When designing what is now not only an iconic coffee cup but perhaps the iconic one, Leslie Buck introduced a simple concept to start New Yorkers’ caffeinated daily grind: “We are happy to serve you.”
Buck, born Laszlo Büch in 1922 in Czechoslovakia, survived the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps in WWII, though the Nazis killed his parents.1 He moved to America and ultimately sold cups for Sherri Company, breaking into the large NYC market of Greek-owned diners by designing a cup that appealed to them. In fact, the coffee cup that Leslie Buck designed in the early 1960s was so iconic that now, even after the cup is no longer being mass produced, the company still prints them on demand.
“Service” is not exactly a New York thing, or is it?
My first job out of college was with John Wiley & Sons, Publishers. In the mid-1980s, the global company had its headquarters in two buildings facing each other off 40th Street: 600 and 605 Third Avenue. I worked in 600 Third, the building on the west side of the avenue.
In the lobby of my building there was a coffee shop. Most of us would stop there on our way in and get a coffee and either a muffin or bagel with something on it. The cashier was an older lady, probably around 60 at the time and now probably turning a ripe 130 years (that’s not true).
Truth is, she was ripe then, maybe a bit past ripe, for her remarks were acerbic and you didn’t want to be on the butt end of them.
One morning as I was waiting to pay for my coffee and toasted corn muffin with butter, a delivery boy came back to the cashier and said that Mr. Jones on the 9th floor complained his toast was too dark.
While counting change for the customer in front of her, she said, “Go tell the kitchen to make another order, and tell Mr. Jones that next time, send a swatch.”
“We are happy to serve you” only sounds different in NYC
This might give you the impression that New Yorkers are gruff, mean-spirited people. On the contrary, they are deeply intimate, in-your-face people. They have to be. They ride nose to nose on the subway; they walk shoulder to shoulder on the sidewalk; they have jousting grocery store carts in the narrow aisles. (Hence the name for this blog when I first encountered H-E-B.)
For example, many corner delis in New York City are run by Korean immigrants and are highly efficient purveyors of morning meals-to-go, in particular, to the New York white collar customer. One such place was famous for having a cashier, a Korean lady of about 40 or so, expedite the long line of customers getting their breakfast orders, with a clipped and accented, “Step DOWN! Step DOWN!”
Her service sounded quite different from that of a southern diner, for example — “What’ll you have, hon’?” — and was all about getting people into the deli and back out to their workplace which, for a New Yorker, is where they want to be. Her “service” was a function of the location.
Therefore, while it’s unlikely you’ll hear many in the food industry there say out loud, “We are happy to serve you,” they really are.
2 PHOTO CREDIT: “Peddler“