The Right to be Wrong

On the verge of my sixtieth birthday, I spent a year as a cheesemonger in a prominent shop at Point Reyes Station, California. The 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. Without question, though, cheese samples 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. 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 discounted hearing aids, a shift behind the cheese counter was primarily a communications exercise.

Despite the obvious chaos, the cheese shop owners upheld the notion that they were delivering an outstanding customer experience, and the shop manager was a rigid enforcer determined to make it so. We mongers had to know the correct name and origin of every cheese which we then elegantly inscripted on the wrapping paper of individual customer cuts. What I discovered for myself, though, was that there can be magic in being mistaken.

Once an elder English gentleman mistook a cheese for one he had 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 with a Montgomery Cheddar label and 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, and he 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 out 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 acoustic mayhem the gentleman again heard “Miwok” as he smiled in appreciation.

He and his wife were impressed by the “Miwok” archaeological sites they just visited. He said it was wonderful that the cheese was named in the tribe’s honor and I knew immediately that correction was out of the question because the most endearing experiences in life can sometimes depend on the right to be wrong.