Entry 3

Mark Furstenberg

I had another abrasive little encounter with a customer yesterday. A woman asked for tomatoes on her tuna sandwich. I said we don’t have tomatoes when they’re not in season. “That’s unique,” she said; they were in the supermarket yesterday. I said, “But they’re pink and hard, and I won’t serve them. We’ll have tomatoes next July.”

“Haven’t you ever heard that the customer is always right?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, “but that’s a silly idea. The customer is not always right. The customer is simply always the customer.”

You might imagine that I am not Mr. Popularity, and I would have thought that by this time, I would have run out of customers. It is a tribute to our food—and to the charm of others who work here—that, depending on weather and season, between 650 and 900 people come to my restaurant each day.

In the kitchen

The BreadLine is open for breakfast and lunch and makes traditional bread-based foods. We try to re-create the foods that in nearly every culture are hand-held—stuffed breads like samosas, topped breads like pizzas, folded breads like piadine. We make street food, preserving its cultural and culinary identity, avoiding cross-cultural confusion foods.

It is important to me to make food that is authentic and simple. It is important to me that everything we buy be the best we can buy, so all the meat we serve is from Niman Ranch in California. Our produce is local and organic—as much as possible. The flours and grains we use come from a special mill in California; our prosciutto and Parmesan come from Parma. We serve Fizzy Lizzy, not Coke, and so on.

Actually, I am the pioneer of a unique concept: We buy the same raw materials as the best restaurants in the city and sell our foods at one-third the price. It’s like a dumb eleemosynary mission.

But I insist that this is my restaurant, and I get to decide what we serve here.

A colleague wrote to me not too long ago, “Mark: We all have to let our customers decide what is right for them … you are entitled to (your opinion), just don’t impose it on me.”

What on earth is he talking about? I dictate all the time what customers eat by what I choose to cook, what ingredients we cook with, and how we cook them. That is not merely my prerogative; there simply is no other way to do it. A restaurant has to represent someone’s taste. This one represents mine. I take very seriously the fact that I am producing the most personal of all things—food that people put into their bodies—and it is reassuring that whoever puts food into his mouth gets the last word. That’s why there is more than one restaurant per city, and each of them has a menu.

But what makes it tough here is that we are different from a restaurant to which you go, settle into chairs, order drinks, study the menu, and get to ask questions about it of a server who should be able to answer any of your questions.

Here we serve up to 200 people in 30 minutes; we have a line from 12:15 to 2:15, and one of the reasons customers are prepared to put up with lines that reach the door is that we have a kind of contract—they are willing to get into that line, but we have to serve them within seven minutes.

If a lot of customers want to review the ingredients in this sandwich and that piadina, we’re in trouble. The line doesn’t move, and customers don’t like it. So, when customers want to compose their own sandwiches—How about turkey with a little tomato, and a slice of ham, and may I have some feta with that?—I get scared about the people at the back of the line.

It’s a real problem. This is America, and people expect to get what they want. But we don’t even have “American cheese,” whatever that is, and we don’t have honey mustard. And, even apart from that, how much customizing should we permit? How about toasting the bread? (That takes three minutes.) How about combining ingredients that, in my judgment, don’t go together?

We are a country where people expect to have it their way. We do it all for you, says the slogan. But what happens when customers get what they want and find they don’t like it? And what happens to the food that I value so much? If they want our turkey larded with grilled peppers, Swiss cheese, and tapenade, why do we go to the trouble of roasting three turkeys each day? Why not use that water-logged turkey breast?

Better chefs than I are utterly accommodating. Thomas Keller, chef-owner of the French Laundry, says, “I am in the hospitality business, and if a customer asks for mustard with my food, we carry mustard to the table.” If Thomas Keller feels that way, who am I to say that customers shouldn’t get everything they ask for?

This is real dilemma for me that is aggravated by my attachment to “cultural consistency” (no peanut butter and jelly piadina). I have to try to please customers, but I have to feel good about what we are doing. And I have to be practical too so that customers don’t wait so long in line that they stop coming back to the BreadLine.

It’s complicated. I think about it all the time. And I really ought to stop being so stern with my customers.