the curious performance art of being a shopgirl.

I know I’ve whined before here about how bizarre it is for me to interact with customers.

It continues to be bizarre.

I’ve self-diagnosed myself with a terrible case of face-blindness* and a mild social anxiety that combine to make the whole experience a mega challenge for me.

Here’s how I see it:

Chocolate is a language.

Caramel is a language.

The written word is a language.

I speak through these mediums, and it seems to be asking too much of me to also speak through the actual spoken language of interacting with customers.

 

I used to think if I just put my whole entire heart into the process things would be fine—nothing bad has ever come from putting your heart out there, right?

Gentle reader, I’m sure you can see how greatly I was mistaken.

Putting your heart out there doesn’t necessarily mean that people respond to you in kind.

And here I need to put in an important parenthetical note:

I fully recognize that 99% of my customers—most particularly you!—are paragons of perfection and I’m the luckiest vegan anarchist feminist chocolatier in the universe to have them/you on my team. Because of the amazing way I’ve been allowed to run my business, I’ve attracted these absolutely fascinating, warm, beautiful people to me, and it’s a goddamn joy that gives me thrills of pleasure like nothing else in my life.

THAT SAID: SOMETIMES A BITCH GOTTA WHINE A BIT. DON’T HATE. 

Sometimes, putting your heart at the front of your business means your heart gets trampled on in a million different ways a million times a day. Or…ok, ok, maybe one or two times a day. Which feels like an awfully huge amount, since my heart seems to be one that really has a hard time accepting the heart-tramplingness of everyday life.

Partly it’s that I’m a woman, this I know. Men—older men—like to tell women—younger women—what’s what about the world. Have you ever noticed this? I’m sure I’m the first one to point it out. At work we call it the “You know what you should do?” guys. “You know what you should do, is get a neon sign. No one knows you’re open!” says some dudely dude when he’s had to wait 10 minutes for his chocolates because the place is cram-jammed with people.

Partly it’s that I look sweet and young.

Partly it’s that people just say whatever is in their head at a given time.

Really!

IT’S ASTONISHING.

I had NO IDEA.

My social circle is these wonderful, mannered, artistic people who treat other artistic people like the gentle souls we are, liable to break at any time. I’ve been spoiled.

Out in the real world, people will tell you to your face, knowing (in fairness, sometimes [often?] not knowing) that you’re the owner, that you created the chocolate they just ate from your very soul, that you designed the packaging (or your lovah did), that you sourced and bought the ribbons, that you stay up until 3 am costing each ingredient to make sure you can’t lower your prices a bit—they will not hesitate to tell you that onions in chocolate is a weird idea that doesn’t appeal to them, that “do you have any, like, regular chocolates? Like, not with salt and stuff?” (“Sure, we have peanut butter cups, peppermint patties, three kinds of solid chocolates, classic truffles, port walnut truffles, non-salty caramels, pecan turtles, peanut butter fudge, a homemade Butterfinger bar, a pistachio bar, a coffee truffle, peppermint bark, almond toffee, chocolate-dipped pears, double chocolate truffles…I can go on?”) “Um. OK. No thanks.” (and then they write in your guest book, “make some normal candy”), that your complimentary boxes are not fancy enough (“Those are plain. This is a gift for a very wealthy person, I need something fancier.”), that the complimentary compostable ribbon is not lustrous enough (“Do you have any satin ribbon?”), and, of course, “Do you have any cheaper chocolates,” “Why is everything so expensive,” “$4.32 for two chocolates? No thanks, put them back,” “Can I try it first,” “Why can’t I try it, I see you have all that chocolate right there, can I just have a little piece?” “Do you have to charge me tax,” “Do you have any sales,” “What’s the cheapest thing you have,” etc etc etc ad infinitum forever across the universe for ever and ever amen.

Again: most people lavish compliments on us on such an intense level that sometimes I spend entire hours without my cheeks ever un-blushing. That in and of itself is such a strange, weird, wonderful way to live that I almost can’t believe it. We have the most loyal and understanding customers in the world, seriously (until we run out of turtles. Then they turn on us with daggers. I have solved this problem by vowing that even if it’s 3 am and I want to die of tiredness, there will be turtles in that case in the morning, by god. When they sell out by 2 and I need to be doing 50 other things and so does everyone else working: that’s when it’s time for meditation and deep breathing and accepting the imperfections of the universe. [Why don’t we just get better at making more turtles at a time???]).

