Cheap Chopsticks

November 17, 2017

The Poke Guy is an excellent little hole-in-the-wall in Vancouver's Gastown district. It sells customizable dishes with rice, fish, veggies, and some delicious sauces. It's high quality food – the kind of eating out that you don't have to feel guilty about. I ordered a big dish with a little bit of everything, complete with a sprinkle of wasabi mayo.

When you walk into The Poke Guy, you can tell it's a well-thought-through business. Customers are moved, very quickly, from one end of the queue all the way to the cashier like parts on an assembly line. The displays look good, and their unusual pricing model can be easily gleaned by a glance at their menu. Whoever runs this place clearly put a lot of thought (and/or experience) into it.


They chose to use the cheapest kinds of chopsticks that are available. From a purely mathematical cost/benefit analysis, that's not such a bad trade-off. Perhaps, they can pass those savings onto their customers. Maybe, after all the effort and thought that's gone into the food and the process, having cheap chopsticks is a reasonable tradeoff. Who'd ever notice the meek chopstick?

As I sat down to eat the food I had just ordered, I grabbed a pair of chopsticks that were available from a cup in front of me. As I applied force to the chopsticks to grasp the first bite, one of the chopsticks snapped in mid-air, flinging mayo-covered veggies on my face, my shirt, and my pants. The initial upset from an unfortunate event like this dissipates fairly quickly, but it does offer an opportunity for reflection.

Would the owners of The Poke Guy think that one (at least) of their customers having this experience is OK? If being in business required that every once in a while they take a bunch of saunce-covered food and fling it in someone's face, would they still do it?

I think the answer is a resounding 'no'. And yet, for some reason, we're constantly OK with making these tradeoffs if the causal chain between our decision and the negative outcome for one of our customers gets long enough. Every time you decide to do shoddy work or to use cheap materials or to hire unreliable staff, you're implicitly deciding that a shitty experience for your customers is OK.

I'm as big a fan of capitalism as anyone, but the pursuit of pure profits without a sense of a greater mission is precisely what gives capitalism a bad rap. Once these compromises permeate all of our day-to-day experiences (and they do), we become blind to them, and we accept them as inevitabilities. This acceptance, in turn, will lead us to perform our own duties in life more neglectfully and carelessly. It's a vicious cycle.

It might sound trite to say this as a response to a broken chopstick, but it is exactly the triviality that makes this a worthy case study. Minute decisions a business makes can have a magnified impact on the world. We cannot seek praise for what we do that is already in our own self-interest. Virtue is only worthy of praise precisely when it poses a difficulty for the virtuous. If we believe in capitalism with mission and values, if – as so many silicon valley companies profess – we actually want to build businesses that change the world, then we must pursue the betterment of our customers' lives, not as a marketing strategy but as a sacred value and with religious fervour. Of course, profit and loss is an existential limitation that should be taken seriously by any rationally-thinking businessperson, but we can't lose sight of the fact that it is an obstacle that we must overcome and not the goal itself.

I suspect that the vast majority of those who love to hate capitalism do so precisely because of so many encounters with business entities that preach one thing but practice something else - businesses that try to project a false image. People may not be able to articulate this point exactly, but they feel it at an emotional level, and much like an inauthentic encounter with someone you know is a pathological liar, they feel disgust at these profit-seekers who have no greater sense of virtue.

Of course, the beauty of capitalism is that we are, collectively, in control of this situation. If we decide that it is worthwhile to pay extra to businesses that pour their heart and soul in to their products and services, we can incentivize this behaviour. As customers, it is our duty to reward good behaviour, and as businesses, we need to realize that our impact in the world goes far beyond what can be captured on a spreadsheet.

I thought about all this as I cleaned off stains of wasabi mayo from my clothes before heading back to the office. Luckily, there were no important meetings that day and stain-covered clothes were not a huge impediment.