Unexpected Lessons from Working at a Cheese Shop

The most important lessons had nothing to do with cheese and everything to do with people

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Photo by Trang Doan from Pexels

I firmly believe that everyone, at least once in their life, should work in retail. You will learn things that can’t be taught anywhere else — hard lessons, easy lessons, necessary lessons. Plus, you get paid for doing so — altogether it’s a win-win.

While doing my Masters, I worked part-time at a cheese shop, where I was an assistant manager. The cheese shop was a lovely little cafe with a cheese counter attached, run by a nice couple in their mid-thirties, trying their absolute hardest to make a small business take off.

When I applied for the job, my soon-to-be manager asked me what I knew about cheese. “Not much,” I admitted, under the belief that honesty is the best policy. “I’m passionate but indiscriminate in my love for cheese.”

Apparently, my honesty worked, because I was hired the next day.

I didn’t love my time there, to be totally honest. There were perks, like lots of free cheese, a nice boss, and an interesting clientele. But it was a no-frills, minimum-wage, entry-level job. It was not fulfilling, engaging, or very much fun, most of the time.

But as an entry to the working world, I couldn’t have asked for better.

Your best will be expected, in return for the bare minimum.

From the minute I started to handing in my notice, my boss Harvey expected and even demanded the very best out of me, and didn’t seem to think it strange that he didn’t offer more.

I was paid minimum wage, on a twenty-hour contract. I took initiative, I stayed late, I worked hard and I never wasted time. In return, Harvey paid me the very smallest amount he could legally get away with. If I was ill, or had trouble with a customer, or struggled with something for whatever reason, Harvey did not hesitate to let me know he was disappointed and expected better.

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Photo by Icons8 team on Unsplash

Even when I handed in my notice, he asked and expected me to work beyond my notice period to cover the Saturday. I was too cowed to say no, even though I was completely within my rights to do so.

Looking back, I wish I’d asked for more. Harvey never gave me the opportunity, but that’s par for the course at any working establishment.

This was lesson number one: If you want more, you can’t wait for them to be offered — you have to reach out and grab them. Make your own opportunities.

Everything is free training.

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Photo by Victor Freitas on Unsplash

When I started the job, I called my mom and dad, excited to announce that Harvey would be training me for free, while paying me my full salary. How generous!

Of course, now I know that’s to be expected and really is the least a company can do.

Over the course of my time there, I learned that everything is free training if you look at it in the right way. This kind of job is the perfect environment for self-teaching because I didn’t have any preconceived notions about what I should or shouldn’t do.

In retail and service, your role is incredibly restricted and incredibly open at the same time. While you have a set list of tasks to do every day, you might also have a lot of downtime. Rather than reading or browsing Twitter, you can spend that time trying new things. As long as you’re working, your boss will be happy.

Astrid, from @astridandchumbo on IG

Now, I manage my cats’ Instagram account, but then the world of social media was brand new to me. Hashtags, engagement, filters were all foreign.

But I had nothing to lose, so I took over managing the shop’s Instagram account.

I posted pictures as often as I remembered, reading as much as I could about how to capture a niche audience, how to market on Instagram. I learned a lot that I took with me on my future job and personal endeavors.

This was my second lesson: you’ll learn a lot in this kind of job that isn’t related to cash boxes or sweeping. Accept the lessons wherever you can.

You will make mistakes.

I still cringe to tell this story.

Once, when I served a pork pie, it fell off the plate in front of a customer. I apologized profusely and went back to the kitchen, debating fiercely.

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Photo by sheri silver on Unsplash

Harvey was skint and he told me never to waste anything, up to the point where the hot water was rationed. A pork pie was a lot of money to waste. I was worried about what he’d say if he found out I’d dropped a whole pie. He’d probably take it out of my wages, and they were limited already.

So I cut it once more and put it back on a new plate. I served it to them and left before I could find out if they noticed.

I know, now, that was wrong to do — massively unsanitary, unfair to the customer, just all around gross. I don’t know if they ever found out, but I did scour the reviews of the restaurant for months after that, terrified Harvey would discover my mistake.

As a seasoned professional, I’ve learned it’s no good worrying about never making mistakes: you will inevitably make mistakes, there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s much, much better to learn how to react when you do make mistakes.

This was my third lesson: own up, take responsibility, apologize and try to make it right as best as you can.

Mean people get better service and it’s not fair.

This one sucks the most and there’s just nothing you can do about it.

People who complain, people who kick up a fuss, people who say things are wrong even when they aren’t — they get special treatment.

Once, I served a couple their coffees, and then ten minutes later I brought them their cheeseboard. As I turned to go, the man grabbed my wrist.

“The cheeseboard took so long to come out, our coffees got cold. Could you bring us some new ones, free of charge?”

Did I tell them they should have drunk the coffee in the meantime? Did I tell them the coffee and cheese don’t go together? Did I tell them they could get another coffee and pay for it?

Of course not. I said sorry, and brought them two free coffees as soon as I possibly could. I did not charge them for either coffee.

If you want to take advantage of that, it’s within your power to do so, though perhaps not necessarily your rights. If you want to treat your servers badly, you’ll probably be rewarded for it. But you know what?

I could always tell this kind of customer from the second they spoke to me. This kind of privilege, of expectation, leaves a stain on you. These people may have got more stuff, but they seemed much, much less happy than the other customers who asked nicely and paid for what they received.

My fourth lesson was this: It’s up to you which path you choose. Being mean may get you free stuff, but it comes with a cost.

Friendliness goes a long way.

The most important thing I took away from my job?

I am always unfailingly nice to servers and retail staff, and I tip well. If my food is cold, if I’m having a bad day, if I get an answer I don’t want?

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Author at cheese shop.

I smile, I say thank you, and that I understand. Because I really, really do.

The number of times someone took out on me what was clearly their problem was enough to cement in my head: the waitstaff do what they can, and it is a mark of humanity to treat them like real people.

Even though I know exactly what I could get away with if I made a scene, I never, ever do because I know the kind of crap those employees have to put up with.

Somehow, the people at fault never get the punishment, and it never does any good to take it out on the people who can’t control the outcome.

My favorite customer was an old lady named Sue. Her husband and her son had died recently, and I got the sense that she was incredibly lonely. Whenever she came in, she always bought the same kind of cheese and asked for the same coffee. She was unfailingly polite, conscientious and kind. She asked me questions — what kind of cheese I preferred, what sort of coffee I liked. As we got to know each other, she told me her whole life story, and she wanted to know mine.

I still think about her, years later, every day. I wonder how she is. I wonder if Harvey gives her extra big pieces of cheese like I used to. I wonder how her grand-daughters are getting on, and whether her son-in-law has finally changed jobs.

No matter how bad a day I’d had, the minute she came through the door, she turned it all around.

These people touch your life. Sue will stay with me for much longer than Harvey will, and it cost her nothing but friendliness.

At the cheese shop, I learned an awful lot about cheese — we had over a hundred kinds, and I knew them all by name and tasting notes. I learned about wine pairings, how to do wedding cake consultations, how to use a steam mop, and how to cash up correctly.

But I also learned a lot about human nature.

Why people behave the way they do, what they feel entitled to, and how much of an effect you can let them have on you. What you’re given versus what you should take.

I hope I never work in that kind of job again — the pay was abysmal, people at Christmastime were the worst, and Harvey was irritating, and it was emotionally draining. But I’ll never forget what I learned there.

The lessons that were most important to me had nothing to do with cheese, and everything to do with people.

MSc by Research. Psychology nerd. She/her. zuliewrites.com

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