Even the amazing customers require careful care and feeding, however.

Loyal patrons deserve to be rewarded with a cupcake here, a bonbon there, a special treat of a ganache in progress to taste with our special tasting spoons and to be asked for their honest opinion. This is joyful work, giving out freebies and pleasing people even more who are already pleased with us. But it still requires energy.

Everything requires energy.

What I want to spend my energy on, these days, is cocoa butter painting. I don’t want to get orders ready for shipping, I don’t want to teach L. how to make caramel and D. how to make turtles, I don’t want to input cash receipts into the accounting software, I so so so so don’t want to have to remember the face and name of that guy who always comes in for two cupcakes on his lunch break on Tuesdays and Thursdays, lovely though that guy is.

I’ve been working with these lovely all natural organic food colorings that I mix with cocoa butter to make “paint.” It’s kind of a miracle because I always thought I’d have to give up on colored chocolates since all others I’ve ever seen all use chemical colorings. These don’t, but they’re finicky (maybe the chemical ones are too?). When I’m being fatheaded, I tell myself that Picasso didn’t have to paint with paint that was constantly changing temperature and would ruin his painting if it was even a few degrees too cold. (When I’m being rational, I remind myself that my “painting” is just filling in a mold, not, like, really painting.)

Painting practice centers me like nothing else, because it demands near total concentration but, when you give it attention, is actually pretty easy. I like the combination of these two things.

Interacting with customers is performance art.

Making chocolates is art-art, private art.

Private art which, weirdly, becomes performance art through a capitalist transaction.

It’s all very weird.

Back to my point way up at the top: it seems to me that I made the damn chocolates and my part should end there. Do I really need to put on a song and dance to get someone to buy them, too? Can’t they just stand on their own? I don’t want to work that hard for $2.16 at a time.

But of course, I am wrong. Unless I want to completely outsource the process and pay for others to work the shop, I need to still be comfortable helping customers. Even when others are the primary customer-helper person, which these days is almost always the case (!!!!! It’s so amazing. !!!!), I still need to interact with customers because of that whole “my name is on my building” thing and because there are some questions only I can answer. For example, no one but me has every single recipe memorized and can tell you the ingredients of each at will immediately. (Maresa is a very, very close second, however. Actually, when it comes to things she makes, like Mareesies, she could most likely beat me.)

My pal Than once put it very bluntly: “When you work in a shop, they literally own you. You just have to accept that their money doesn’t just buy the product, it also buys you. Even if, like if your case, the product is you, you still gotta whore yourself out to them while they’re in the shop.”

Blunt, and true.

I was talking about this with D., our sweet new gal, today, confiding in her some of my internal struggles so she could hopefully understand why so much of her job is helping customers. She said the nicest thing: “It’s totally understandable that you might be better at making chocolates than selling them, you can’t do it all. And also, you probably know this but, you have this incredible air of mystery around you because of it, you know?” I did not know, and her saying that made me LOL like crazy. Social anxiety = sexy air of mystery! (OK, fine, I added the sexy part myself.). I’ll take it.

The reason it came up today** was because L. was sick, Maresa had worked for L. yesterday and deserved a day off today, E. couldn’t cover L., and Jacob wanted to go on a hike (with Maresa! My two BFFs, deserting me to most likely have a torrid affair in the woods!). Since Jacob works as many hours as I do for exactly $0, I figured giving him a few hours off seemed fair (he kept pulling that “It’s the last nice day OF THE YEAR!!!” thing on me. Farewell, dear sun!).

And so it came to be that D. and I were working alone, two people short on a weekend day (!), when we found ourselves utterly and completely slammed (last nice day of the year!). The customers came in overlapping waves that never gave us a chance to catch up with making or cupping,*** so the case was getting awfully low and I was getting awfully nervous when a dudely dude of 50 or so starts asking a zillion and one questions.

It had already been a super questiony day.

D. was answering them all (including, “What’s a fig?” from a woman with the Queens-iest Queens accent I’ve ever heard whose rapid fire exchange with her sweet (and spendy! And adventurous!) elderly father went something like this “Pop, you don’t want that, it’s bitter, it’s too bitter for you! No pop, put it down, that’s weird—Fig and Fennel bark? What’s that? What’s a fig? No, forget that, they have plain chocolate, just get that. But not too bitter. No, not that one either. What on earth? Corn on the Cob Bar? Jesus Mary and Joseph let’s get the crap outta here—here: you’re getting this bar. Plain. Done. IT’S DONE, POP.” While Pop made eyes at us, and, you could just tell, would have loved that Corn bar like nothing else on the planet).

