Any graphic novel, book, movie or tv show set in a restaurant is going to get my attention. Having spent over half my working career in bistros, bars, diners and quick service establishments, I can relate. I can also tell, almost immediately, how authentic a particular depiction of the restaurant workplace/lifestyle is. With a title like The Customer is Always Wrong, my interest was instantly piqued to say the least.
Mimi Pond’s, at least partially, biographical tale of her time working at an Oakland restaurant in the late 70s is authentic to be sure. It perfectly captures the chaos and comradery you'll find behind the scenes of any good eating establishment. The graphic novel is also touching, humorous and hits this old line cook/waiter/delivery diver/manager close to home.
Pond's fictionalized, but based-on-a-real-place, Imperial Café reminds me of a few places I've worked over the years. I recognize the characters. There are short-timers and lifers in the business and sometimes those short-timers are lifers who just don’t know it yet.
Restaurants are crazy places. They attract a certain person who can adapt to the lifestyle. It's easy to get hooked too. You can start to crave that adrenaline rush you get when you’re slammed and that wad of cash you take home after the end of a waiting, bartending hosting, but never a cooking shift. And on a good night when everything goes smoothly, there's nothing better, but when things start to going off the rails, there's not much worse. It’s hard to come down from the good nights and it's hard to get over the bad ones. There’s also the drama of love triangles mixed with crushing hangovers, and bitter disillusioned co-workers.
This is Pond’s second graphic novel set in the Imperial Café and most of the same characters appear here as they did in Over Easy—another funny, wistful, and entertaining read. In Customer, Pond, as the central character Madge, further recounts the trajectory of her path to art school from her home in San Diego and the pull the café had on her as a customer who had just lost her scholarship money.
Pond/Madge started her cartooning career while working at the Imperial Café, first getting published in local weeklies and then National Lampoon. She has been working in art and comics ever since. Pond would also go on to contribute writing to the first episode of the Simpson’s ("Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire") as well as writing jobs for Designing Women and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (she is married to fellow Playhousealum Wayne White). Her aspirations beyond waiting tables was was a point of tension among some of her co-workers—the lifers, who get stuck in the restaurant rut and want everyone else to be stuck there with them. Madge always had an eye on the door and the future which allowed her to take notes on her surroundings and study the characters—both customers and coworkers—as inspiration for her future work.
Pond's time in Oakland and at the Imperial Café does end, so if you haven't read Customer or Over Easy I won't offer any spoilers here. Suffice it to say, the story does arc and Pond does provide a tight ending as Madge moves on to NYC just as Pond herself did. Those stories have yet to be told however, but let's hope they're in the works.