Bad Business at Empire Cake

Empire CakeOn October 18, 2012, I was accused of stealing at Empire Cake (formerly Lulu’s) on 8th Avenue between 15th and 16th Streets. I’ve never been accused of stealing before since I’ve never stolen. It was a shocking, insulting, and humiliating experience that I did not deserve.

I made a $5.90 purchase, and paid with a $20 and a $1 (as I recall). The cashier gave me $5.10 in change, and I said I’d given her a $20. She gave me the additional $10, but looked uncertain, so I offered my phone number in case her drawer was short.

Just then, two men (I believe the owners – they wouldn’t tell me who they were) came out from the back and accused me of stealing $10. I said I was just offering to leave my phone number in case the drawer was short. The short one sneered, “You’d never return the money.” He said I could come downstairs and watch the security video that “proved” I was a thief. It showed the cashier placing my bill in a slot where there now were no $20s. Okay, so either the $20 bill disappeared somehow, or I made an honest mistake. But he wouldn’t let me speak. He said I’d been harrassing the cashier and I called her a cheat. This was completely untrue. We’d been making small talk about salted chocolate, and when she gave me the change I thought she’d made an honest error. But nothing I said mattered. He insisted that I came into the store with the intent to steal, and demanded that I return the $10 or he’d call the police. I gave him the $10 and left.

Karma and Uncooked Muffins

I’ve lived in the West Village for 32 years, and I don’t go around cheating local businesses – or any business. I’ve never been treated like a common criminal before because I’m not a common criminal, and it felt horrible. Who did he think I was? How could this be happening? How could he not even give me a hearing? I’m a middle-class, middle-age woman. I know I don’t look like a thief. As I left, he told me to never come back, which of course I surely won’t.

It’s not good karma to accuse honest neighborhood residents of theft. If the owners of Empire Cake keep doing that, their business won’t last long, and that is how it should be.

I still think I gave the cashier a $20 bill, because I remember looking at it and thinking I should point out this is a $20 since I know cashiers often can’t remember what you gave them. I feel like they stole $10 from me. Why, then, was it not in the register? I don’t know. Perhaps someone pocketed it – perhaps even the owner himself, considering how irrationally he was behaving. Or perhaps I did make a mistake. The one thing I’m sure of is that I am not a thief. I didn’t come into the store with the intent to steal $10, like some delinquent teenager. I came in with the intent to get a chocolate cupcake, and I offered my phone number to the cashier in case her drawer was short. I live only a few blocks away, and I absolutely would have returned the $10 if I had been mistaken.

FYI, don’t buy their muffins. I bought one once, and it was uncooked inside.

35 thoughts on “Bad Business at Empire Cake

  1. Sheryl:

    just found your blog (via the thread on the chemistry/physics of seasoning cast iron — thank you). Sorry to read this bad business experience. Rule number one of business is “the customer is always right,” which is not literally expected, but close enough. The cashier should have been trained to always echo back to the customer the denomination of the bill. E.g., “That comes to $5.90…. out of $20.” and then to count back your change.

    Sadly, very few businesses (either large or small) teach their cashiers how to count change anymore. Or basic cashier etiquette, apparently.

  2. Thanks for your supportive comment. You’re right that cashiers never say “That comes to $5.90…. out of $20” anymore. That’s why I almost always point out when I pay with a bill that’s higher than necessary. This was one of the rare times that I didn’t, and it was because I was having a conversation with the cashier about salted chocolate. She said she liked the combination and I told her about a store on Hudson Street that specialized in salted chocolate. She said, “Oh really? What’s it called?” Blah blah. It seemed awkward to cut off the conversation to point out the $20. I have no idea why the $20 wasn’t in her drawer. I have such a clear memory of looking at it and thinking I should mention I was giving her a $20.

    I was incredibly upset by how I was treated by the owners. What happened to presumed innocence? How could $10 be so important to them that they were willing to risk mistreating an honest neighborhood resident and regular customer? They stay in the back and don’t know me, but most shop owners here do. When I was short once at a local bodega, the owner said to give him the money next time I came in – which I did. I went and got cash and came back. How could I think of doing otherwise? I live here. Even if I didn’t live here, I would do that. I’m honest, and I appreciated his trust and courtesy.

    People think that New York City is a big faceless place where no one knows each other, but it’s not. It’s a collection of small communities, and the West Village is very much a community of people who know each other. It’s like a small town in many ways. You see the same people over and over through the years. You get to know the shop owners. The men who now own Empire Cake don’t understand that it’s a neighborhood business, and will survive only with repeat patronage from local residents. To be treated that way felt horrible, but also very wrong. They bought the business from the original owner, who left the city. I hope it goes under. It does not enhance this community.

    Also, their muffins really were uncooked inside. I had to throw them out, and they would not refund my money. That happened last summer.

  3. Very irritating — I’ve made a note not to patronize Empire Cake (in the unlikely event I’m in NY. Myself, I don’t use cash at all, any more; only a credit card. Except for parking meters.

  4. I’m not a Facebook user, but by accident I have an account, so I tried adding a link to here. I don’t know whether I did it right.

  5. I looked at Empire’s site and all the comments left are gone. Inside NY is showing no comments on that article as of today 2/16/2013. But I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you. This article is getting plenty of visibility. Anyone who searches cast iron seasoning will find your blog, and after they find it they will be intrigued to read more as I was. So smile 🙂 The word is getting out anyways.