D. is very good and patient with customers.

During our heart-to-heart earlier in the day she’d explained why. “I was a customer before I started working here, and I’m always excited to show other customers all the cool stuff!” (<—–Most wise and wonderful sentiment I’ve ever heard from someone born in 1991.)

(D. had another major moment of the day, too. When, in my hustle to fill up the case, I garnished some RSSC with lavender and was just sort of staring at them blankly thinking that now we’d have to sell them as RSSC with Lavender Garnish and inevitably some regular would come in and get one and love it and be all “When are you going to have those RSSC with Lavender again?” for the rest of time [our customers really are that infuriatingly amazing! The other week this happened because, in a long and complicated series of events I won’t get into, we accidentally put chocolate inside the caramel for the RSSC. We didn’t sell them for the very reasons I’m mentioning [We gave them away during The Craziest Halloween Thingie Of All Time Which Still Makes Me Tired When I Think About That One Time We Gave 500 Chocolates Away In Two Hours], but a sweet pal-customer of ours is still hounding us about them.)

What was I saying, and why did that get so long.

Oh, as I was staring at the screw-ups, D. said, “I wonder if you could just sort of brush the lavender off, wet the tops with a little more chocolate, sprinkle the salt on them, and there you go?” This from someone who has yet to actually dip any caramels herself (we train people slowly! Dipping is still two levels away!) absolutely blew my mind, and, of course, was the absolute perfect solution.)

From what I can figure, Saturdays are days our regulars come in in droves to while enjoying their weekend time off. Sundays seem to be days tourists descend on the town. I don’t get exactly why this is, but what it means is that Sundays are explain-days.

Happily, today we’d gotten a lot of our favorite kind of question: “I heard…um…I heard from someone that, maybe, you guys make some vegan chocolates?”

We love this question because we love the wild shout that comes after the prideful “Actually, everything is vegan.” (I also love the Slow Dawning = when a sweet shy vegan who’s been prowling through the shop for a while suddenly puts together all the clues and carefully says to one of us, “Wait…is everything vegan?” The other kind of vegan I love is the Uppity Maybe-This-Is-Some-Marketing-Ploy-And-Not-A-Place-Actually-Run-By-People-Who-Understand-The-Word-Vegan vegan: “So, those cupcakes are vegan? No eggs or dairy? What about the marshmallows in the Drinking Chocolate?” Then I can’t help myself, so great is my pride and joy, and yell with a wild happy/terrifying yell, so happy to meet another Uppity Vegan, from wherever I am on the whole premises, “THE MARSHMALLOWS ARE SWEET & SARA! NOT TO BE A DOUCHE BUT I KIND OF TAKE CREDIT FOR SARA EVEN MAKING MARSHMALLOWS IN THE FIRST PLACE! SARA IS SO DAMN AWESOME! ANYWAY WE’RE ALL VEGAN! BETWEEN JACOB AND MARESA AND I WE’VE BEEN VEGAN FOR 40 YEARS! THE SUGAR IS NOT PROCESSED THROUGH BONE CHAR! FUN FACT ALL ORGANIC SUGAR IS VEGAN ACTUALLY JUST FYI!”

Because I am, deep in my heart, really just a crazy weird vegan who, really, just wants to happily shout at people about how wonderful it is to be vegan and have them shout along about how happy they are to be in a vegan chocolate shop.

So in addition to those amazing moments, we got a bunch of regular old “where the cheepies” questions too. One of our semi-regulars came in with the afore (so so afore) mentioned  dudely dude, who was asking his showoffy chocolate snoot-ball (I just made up the word snoot-ball. It shall heretofore come to designate someone obsessed with showing off their chocolate knowledge.) questions:

“Do you get your raw materials straight from the source, or through a middleman?”

“Straight from the source of course!” I chimed in cheerily (Here’s the thing: I can shopgirl with the best of them when I gotta. Put on a chirpy voice and it’s off to the races, even when my soul is dying because I know what’s a-coming at me.).

