When Wrong is Right

On the verge of my sixtieth birthday, I spent a year as a cheesemonger in a prominent creamery at Point Reyes Station, California. The cheese shop was set in an old barn, re-purposed as a quaint hay bale mini-mall that included stalls of handmade clothing, jewelry and pottery.  Free cheese samples, though, were the main attraction.

Crowd control was supposed to be maintained through a numbering system that befuddled everyone including us mongers. In practice, customers simply pushed, shouted, and sometimes actually fought their way to a sample. With most of them being on the last leg of a Northern California winery tour, they were usually loud, hungry, and drunk. Decorum be damned when free food is involved, even in West Marin.

Being in a barn, acoustics in the shop were challenging even on a quiet day. With boisterous crowds, droning ambient muzak, and a clientele dominated by candidates for AARP discounts on hearing aids, a shift behind the cheese counter was primarily a communications challenge. Despite the ongoing chaos and suggestions about possible solutions, the shop owners believed that this was an outstanding customer experience and the shop manager was determined to prove them right. 

In the midst of mayhem, we mongers were expected to know the correct name and origin of every cheese which we then elegantly inscribed on the wrapping paper of individual customer cuts. What I discovered, though, is that magic sometimes happens in being mistaken.

One day an elderly Englishman mistook a cheese for one he'd loved but hadn’t seen since childhood. He called it by a name and type that had no relationship to the display tag that clearly labeled the wheel he admired.  I politely corrected his assumption by lifting the wheel while referring to its actual name, saying, “Yes, this Wisconsin Pleasant Ridge gruyere-style is great! Would you like to taste it?” He responded by saying, “Yes, this is wonderful! The last time I saw a wheel of Montgomery Cheddar I was a young boy in Cadbury!”

I gave him a taste thinking that would certainly right his misconception, but instead it evoked more memories bringing him to the verge of tears. At that, I let it rest and started calling it Montgomery Cheddar myself as I cut, wrapped, and wrote the pretender name on the outside of the cheese paper.

The manager saw me selling a fresh cut of Pleasant Ridge which I labelled as Montgomery Cheddar and he whirled into corrective action, apologizing to the customer while insisting that I remedy the wrong. In a flash the story shifted from delightful illusion to absolute confusion. The customer’s smile sank along with his heart. He was left with an exceptional experience in all the wrong ways.

The next example resulted from poor acoustics but had a much better outcome because the manager was on a break.

West Marin County was once home to a native California tribe called the Miwok. There are prominent markers along the Point Reyes stretch of Highway 1 commemorating this fact. And an unrelated fact is that the Point Reyes shop where I worked produces a famous specialty cheese called Red Hawk named after a raptor in West Marin.

On one particularly loud and crowded afternoon, a mature gentleman visiting from the East Coast took a waiting sample of Red Hawk from the counter and asked me its name. I said “Red Hawk” and he nodded in confirmation while saying “Miwok”. I repeated “Red Hawk” as a polite adjustment, but through the crowded dissonance he again heard “Miwok” and smiled in appreciation.

He and his wife were impressed by the “Miwok” archaeological sites they visited. When he praised the creamery for naming a cheese in the tribe’s honor, I knew immediately that correction was out of the question.  The most endearing experiences in life can sometimes depend on the right to be wrong.