Notes From the Unemployment Line: They Left Us Nothing But Crumbs

 “Soooo when are we gonna be officially fired?”

This is what I typed to my coworker who messaged me an article from Business Insider titled, “Crumbs Bake Shop Is Closing All Of Its Stores.” I read the article, sure. What a funny joke. It was a joke site, like The Onion, but for news solely about businesses. There was no way Crumbs was closing up this fast. My coworkers and I at Crumbs knew the end was coming, but our manager assured us that we’d have our jobs until November, because “that’s when the company’s contract with the Water Tower Place Mall expires,” his words. We had months of security.

Sure, the company’s contract with the bakery ended and we had no cupcakes and wouldn’t have cupcakes until the company wrangled a new contract with them, and sure, all we had to serve the customers at the Water Tower Place Mall was coffee, but that’s no matter. We’d have cupcakes soon. They told us so.

I checked sources, searched other news sites. The New York Times had the story, Time had it, then the final nail in the proverbial coffin, The Wall Street Journal. I went back to Business Insider to read the article. The first line had me in a crazed fit of maniacal laughter: “The beleaguered Crumbs Bake Shop told workers that it would be closing all of its stores by the end of Monday, the Wall Street Journal reports.” My jaw fell so hard it could’ve crashed into the Earth’s crust all the way to China.

An addendum must be made. Crumbs workers in New York were told on Monday that all stores were closed as of later that evening. Crumbs workers in Chicago were told nothing except that our locations might have cupcakes by Wednesday. Whoever closed that Crumbs Kiosk at Water Tower on Monday night had no idea they’d just lost their jobs.

The words were right in front of me – all stores were closed as of right then and there – but I thought maybe the Crumbs Kiosk would still be open. They had coffee. Coffee and espresso. Those can be served no matter what. They’re easy to brew, to pour, to execute. Nothing stops coffee.

The next morning, I woke up, got out of bed, tripped over the multiple pairs of boots strewn about the hardwood floor, and grabbed the phone between my doorway and the kitchen fridge. I dialed the number for the Kiosk. After two months straight of filling out job apps, I’d had it memorized.

Nothing.

I checked the phone number online. Yep. I had it memorized. Maybe I entered it wrong? Fingers slip and press the wrong buttons. I dialed again, and again there was nothing. No one was there. That’s when it finally hit me – for the first time in two years, almost to the day, I was officially unemployed.

“Hey, Lisa!” My mother called me from the living room. I shuffled from the kitchen to the couch directly in front of the TV as she pressed buttons on the remote control. “Let me rewind the show.” It’s a DVR, but in this family we use VCR-jargon. The show in question was The View. My mother pressed play and the four women came out waving and grinning to the pre-menopausal audience applauding their every move. They sat down and Whoopi adjusted her posture before looking into the camera to introduce one of the day’s “hot topics.”

“You may have already heard, but famed New York-based Crumbs Bake Shop has closed all its stores!”

I left the couch and headed straight for my room, back to the solace of the internet. I logged onto Facebook to look at the news trends. “Crumbs Bake Shop closes…”

I logged onto Twitter. “Cupcake chain Crumbs Bake…” I immediately opened a tab for Craigslist and applied to ten job postings. Then, I got out of my pajamas into actual clothes, jumped the bus to the Red Line, and rode it down to Chicago and State for the Water Tower. I had to see it for myself.

And I did. There stood the Kiosk, same as ever, with the lights turned off way past opening time, manned by no one. The front case – empty except for stacks of white trays that won’t see even the smallest crumb ever again. The counters were clean, the brewers and espresso machines and sinks, all visible from the front of the Kiosk, were unused since the day before, and would stay unused until the mall figured out what to do with the whole damn thing.

Out of a mixture of depression, delusion, anguish, and other pre-existing mental instabilities, I applied to other jobs in the Water Tower, and left with more job applications to fill out and turn in, giving me another reason to go back and look at the empty Crumbs.

We all saw this coming. Sales were continually lower than last year. About two months ago, they’d closed the River North location, the fourth Crumbs to be closed in Chicago in the last year, and our manager informed us that more stores were closed out East. I always thought it wasn’t too bright to open Crumbs in Chicago anyway. Logical, yes, but overall a bad idea.

