“Sir, we’ve changed our ordering process. Please step this way.”

That’s what I heard at the bagel checkout after losing my place in line––following a ten-minute wait––to a guy who had just walked in. It wasn’t the cashier’s fault—she had been leading the woman in front of me through the new ordering process when another register opened, and the guy jumped past me—well, technically he was closer to the newly opened register. It was all part of the new process, I suppose.

Here’s how it used to work. I would go to the counter and order a bagel, then step back and examine the cases of muffins, pastries, buns and loaves of bread while they toasted the bagel. If I didn’t add something to my order for instant gratification, I at least had a magnetic memory of carb-loaded delights to pull me in the next time I was in the neighborhood. Sometimes there was even a smile from the server who handed the bag over the pastry case before I dashed out the door.

But that’s not how it works anymore. Now you place your order, provide your name, and are directed down a narrow hallway to an electronic monitor, along with other hungry customers. Your order’s progress is posted with impersonal status indicators like “in preparation” (toasting, I guess, or maybe the cream cheese is being robotically retrieved from a bin). You watch nervously to see whose order is in the lead. (Maybe I’ll overtake that line-jumper.) When “order ready” comes up next to your name, you proceed further into the bowels of the operation (away from the pastries and the door) to claim your bag from the top of a high wooden wall.

I think they blew it with this one. Surely there were time-and-motion studies justifying the revised circulation pattern. It’s a big national chain. We’re talking about a leading bagel operation here, and the bagel’s chief ingredient is even in their name. And maybe the metrics are on their side, for now. But I bet it turns people away in the long run.

To me, it seems we’ve traded personal contact for assembly-line efficiency, and window-gazing for monitor-watching. They may have saved a minute behind the wall, but perhaps at the cost of an extra muffin or a repeat customer.

Paul C.