(We actually buy our choco through a distributor, a distributor our choco company got ‘specially for little old moi because FedEx charges for super heavy boxes from SF was getting to be insane, but I knew what this dude meant and that was not it.)

“Where are the beans from?”

(If this guy had been asking because he wanted me to prove to him they weren’t slave-beans, I would have dropped all my defenses and opened my entire heart and given him my true heart-answer:

  • First, it’s 100% fair-trade, which supposedly means that no child slaves will ever be involved. (Whether or not it actually does mean that all the time is a more complicated issue.)
  • Second, our cacao beans come from a part of the world (Peru, the Dominican Republic) where child slavery really does not happen in the chocolate industry—West Africa is where it’s a big problem.
  • Third, our chocolate-maker, Tcho, is committed to full transparency and not using child slavery in any way (even in their African-bean chocolates, which we don’t use)—every box is printed with “no slavery.” If you do a Google search on “Tcho no slavery” you will find their webpage and other info that goes into this in greater detail.

But he didn’t care [well, he didn’t say he cared right then, let’s put it that way.] about child slavery in Ghana. He wanted to know one thing.)

“Peru and the Dominican Republic, mostly. We only use certified fair-trade beans, because of the human rights issues inherent in the cacao bean supply chain.”

And then he said it.

“Hmm. So you make all your chocolate, right?”

And I was

just the tiniest

tiniest

tiniest

tiniest

bit snide.

“We make our chocolates yes. We make absolutely everything from scratch.”

It was at this point that I realized just how full the shop was, and that I was basically lecturing to about 15 people right now. The shop part of the shop is about 200 square feet. The rest is space we need because we make everything by hand. It was getting a bit crammed in those 200 sq ft of non-chocolate-making space. But I continued.

“We don’t, however, make our chocolate from scratch. That’s a really, really, really time-consuming process that is a full-time job in and of itself. We use so much chocolate that we’d have to charge at least double if we made our chocolate from beans. $4.32 for one caramel or truffle!”

“Oh, I don’t think it’s that hard,” said dudely dude.

“I’m guessing you’ve never actually made chocolate?” I said with what I DESPERATELY HOPED was a flirty, mischevious, sweetly passionate way instead of the RAPIDLY GROWING RAGE I felt. (No one asks a baker if they also grind their own wheat, or a restauranteur if they press their own olive oil, or a farmer if they save all their seeds instead of buying commercial ones!!!!)

He sort of stuttered. Really, he did! AND I SWEAR someone else in the shop tittered.

I continued.

“There are only maybe 15 actual viable chocolate-makers in the entire country, and maybe five of them make chocolate and make chocolates. That’s lovely, but let’s be clear: it’s really not possible, unless you have about five times the capitalization we have [I am not sure I used the word “capitalization” right there, but it felt right, and fancy, and like a word dudely dude would respond to, so I went with it.]. Also, if I’m being perfectly honest, it’s a boring process. We make caramels and ganaches and toffee and do sugarwork and temper couverture and paint with cocoa butter—all the fun stuff. Making chocolate from cacao beans is all the boring, technical stuff. So no, we don’t make our chocolate ‘from scratch,’ but we make our chocolates ‘from scratch,’ which is, for us, a much more sensible way to function.”

And he just sort of stared at me, and paid, and left, and D. and I kept helping customers and all the while I was dying a thousand recriminating deaths because not only had I lost my temper in front of a zillion customers but I’d also lost it in front of an employee. Which is an absolutely unacceptable thing to do.

The thing is, I had a feeling no one but me knew about the poking hot rage bubbling up inside me. D. didn’t seem to notice.

At this point in my life I have some solid techniques for rage-quelling, and I employed them, and it died down. I just kept on working, I didn’t even need a secret trip to the bathroom or anything like in the olden days.

At this point in my life, however, I’m so scared of the damage my rage can do that even when I have a benign rage episode I’m completely terrified it’s going to ruin everything and everyone I know and love. (Always shit to work on! Woo.)

So I was living inside that world, privately, for the next half hour, when the semi-regular customer who’d brought in dudely dude came back to see if she’d left her address book behind (people in New Paltz are so cool they still use address books! yes!) and also to buy another Almond Toffee Frog.

On her way back out the door she said, “Oh, by the way. You really impressed our friend. He’s, you know, rich and demanding and all that, and your answer to his poking about chocolate really took him aback. He can’t stop talking about it. Now he wants to make chocolate himself, to really see for himself what it’s all about. Ha!”

