I stopped by the City Bakery on West 18th Street the other day to try their hot chocolate, which is supposed to be amazing. And it was indeed very good. But…
The place is a bit of a clusterfuck. It looks nice and clean, but it’s total chaos from an operational standpoint. As a first-time visitor, I couldn’t figure out where to order, and there wasn’t any visible menu or signage to guide me. And the people…well, more on them later.
There were two lines, but both were for people who already had their orders – basically cashier checkout lines. So I caught the attention of a lady milling about behind the counter and asked her where I should go to place my order. She told me I could place it with anyone and then immediately broke off eye contact, which seemed rather strange. She didn’t offer to take my order. In fact, I got the distinct impression that she hoped I’d go away.
I eventually reacquired eye contact with her and asked, “By anyone, does that include you?” And I did so in the politest way imaginable, because – believe it or not – that’s the kind of person I am. Fortunately she took my query as intended, and then took my order for a hot chocolate.
I followed that up with a question about next steps, inquiring as to whether I should wait for her to bring it to me or proceed to the checkout line. She suggested the latter, so off I went.
And the line was moving rather slowly. As I waited patiently, wondering if I’d have my cocoa in time for the cashier to ring it up, I overheard someone say that they had run out of marshmallows for the hot chocolate. Given that City Bakery’s signature is a solitary giant marshmallow in the hot chocolate, I wondered why the lady hadn’t mentioned this to me when taking my order.
Eventually I got to the cashier and explained that I ordered a still absent hot chocolate. He seemed completely unphased, as if this was the way things work there. Clearly his only role was to take money, not answer questions or otherwise engage the customers. I gave him $5 and he told me to step aside, muttering that they would bring my hot chocolate to the counter.
Now keep in mind that, given the time I had already spent in line, I could have picked and split the cocoa pods; fermented, dried, winnowed, and roasted the beans; then ground, pressed, and processed them into hot chocolate. With enough time to spare to write a book on customer service.
Still, I had to wait for nine more minutes after that before I spotted, by pure chance, a tray full of hot chocolates placed on the counter by the other register. People started grabbing them, so I walked over and snagged one for myself. Absolute chaos. I don’t know if one of these cocoas was mine, but I couldn’t imagine waiting any longer for a cup of hot chocolate.
We’re talking a good 15 minutes, at 2:30 on a Friday afternoon, to get a $5 cup of cocoa. And it was lukewarm when I finally got it. And no fricken marshmallow.
OK, maybe I caught the City Bakery on a bad day. So the following Monday, around the same time (2:30 is prime cocoa time), I wander in to give them another chance. This time I walked up to the people making the hot chocolate and asked them how one proceeds to acquire such a beverage. They were less than thrilled at the intrusion, but politely told me to go wait in line.
Again, I waited, even longer this time. And now it was $7 for a cup of cocoa because they had marshmallows this time around.
Again, I was told to step aside and wait for them to bring me my order. But I kept an eye on the other counter, and sure enough a lady eventually dropped off a tray of cocoas there and simply walked away. They don’t bring you your order. They simply take your money and dump a tray of product on some random counter, letting customers fend for themselves. It’s cattle service, not customer service.
I remain perplexed as to why they simply didn’t tell me to go wait over by that counter. Or why the staffer who drops off trays of cocoa doesn’t even make an effort to make sure they get in the hands of whoever ordered them, let alone serve them up in order of those orders.
The bottom line is that the people who work at City Bakery are imbeciles. And that surely goes from the top down. They don’t think. They don’t care. They just go through the motions – whatever requires the least effort for them.
The funny thing is, if the City Bakery were located in Williamsburg, it would probably be the most awesome place on earth. Because, in a place like Williamsburg, the people working there would have a soul. They wouldn’t act like mindless robots who refuse do do anything beyond the bare minimum required. They’d welcome your business, eagerly take your order, share relevant information, and promptly bring you what you paid for – or at least apologize for any delay.
As silly as I find a lot of those Brooklyn shops, at least the people who staff them actually give a fuck. Artisanal crayons may be the most ridiculous things you can sell, but the people selling them want to give you the best artisanal crayon shopping experience imaginable.
But the City Bakery is located in Manhattan, off Union Square. I imagine the staff aren’t aspiring to anything, or at least anything that involves the business of serving things like hot cocoa. They look like a mix of minimum wagers going through the motions, the kind who couldn’t even cut it at a place like Dallas BBQ, and transients who are biding their time until they can find something they really care about. And that totally sucks. Which makes the City Bakery suck. And that sucks even more, because it doesn’t have to be that way.
Was it a delicious cup of hot chocolate? Yes, it was. Will I ever go back, or recommend the place to a friend? Hell no.
In a city like New York, there are far too many wonderful choices to waste your time and money on places like the City Bakery. I don’t care how good the cocoa is, it’s certainly not worth $7 and your dignity. Leave it to the tourists, who don’t know any better.
By the way, if you have plenty of money and dignity to spare, I recommend you skip the giant marshmallow. It’s $2 gimmick. The thing doesn’t even melt, so you’re just paying more money for a lot less hot chocolate.