I saw this amazing dairy mousse recipe, I’m going to send you a picture,” Ma says. “It’s just your type, a real patchke. Not for me.”

I laughed. I had a weakness for fancy desserts, especially milchig ones. Shavuos was my chance to go all out. “Sure, send away. I’ll have to make a menu and get shopping soon.”

There. I was done with the unpacking. I retrieved a crumpled receipt and surveyed it quickly. “Cucumbers, canned pineapple, pizza sauce…”

“What was that?” Ma asked, puzzled.

“Nothing, I’m just checking a receipt. Moishy did my shopping today.” I frowned. Something wasn’t adding up. I started counting items again. Why did it feel like something was missing?

“You’ve got good boys,” Ma said approvingly. “That must be a big help for you.”

I chuckled. “I mean, yes and no. Sometimes I wish I could just do it all on my own, get to choose everything myself the first time around, not get stuck with the wrong size or flavor or anything… but in the circumstances, with all the kids around, and the baby, and my work — this is really the best solution.”

Shavuos shopping, I realized quickly, was going to be more complicated than usual. The boys would never be able to figure out the dairy creams and caramel toppings and everything that I needed, with the correct amounts. I’d have to do a big trip of my own.

I prepared the list meticulously, divided by category and with detailed notes. Then I ran through the menu again — Yom Tov meals, milchig kiddush, snacks and nosh — and set it aside for the morning. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d run errands during the day; I was usually far too busy getting four kids out the door and seeing to the baby. Her nap times were my work hours; I had to be done by two, which was when my toddler arrived home. After that it was full-time mommying, playing outside, supper prep, evening rush, straightening up the house, and falling into bed. Being the only adult on the job all week long was tiring.

I put in extra hours that night, hoping to cover enough ground so that I wouldn’t have to work the next day. The baby would probably nap through the shopping trip, and that would be the end of any quiet time for me, for the rest of the day.

I got to bed around two a.m., satisfied with my plan.

And was woken up less than an hour later. The baby was screaming.

“Oyyy, what woke you up?” I dragged myself over to pick him up. “Sssh, sweetie, it’s the middle of the night. Mommy’s here. Where’s your paci?”

But the baby screamed on, and a whimper from the next room told me that I wasn’t the only one awake now. I was dropping from exhaustion, the baby wouldn’t stop crying, and now I had the other kids to deal with as well.

I sank down on the edge of my bed, rocking the baby and trying not to cry. If Minna could see me now, she wouldn’t think that much of my coping skills anymore.

“Ear infection,” pronounced the pediatrician. It was a good thing I didn’t need to work this morning, because the baby had been up all night, and I’d scheduled an emergency appointment with the doctor as soon as I could. Forget the shopping; just getting four exhausted kids out of the house on time had been a miracle.

I took the prescription and rushed back home. We’d been waiting forever there, and Miri would be home any minute. I wondered briefly if I should take her along for the grocery shopping, but my head was splitting, and of course, the baby had just fallen asleep. After an entire night and morning of crying, I had to let him sleep now.

I sighed. Maybe I should call the grocery, figure something out. I was a great customer, been shopping at Mr. Scharf’s since he opened, and he’d done deliveries in the past. It was a shame they stopped a while back, but maybe before Yom Tov he’d make an exception? It was a large order, I’d make it worth his while.

I dialed, waited a while to get through. Finally, I reached the grocery store owner.

“Hi, this is Mrs. Golden, from down the block.” I paused. “I’m just wondering, you don’t do phone orders before Yom Tov by any chance, do you?”

Background noise made it hard to hear his response. “… we don’t,” I heard him say.

Hmm. Onto Plan B.

“Maybe you can check for me if these items are in stock?” I asked, explaining my reasoning. Why should I schlep the baby, the kids — and myself! — out to the store if he didn’t even have the ingredients I needed?

Mr. Scharf was happy to accommodate, and I went through the list, glad I’d been super organized. Most of the stuff was easy enough, but I was a little worried about my specialty dairy ingredients. He seemed to have everything in stock, but sales could be high right before Yom Tov. What if they ran out before I could come?