And she gave me a sparkling wink and was out the door and

and is there a word to explain the incredible lightness of being when one has been in a rage-recrimination bell jar for half an hour when a wonderful person comes along and lifts it? That perfect feeling of clean, objective air? There should be a German word for it, like “reverse upside down schadenfreude” or something.

It’s enough to make a girl start using Sylvia Plath metaphors, my god.

*Me: “Who the crap was that person and how do they know so much about us?”

M: “They come in every single day.”

[Repeat every single day.]

**Today = last Sunday, when I wrote all this.

***This means “putting chocolates in cups.” Did I need to explain that? I can’t decide. Sometimes I get so deep into work that I no longer remember what non-chocolatiers know about the world. Does everyone know that putting the back coat of chocolate on a mold is “backing off”? Does everyone know what a truffle foot is, and how you shouldn’t ever have one? And how, when I’m dipping too fast (always), my truffles get footy and it makes me crazy later when I notice it?

12 Responses to “the curious performance art of being a shopgirl.”

  1. alongthewaytj

    I seriously heart this post. I love and appreciate the “inside” work (growth, struggle, emotional development) that is going on while the “work work” (running a chocolate shop) is going on on the outside. Also that ALL that is going on inside while on the outside people have no idea and you are just giving off an aura of apparently sexy mysteriousness. “Reverse upside down schadenfreude” is also my new favorite term. You rock! :-D

    Reply
  2. JenMcCleary

    I heart this post too! It made me feel very cringey because I totally know that feeling about dealing with people and I don’t even have a full-time shop, just an occasional selling art and jewelry from a tent at local craft shows thing. For a introvert it’s freaking exhausting and it doesn’t even seem to get any easier over time. I’ve gotten better at the performance art of it, I’ve perfected my friendly smile, even in the face of “oh, I could make that!” or “what does it mean?” or “can you take $20 off this price?”, but even after the best of shows I still go home afterwards and just want to curl up on the sofa in silence for several hours. I love the private art-art part of my life which flows naturally, but it’s a real struggle to deal with the performance-art/capitalist part of things. I have a lot of respect for you for pulling it off so well. (Also, WTF about people complaining about your prices? I’d rather have two pieces of AMAZING chocolate and really enjoy them then a whole sackful of crap chocolate. So not the American way I guess…)

    Reply
    • lagusta

      ahhhhh, yeah, shows. I had to give those up entirely because the people-aspect made me totally insane (well, that and the SCHLEPPING!! Oy with the schlepping!!).

      Reply
  3. Rachel Creager Ireland

    I heard about face-blindness recently and it was a big lightbulb moment for me. I don’t have it so much now, but did at least through my teens, and worse with photos of people, or matching a live person to a photo. Heard about social anxiety a few years ago, and I’d imagine they often go together, for obvious reasons.

    Your chocolates are incredible. It actually made me cry to read about the standards you hold and your pride in your work.

    Reply
  4. Alexandra

    awesome post. also – i did not know that about all organic sugar being vegan!

    Reply
    • lagusta

      I did a lot of research on it a while ago, and what’s what the folks at Wholesome Sweeteners (where we get our sugar) told me. They said that the whole bones thing is prohibited by organic certification. I hope they’re right!

      Reply
  5. Raina

    LOVE the birds! Can’t wait til I’m in your neck of the woods and can taste your chocolates! I won’t ask obnoxious questions. Do bare in mind that your way of doing things is not the norm and that if people question the cost of things or the ribbon finish that it’s a bit of an education for them. Perhaps not your favorite part of the business but anyway, a worthy cause. Keep up the awesome work Lagusta. I’ll get to New Paltz again sooner or later!

    Reply
    • lagusta

      Yeah, that’s a good point. : )

      No, non-crazy people are free to ask all the annoying questions they want, really!

      Reply
  6. lysette

    If I could, I would spend all my time reading through your archives -and I loathe reading on computers! I love the part about artistic temperaments understanding the fragility of each other and how jostling it is when that sanctity is broken. I work in theatre and the feed back from the audience can be equal parts devastating and elevating. Reading this my mind kept interchanging the art we make for the stage with the art you produce with chocolates.
    Also my heart goes out to you for your current… I can’t come up with a word to say it… I hope writing about it is providing a cathartic release.

    Reply

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