The man hustled across the street almost as soon as I parked. “Excuse me, sir. I don’t want any money,” he said. His head shook from side-to-side, as if practicing a well worn script with Shakespearean ending.
This conversation didn’t usually go well for him.
The man ran through his lines behind the faded and stained Alabama football sweatshirt draped over his body. “I just want to ask if you can get me a cinnamon roll.”
“Okay,” I said. “Sure.”
Unlike many people in the fishing industry, I don’t live in the country, on a lake or even in a small town. My bed is nowhere near the ocean, either—it’s in the heart of a sizable metropolitan city in middle America, which means this isn’t an uncommon conversation in my neighborhood. But what followed next is. And I think it rings relevant for business owners from the mousiest to the mightiest streets across the country.
“I’d like a coffee, a cream cheese breakfast roll and a cream cheese apple danish,” I said to the woman behind the counter. As she rang the order up, she posed a peculiar problem, “Random question, but are both of these pastries for you, or is one for the man behind you?”
The man in the faded crimson sweatshirt had followed me into the coffee shop, and apparently he’d been there before. His presence, I was informed, was discouraged, as was the presence of anyone like him. This meant I was only entitled to purchase the pastry destined for my stomach.
I tried a few more times to buy both pastries, and eventually walked away empty handed, bound for another coffee shop a few blocks away. It didn’t feel right, somehow, to grab my morning treat and eat it in front of this man.
Maybe he had been to the coffee shop before. Maybe he’d been there many times. Maybe he’d already had a cream cheese apple danish that morning. That wasn’t my concern. “My money, my pastry,” I reasoned.
But was it really?
As a business owner, where is the line of customer service drawn? We’ve all heard the adage, “No shirt, no shoes, no service,” though it often forms only a loosely drawn line in the fishing tackle industry—not all anglers can be bothered with such formalities during a busy day on the water, after all. Then again, not all tackle shops are located on the water. Even in small town America (where I grew up and learned to fish), there are plenty of panhandlers and homeless people outside the doors of local businesses.
As a business owner, what are you supposed to do when the less fortunate—or more devious—citizens of your area approach a customer?
I’ve seen a few solutions to this quandary:
Some business owners manage to employ people for a time. There are even a few cases of lives that were turned around this way. Others post signage warning of impending criminal charges for trespassing on their grounds. That’s a tactic with varying results.
Others, however, simply deny you the pleasure of an early-morning pastry.
But really? What is the right answer? I talked to the coffee shop owner to find out how they usually handle the situation:
“Being downtown, we have a lot of homeless people,” he said. “Customers either approach it in a negative or positive way. They say, ‘Can’t you do something about this panhandling problem?’ 75-percent of folks that walk through the door just want us to throw them in jail. We can’t do that. They are human beings.”
Some of the neighborhood panhandlers have complicated issues, he says. Generally, the police and business owners know who they are: who, he says, to be bold with and who not to. For a time, his shop occasionally provided free coffee and pastries to people in need. “We had to quit offering free coffee and pastries, because it got to be an expectation. Eventually, we had to walk away and say ‘sorry.'”
So you run into situations like today, which can be awkward. The customer in line before me had apparently approached the situation in a negative way. When I immediately approached it from another angle, it through the barista for a loop. Maybe she was trying to give me an “out” by denying the pastry. That’s hard to say.
In blurry situations, it’s not always clear what the right thing to do is. “We usually have myself or a shift manager deal with panhandlers on a case by case basis,” the owner added. “In your situation, we missed it.”
So what is the right way to approach panhandlers? I pose this question to you business owners, as I posed it to another media friend as I left the coffee shop. “I don’t know,” she said. “But there’s got to be a better way.”
Yes, there must be.