I tried to calculate if there would be time between supper and the store closing to make a family trip, or if I could ask someone to babysit while I ran out. Then I nixed both ideas; it would all depend on the baby. If he was screaming again, I wouldn’t be able to go anywhere.

“I’m not sure exactly when I’ll make it,” I told Mr. Scharf. “Maybe you could put aside two bottles of the condensed milk for me? Just mark them reserved or something?”

“Sure, I’ll do that,” he said.

Phew.

“You know what, let’s reserve the dairy caramel topping too,” I decided quickly. Actually, why not all the dairy products? Cream cheese was running low, apparently, and I wanted to have plenty of treats for Yom Tov. It’s extra nice for the family with Ephraim finally spending some time at home.

By the time I finished the call, Miri had arrived. I gathered Miri in my arms and prepared to deal with an overtired three-year-old; the look in her eyes didn’t bode well for a quiet afternoon. Small wonder — she’d been up half the night, too.

Somehow, it was six p.m. when I next turned around. Sara refused to touch her spaghetti and meatballs and wanted to eat cereal instead. Ari and Moishy started a battle royal over the last piece of brownie (it was supposed to be for Shabbos, but I didn’t have the energy to refuse.) The baby was screaming again, I hadn’t started baths, and yikes, there went my grocery shopping.

I took a deep breath. At least the important things from my list were safely set aside. Tomorrow, I’d work it out.

It was another bad night with the baby, probably because he slept for so long during the day. By the time the kids were out the house, I had no energy to do anything but drop back into bed. I couldn’t afford to get sick now as well.

I woke up when the baby decided naptime was over. I checked the time and my heart dropped. Midday already? How could that be?? And this grocery shopping was seriously starting to make me nervous. I needed to start cooking already. Maybe one of my sisters-in-law would drive by, pick it up?

I made a couple of half-hearted phone calls, but asking for favors was just too uncomfortable. Gitty worked all day, Breiny’s car was at the mechanic for repairs, Leah felt sooo bad but she was in the middle of a baking marathon, could she help out tomorrow?

“Don’t worry about it, I’ll work it out,” I told her, trying not to let the tiredness sound in my voice.

What now?

As a last resort, I called Mr. Scharf again, asking for a private delivery service. I would pay to make it worthwhile, I assured him. But no go. He sounded even more harried than yesterday. It must have been really busy at the store.

I’d have to send one of the kids with a list again.

But when I sat down to review it, I realized that was simply impossible. There were far too many items, and lots of them were fragile. Trays of eggs. Glass bottles or jars. Drinks for Yom Tov. Even if I’d send Ari, Moishy, and Sara — they could never carry it all.

One of my sisters-in-law had texted the number of her grocer, all the way across town. I think they do deliveries, she wrote.

I pulled up the text again. I liked my grocery store, enjoyed being a valued customer, knowing the stock, feeling at home with the service. But apparently, being a valued customer wasn’t worth so much right now, and I just needed someplace that could give me the door-to-door delivery.

Klein’s Grocer answered my call on the first ring.

“Yes, we do deliveries, you can text your order to this number, it’ll come first thing tomorrow.”

Whew.

It took a while to type out the list — it was long — but when I was done, I felt immensely relieved. No hassle, no overworking my kids, and no having to drag a crying baby to the store and struggle to get the bags home.

It was only later that I remember my reservations at Mr. Scharf’s.

I picked up the phone to call. It was busy.

The baby was crying. He sounded so miserable, poor thing. I needed to give him some attention. The kitchen floor was a sticky mess, Miri was playing blissfully with my pearl necklace — where did she even find it? — and I really, really, needed to start cooking for Yom Tov.

I’d have to call later, thank him for setting the items aside, and tell him I wouldn’t be taking them in the end. He’d probably be annoyed, it didn’t sound nice — I’d begged him to reserve them, after all. But what could I do, in a situation that made things impossible?

I only wished I would have the opportunity to explain it.

If I could tell Mr. Scharf one thing, it would be: As a long-term, loyal customer, I’d love to keep patronizing your business — but it has to work for my needs.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 813)

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