My friend Amy owns a bakery that specializes in custom cakes. Her cakes are exceptional. Fabulous. Each one a work of art. A customer, let’s call her Karen, recently ordered a cake for her 50th birthday.
On the day of the party, Karen’s husband came to the bakery, picked up the cake, paid for it and left.
End of story? Alas, no.
Several days later, Karen phoned the bakery to complain. “You ruined my birthday,” she told Amy. “I hated the cake!”
“I’m so sorry,” said Amy. “What was wrong with it?”
“The design was messed up!”
“What was wrong with the design?”
“A line was crooked!”
“That’s it? One line?”
“It was crooked.”
Out of line—until now?
People are dying on ventilators, Amy thought, and you’re bent out of shape because a line on your birthday cake was crooked?
“When you pick up a custom cake,” Amy said out loud to Karen, “if you aren’t happy with the design, we can fix it. Our cake designers are right in the shop. They’ll drop everything and make sure we get it right.”
“I didn’t pick it up,” said Karen. “My husband picked it up.”
“Okay, so when your husband got home and you looked at the cake, you could have brought it right back to the shop. A fix like that takes only a few minutes.”
“You shouldn’t have to fix it!” said Karen. “It shouldn’t have been crooked. And I didn’t have time to bring it back. I was getting ready for the party.”
Where she served the cake to her guests, who managed to enjoy it, despite the crooked line.
If you’ve been creating custom cakes for more than a decade, once in a while you’re going to screw up. Over the years, Amy has shared a couple of Spectacular Cake Fail stories with me. It’s rare, but when a cake is just plain wrong, a sincere apology, a full refund and/or a replacement cake — plus other baked treats — is called for.
But this level of fuss about that small an error? That was way out of line. Or it used to be, before the pandemic.
The demanding ones
“These days, everyone is angry and frustrated," Amy said when she told me about this later. "Still, most of our customers have been wonderful. But the furious and demanding ones? They've really been over the top.”
Karen was being unreasonable. And yet telling her that she just couldn’t have her cake and eat it too had to be balanced against the impact of a scathing Yelp review. The vast majority of the bakery’s reviews are glowing —but one nasty review from a customer with an ax to grind can be bad for business.
So Amy offered to refund a third of the cake’s price.
“Absolutely not!” said Karen. “I want a full refund.”
“You took delivery of the cake. Your guests enjoyed it. And now you want a full refund. Because?”
“The cake wasn’t perfect!”
This cake sucks
Here's the problem. In the scary, frustrating Pandemic World we’re living in now, the cake isn’t perfect.
In fact, the cake, for most of us, really sucks. (I, for instance, have just lost my job). Some people have adapted. They’re being reasonable. They’re trying to meet the challenge by being as kind as possible to each other.
And others demand a perfect cake and will raise hell when they don’t get it.
These folks can’t control how the pandemic has trapped them in their homes and spun their lives out of control. But they can damn well control the design of a custom birthday cake!
Or they can try to.
They project the helplessness and rage they feel about the pandemic onto other targets. Karen couldn’t punish COVID. But she could vent some of her anger by punishing Amy.
Is this fair? Not at all. But COVID isn’t fair either.
Amy, so far, has managed to keep her bakery open, providing people with something sweet to help them get through these tough times. Of course, sweetness isn’t essential. Kindness isn’t, either.
But this world could do with more of both.
I know what Amy’s response was to Karen’s demand for a full refund.
What would you have done?
Image description: A tall cylindrical cake with four white layers flecked with rainbow spots, under thick white icing. One large slice is gone.