Waiting in line at New York bakeries easily ranks among the city’s most aggravating gastronomic experiences. In fact, I’ll go even further. Waiting in line at these purported confectionary happiness factories can be slow enough, painful enough, and mind-numbing enough to make you want to dance a crazy person jig and paint half your face blue like Braveheart.
I know, I know. You’ll still wait longer for a lunchtime salad bowl at Sweetgreen. In fact, if you drop by a bakery in the off hours, you’ll often walk in and out in under a minute. But on any given weekday during peak pastry time, there’s a chance you’ll end up stuck behind one of three types of people at Maison Kayser. One will constantly ask “what’s that?” Another will have very specific ideas about how boulangerie should be bagged (real life example: “three croissants, three baguettes, divided equally among three packages”). And the third personality type will suffer from a dissociative pastry fugue that renders them unable to commit to a viennoiserie while they Instagram yuzu tarts.
Here’s a some Sutton Psychology to explain why this happens: People revert to a childlike state in the presence of caramelized sugar, polychromatic candied fruit, or basic things cut into pretty shapes and garnished with sprinkles. I call this momentary regression Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Syndrome (herein: CFS), a nod to the absurdly irrational decisions that a group of ill-fated children with deep character flaws make when visiting Willy Wonka’s edible den of horrors. And while no one obviously puffs up into a blue-tinged balloon in real life, CFS is surely what causes customers to fall into a dilly-dally daze or make the type of unreasonable requests that would get them sent to the back of the line at a no-nonsense Midtown deli.
I suppose this is all a semi-cynical way of saying that bakeries are places that make people wondrously happy, where they feel comfortable taking their time. I’m one of those happy people. Super happy. Can’t you tell? I’m just suggesting that maybe we need to bring the focus and rigor that embodies pastry making into the consumer side of things.
There are, alas, problems on the business side as well, chiefly how confections are often presented with ridiculous baby speak names or without relevant descriptions. Here’s a recent-ish selection of indecipherable menu items from Bouchon: TLCs, fuhgeddaboudits, OHOHs, and, most frustratingly of all, “seasonal fruit almond danish.” How is it that Thomas Keller, a chef of such painstaking exactitude he names his cucumber purveyor on the menus at Per Se, can’t figure out a way to print the type fruit on his patisserie placards?
Insufficient descriptions mean patrons ask more questions. And patrons who ask more questions hold up things for everyone. No one should have to ask what type of fruit is in a danish. No one.
So to help make sure things keep chugging along efficiently, allow me to present a series of guidelines to make sure the New York bakery and patisserie experience is as streamlined as visiting a diner or a bagel shop.
1) Know what you want, and eat pastry often. Coffee lines move more quickly than pastry lines. This is because humans, despite their infinitely absurd caffeine orders, know precisely what they’re going to get. Go to bakeries more often, instead of once a month when a new viral pastry debuts, and you’ll quickly achieve that “expanding brain meme” state of knowing what type of sweet you want. Or if you’re a joyous and carefree spirit like me who goes to bakeries to be delighted and surprised, maybe don’t hop in line until you’re done with your merry browsing.
2) Limit your questions and conversation. You know how ice cream shops only let you have like two samples? At bakeries, you get one question. Sorry, that’s the rule. But you get a second if the name of a dish is nonsensical or if the dish has stuff in the center and the menu doesn’t denote what kind of stuff it is (“jelly doughnut” is one of the most flagrant examples. Like, what kind of jelly are we talking about? Blueberry? Raspberry? Mulberry?).
Related: If someone ahead of you is getting too chit chatty with the staff, a polite stare or eye roll is appropriate. After that, a gentle, “hey, we got people waitin’ here buddy” is a simple way to defuse the situation in a non-confrontational way.
3) Be reasonable with requests. Do not ask for more than one separate bag for separate pastries except on extreme occasions like allergies.
4) Employ oral discourse instead of hand gestures. Say the name of the dish rather than pointing at something when ordering. The clerk often can’t tell what you’re pointing at because they are standing behind the counter and don’t have the x-ray vision that allows them to see through multiple rows of pastry and wooden shelves. If you’re worried that you’re not going to pronounce a multisyllabic dessert name properly — don’t be! Just say so and make an effort, or go by a description of what it looks like and ask.
5) Limit your bulk purchasing. You shouldn’t deprive others of their morning croissants because you forgot to place a catering order for your khakis-only executive accounting offsite. A large order is defined as anything you have to read off a piece of paper of that’s over six items long. Instead, make the order in advance.
6) Be prepared for disappointment. I’ve seen pain au chocolats disappear well before noon, so don’t make a stink to the cashier if bakeries are sold out of things. These businesses do not generally employ supply chain algorithms to let them know precisely how many danishes they’ll need. Order something else made with butter.
7) You are allowed to cut someone who’s in a daze. Full stop.