Here in Chicago, there’s a stubbornness we have when it comes to supporting small businesses. Cupcake and bakery shops like Dinkel’s, Molly’s Cupcakes, and Bittersweet are thriving. Hell, Dinkel’s has been around for over 90 years – Crumbs lasted just over ten. This dedication to small business isn’t just seen with bake shops. Book stores like Unabridged, Powell’s, and Quimby’s are doing fine. Music outlets like Reckless Records are having no problems. Meanwhile, Borders is nowhere, Barnes and Noble is barely hanging on, and when was the last time you saw a Tower Records ‘round these parts? But Crumbs opened here anyway, at Madison and Franklin, and lasted a whole four years. Whoopy-doo.

Speaking as a now-former Crumbs worker, there were good times to be had at Crumbs. My coworkers were always agreeable and enjoyable, and I can honestly say lasting friendships were made. I never had a bad manager, or one who was cold or harsh. Then, there were the cupcakes. Were they good? Hell yeah. If I wasn’t diabetic I’d have shove three of those monsters in my face at once.

Of course, they had to be thrown out at the end of the day. Surprisingly, most of our customers were mortified at this revelation, but most of the customers lived the kind of lives that allowed them to buy five-dollar cupcakes, and not blink twice when told the total cost for a half-dozen was almost thirty bucks. These people had credit cards made of stainless steel with names most people haven’t heard of. When I was handed an American Express Centurion Card, I had to give it a double-take just to make sure I was really seeing it – informally known at the Black Card, it’s made of titanium, is invitation only, and has an annual fee of $2,500. Crumbs customers made some serious bank.

A significant amount of these same people never had to work at a place like Crumbs, or any minimum wage food service job, so they don’t know that this is a regular practice at any establishment that sells food, from Crumbs to Dunkin’ Donuts to that hip, new restaurant that opened in Wicker Park last week. What else can those places do, keep the food until the next day and hope it’s not rotten or stale?

We lied to customers and said we sent them back to the bakery to be donated to wherever, but some customers were smarter than that, and sometimes I didn’t feel like bullshitting them. Some saw it happen right in front of them – remember that the Crumbs in the Water Tower was a kiosk.

I hate seeing food wasted. Homeless and impoverished men and women housed the streetcorners of Chicago and Michigan Avenues, and there we were throwing out ten to twenty cupcakes a night, and those were on the good days. Some days it was thirty to forty. The worst day I ever saw was the day after Halloween. There had to have been one hundred-fifty Halloween cupcakes tossed. They weren’t stale, had no damage, and tasted great, and they were all shoved into a garbage bag and fed to the trash compactor in the mall basement.

Still, working at Crumbs and dealing with screaming children, entitled adults who don’t know how to parent said screaming children, and indignant teenagers who walked away when they realized that, no, we did not serve “fraps,” was better than when I worked a four-hour Dunkin’ Donuts shift at seven in the morning, better than working at a perfume kiosk where foreign men asked if I was a prostitute, and way better than working as a shot girl at a bar with dozens of men trying to grab my ass, (I quit after three days, the shortest time I’ve worked any job). This fact is not a testament to how “great” Crumbs was – upper management from the company was shit, and they hardly communicated with the store managers, and when they did it was hardly anything useful. No, that fact is more a testament to the shittyness of my previous jobs and the amount of bullshit my coworkers are I were willing to put up with.

Now, I’m waiting on a measly $60 paycheck, a dozen emails, and I’m applying to more jobs as I attempt to ready a portfolio for an internship application. Oh, I also have writing assignments to finish, a book to read, and mental breakdowns have been scheduled every night from one in the morning until two-thirty.

On Tuesday, when the collective media concluded Crumbs shutting down was the worst incident since the virtual economic collapse of 2008, I emailed my manager. I needed a reference for my resume, but I had to say a few other things. “I also wanted to thank you for being an a great and fair manager. The manager before you was good, but hardly as hands-on as you, and it was nice to know that you had our backs the whole time.” He responded, thanking me for my hard work, allowing me to use him as a reference, and said how proud he was of me and the team we had there. It wasn’t much, but he was in the same position we were in, and on that Tuesday, he gave us all he had – a reference, a “thank you,” and parting words.

Upper management, on the other hand, hasn’t said a word. The only email I received from the company was not an official, “We’re letting you go and sending you a bulletproof vest for when Arnold bursts into your home.” It asked if I’d prefer to have my check deposited into my bank account or if I’d prefer a physical check mailed to my address. I said to mail it, and this was their response:

“Thank you! Have a Great Day.”

“Great Day.” The bastards capitalized it, like the title of a song. “Great Day.”

I hope one day I find some great lesson to be learned from this fiasco. These rambles don’t exactly do the whole experience justice, but they’ll do for the time being. All I have left to say is this – my coworkers and I gave hours upon hours of time and effort to this company, and in return they shoved us into oncoming traffic and left us for dead.