[N.B. -- The following tale centers around a quest to purchase adult beverages. The fainthearted should turn away now.]
I paused to consider for a minute. For most people in the Pacific Northwest, this kind of question would probably be ridiculously simple to answer. But asking a Mormon where to buy good beer is roughly like asking a man which tampons are the most effective. I mentally cast about for a recent image of a well-stocked beer case.
"Uh... Whole Foods?" I finally offered. "I know they've got a local wine selection. They'd probably have local beers as well." My sister agreed, and we set off forthwith for Whole Foods.
For the sake of clarification, perhaps I should just mention a few things about my sister. She looks her age, which is several years over 21. She was visiting me from out of state. She wasn't buying the beer for herself, but for her boss, who runs a pub in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Yes, in fact there actually are bars in Utah.) What better souvenir gift for a pub owner, she reasoned, than a few locally-produced beers? And considering Utah's sometimes quixotic alcohol laws, certainly it ought to be a cakewalk to buy beer in Washington State.
Whole Foods did indeed have a decent selection of locally-produced beers in the cold case. While my sister selected a couple of 22-oz. bottles, I picked up a few random groceries and we joined up again in the checkout line.
There we had the misfortune to fall into the clutches of a man we shall refer to hereafter as Hipster von Stickler, Cashier of Cashiers. Hipster sported a carefully-mussed brown beard and a set of obscurely ironic black-framed glasses. The moment he glanced at my attractive sister and saw the two large craft beers she'd set down, he made the call.
"I need to see your I.D.," he said.
My sister gave him her Utah state-issued ID card, which was completely up to date with her name, address and age, indicating that she was old enough to purchase alcohol.
"I'm sorry, I can't accept that," said Hipster. "See, it's printed vertically, and in the state of Washington you can't accept vertically-printed IDs for the purchase of alcoholic beverages." (As it turns out, this was a lie. Here's the only thing the Washington State Liquor Control Board says about vertically-printed IDs and alcohol sales: "For vertical Washington IDs, check the information to the left of the photo to make sure the customer has turned 21." This was a valid Utah ID, and it clearly stated that my sister is over 21. If Whole Foods has a policy of not accepting vertically-printed IDs, that's their call, but don't teach your cashiers to pawn off responsibility on the Liquor Control Board.)
Bristling, my sister then presented her Utah driver's license, which was expired. (She lives downtown and doesn't own a car, so she hadn't felt a pressing need to get it renewed. If only she'd known about Hipster von Stickler.)
"OK, so, since that's expired, I can't accept it, and I can't sell you this beer," pronounced Hipster. He took it from her and began cancelling the sale.
"What?!" said my sister. I admired her restraint.
"Wait," I said. "Look, I have a passport. Can't I buy the beer instead?"
Hipster turned to me. "No. Since I already denied her the sale, I can't turn around and sell it to you. It's Washington state law." (Knowing what I know now, I suspect this comment came straight from the artfully-distressed seat of his skinny jeans.)
I was tempted to ask, "And if I go to the back of the store, select two beers totally at random, return to the front and show my ID, will you also deny that sale?" but I wasn't really spoiling for a fight. He swiped through my grocery purchases -- thankfully, without carding me for something suspect like the baba ghanoush -- and we left.
My sister had many choice words to describe this experience as we strolled through the Whole Foods parking lot. "I can't believe that guy! This is worse than Utah! He is totally on a power trip. Probably thinks he's on his way to middle management or something." Etc., etc., etc.
Then I had a sudden eureka moment -- probably the result of multiple Epic Late-Night Grocery Runs. "Safeway!" I said. "They probably won't have the same selection but they're sure to have some local beer." So we hopped in the car and made our way toward the glowing beacon of the Big Red S in the night.
Still cowed by her recent experience with Hipster, my sister selected two brews and gave them to me to purchase. Not only did the friendly Safeway cashier not give me a hard time, she didn't even bother to card me. (In her defense, I am -- and look -- double the legal age limit for alcohol purchase, so there really wasn't a need.)
I've had a little time to think about this comedy of errors, and it occurs to me what the biggest problem was with Hipster's approach. He was so busy adhering to every rule and policy he could think of that perhaps he marked not what's the pith of all: the rules are in place to help cashiers make informed decisions about how best to serve their customers. They are not meant to be a replacement for rational thought, nor are they meant to get in the way of doing one's job. This is the problem with most bureaucracies, where individuals are never given a sense of the big picture and are strongly discouraged from taking the initiative and using their common sense to get things done.
Companies like Whole Foods have spent a lot of time and money to cultivate a corporate image of caring -- about the food they sell and what's in it, about the environment, and about their customers. But you can't create policies, however well-meaning, that make employees care about the people they serve. That's something that has to come from within on an individual basis. And on this occasion, it failed drastically.
I don't even have a horse in this race since I don't drink, but you don't have to appreciate beer to recognize a customer service failure. What do you think? Should I complain to Whole Foods about the way my sister was treated? Or should I act like the silent majority and just stop buying my groceries there?