"Peanut Butter Cookies and the Scientific Method"
Warning! This story isn’t politically correct in any form. I’ve tried to round the corners and make it acceptable, it’s still not PC. Read on and live with it or be offended. Your choice.
I had breakfast with Jim, a friend who was back in town from California. He’d started coming to my bagel shop many years ago on the recommendation of Billy, one of my favorite regulars who’s since passed away. Billy became a close friends through the years, and he‘s missed by anyone who knew him. His is a story (or two or three) that I’ll tell another day, but one of the many things he did for me was to continually bring in new customers.
After Jim and Billy made their initial visit, their group grew to include a mother/daughter hairdresser duo and a few others. All were part of a Saturday morning crew that used to meet at the shop. It was people like them who made Saturday my favorite day. Even in the summer months, when business would slow nearly to a halt, they made my week.
Now that I don’t put in 60 to 70 hour weeks, I have the chance to go out for a casual breakfast or lunch. On this particular day, Jim, the mother/daughter duo, and I met at a place where I didn’t have to serve (something I’ve really enjoyed since suffering my medical setback). These reunions often bring up memories of some crazy antics, many of which I’d forgotten. This rendezvous was no exception, as Jim came loaded for bear with the next chapter of a continuing tale.
First let me introduce Joe, the employee. He was a grad student from downstate working on his Master’s. Intelligent and contagiously friendly, Joe is a slight guy with long, thinning, curly hair kind of like Kenny G. He was a baseball fan and an avid reader, and a natural fit for the clientele and for me. We were often mistaken for relatives, and for this I apologize to him. Joe didn’t always like me as an employer, but we got along well on a personal level.
Late one afternoon Joe was working the counter and a regular customer came in for cookies. He was having a rough day at the office and needed his fix. My downtown location provided a steady flow of traffic from a diverse workforce, and they all appreciated our homemade cookies.
I saw Joe snickering at the counter as the customer left. He seemed hesitant to tell me what he was thinking, but we both knew he’d spill the beans. He said it was funny that certain customers tended to buy certain cookies, and, over the past several months, he’d developed a theory and started an informal social test. Even regulars would ask about the available cookie selection, and Joe gladly went through the list (I had no patience for this). As he listed the available options, he’d note their reactions for his study. Joe’s theory was that men who appeared or were known to be homosexuals preferred peanut butter cookies and would raise their eyebrows and look pleased when offered that option.
Maybe you find this offensive, and if you want to climb up on a hobby horse and demonize us, that’s your perrogative. But if you’ve worked in the business, you know that this type of craziness is what helps us get through the day. And if you claim that you never stereotype based on behavior, you’re just lying to yourself.
So this hypothesis-turned-theory immediately took hold with me and I was glad to assist with increasing the sample size. It became an ongoing source of entertainment for both of us. Soon we began to use the theory to predict future events. Very scientific. Or childish, depending on perspective.
One day, Jim and the Saturday crew were wondering about our snickers and giggles behind the counter. It was rare that you could hear anything over the bellowing laughter from their table. We were hesitant to let them in on the study, partly because one of the crew belonged to the group in question. Would he be offended? Would it create that uncomfortable laughter that can change the way we view a person? I wasn't interested in losing any (more) business. After a well thought out argument that occurred during a 3-second glance, Joe and I made a decision. This was the perfect way to get the insight of an insider on our experiment. Yes, there were risks, and yes, the response was uncertain. But we both knew that regardless of the power of the argument, my inability to filter my thoughts from my words would supersede. Pushing people to the edge, and then grabbing them just before they fell was my hobby. I won’t lie, there were mishaps; but that’s how the scientific method works, isn't it? You can’t just approach the limit and assume it exists. You really do have to exceed it and then retreat to have it properly defined.
We let them in on our discussion and also on the “kitchen” name for one of our cookies:“penis-butter.”. This was a nod to the consumer, not production methods.
Armed with a special purpose, the Saturday crew now also monitored the interactions of cookie buyers. Their personal knowledge of other customers provided another set of data points. A slight nod of the head from across the room tipped us off, and we’d discuss the results after the customer left. The group enjoyed it so much they started listening in at other bakeries. Additional researchers and offsite input just added to the entertainment. It became a great running gag, and Jim reminded us of it during our recent breakfast.
Jim now lives in Sacramento and told me he frequents a bakery in an area with a high gay population. The owners were making those little, round peanut butter cookies with chocolate drops in the centers. You know; the kind people used to make at home. The bakery was giving them away with large orders as a little bonus. Jim was still watching counter activities and those little cookies made him feel nostalgic for Rochester.
He asked if could buy some, and the owners looked at him with shock. “You want to buy those?” Jim smiled, and reassured them that he was serious. He went on to tell the owners of our ongoing east coast research and they all had a good laugh. He suggested that they sell the cookies instead of giving them away and they laughed at him again. He kept at them, suggesting that if preliminary findings held, he could almost guarantee success in their particular neighborhood. He finally convinced them in the name of science, despite their skepticism.
Well, more data: they now sell those little peanut butter drops and they sell out every day. This is yet another example of the importance of listening to your employees and your customers. Sometimes the guys working the front lines come up with brilliant marketing ideas. Just don’t tell the customers. That is another story.