  6. Hi Sheryl! Thanks for the cast iron seasoning instructions. I have my skillet in the oven as I write this. Now regarding Empire, they will reap what they are sowing. To protect others innocent folks I would consider making a complaint to the Better Business Bureau. ~ Thanks Again.

  7. I’m so sorry to hear about this experience. It’s absolutely humiliating and embarrassing, and I’ll mention it to my NYC friends. But I found your blog through the cast iron too, and I’m having terrible trouble. Is there a place where I can explain what’s happening to my pans, and ask you about black rust?

    I put my pans in for an hour last night, unseasoned, and thought I’d put them in again for a little bit today. Almost instantly, before the oven had even heated to 350, all three of the pans started to turn Orange!!! a dark red orange, but orange, nonetheless. Last night I soaked them in vinegar before putting them in and made sure they were dry. Today, of course, they were totally dry, unless they’d picked up moisture from the atmosphere, here in not-so-sunny-but-very-snowy Syracuse.

    What does “black” rust look like? How can I get the rust off my pans so that I can go ahead and season them? Please, help!!

  8. Shoulda had them call the police. This is nuts, who knows if they’ve done it to other customers.

  9. I was saddened to read this account. 🙁 It used to be, as others have pointed out here, that a cashier would verbally confirm the amount due AND the amount of cash handed to them, then count the change back to that amount. Now they just punch it all into the register, let it do the math, and that’s that…and sometimes they simply mistake what amount was handed to them. It could be an honest mistake on either side, but it seems that the owners or whomever they were simply would not accept that you may have actually been in the right. It is bad business, indeed…but a credit to you personally for handling yourself with dignity in the midst of a bad situation. Blessings to you!

  10. The worst part for me wasn’t that they couldn’t conceive I might be right, but that they couldn’t conceive I might be HONEST. I still think I gave the cashier a $20, but if I didn’t, it was an honest mistake.

    There I was, a nicely dressed middle-aged woman who’d lived in the neighborhood for 32 years, and they were treating me like a thieving street kid who came there deliberately to con $10. It unreal, nightmarish. Nothing I said made a difference. They were absolutely convinced that I was a thief and a liar and wouldn’t even let me speak. When I tried, they just shouted over me – particularly the owner. It was horrible. Every time I pass Empire Cake on the street, I remember it and shudder.

    Thanks for your support. People’s kind messages here have made me feel better.

  11. Why not recount your story with a big fat one star rating for those d-bags (the managers not the cashier) on Yelp?

  12. Sheryl, the way you were treated by the two owners of Empire Cake constitutes bullying, and a ‘boundary violation’. In particular, making a false accusation and giving you no chance to defend yourself. I’m reading a very interesting book at the moment that deals with this sort of stuff, called ‘Where to draw the line: How to have healthy boundaries every day’. After reading this book and others on similar subjects I think I have turned from someone who would hand over the $10, to someone who would invite them to call the police and/or walk away.

  13. I just found your post while googling a review on this business. I was curious if anyone else felt mistreated by the owner of this bakery. I recently complained about a bad experience I had with a cake (that is was dry) and the owner insinuated that I was lying and wanted my money back and “a free cake!”

    I earn a decent amount of money. I don’t need free cake. I just wanted to give them honest feedback so that they can get their cakes tasting good again. And so it wouldn’t happen the next time I order a cake. Well, there won’t be a next time. Poor guy looked miserable, you could see it in his face. Billy’s makes better cakes anyway.

  14. How awful for you to experience that. I live on LI but go to the city often, and love the W. Village (Tea and Sympathy is a favorite). You can be assured that I will never set foot nor dime in Empire cake.
    I second the Yelp suggestion. Blast ’em

  15. Thanks for your support, Heather. I wrote this blog post right after it happened when I was still very upset. Had I thought of the Yelp idea at the time, I would have done it. But at this point, I just want to forget about it as best I can. It’s bad enough that I have to walk past the place several times a week. I shudder at the sight of it.

    I do very much appreciate that people understand and support me here. Maybe someone else who doesn’t feel so raw about it can post it on Yelp – or go there and just link to this blog post.


  16. I know it’s been a while but I just re-posted a link to this article on their Facebook page for you. I’m sick of the bad customer service people seem to experience everywhere these days – we must make a stand!!!

  17. Hey there! Just tried reposting the link and it wouldn’t let me. Said this link contains content that’s been previously flagged as ‘abusive or spammy’. Ha! D-bags is right. Such a shame when people have to act so ridiculous. So what if he had lost $10?!? I’d say he’s lost a whole lot more than that with all the negative publicity he’s received from you!

  18. Interesting! Thanks for trying to post it.

    > So what if he had lost $10?!? I’d say he’s lost a whole lot more than that with all the negative publicity he’s received from you!

    Agreed! Amazon knows how to do customer service. They treat their customers wonderfully, and that’s why I buy from them all the time and give them lots of free PR. The owners of Empire Cake are shortsighted and stupid. Karma will catch up with them and they’ll fail.

  19. I’m taking a marketing course right now, and we are exploring the concept of “customer lifetime value”. While we don’t know for certain what actually happened at the register, it shouldn’t matter. Smart owners take the long view, and they should know that the $10 in question here is worth far less than the money they will make from your repeat business. Now, they have lost not only that future business from you, but they have also lost the potential businesses of many other customers. You don’t stay in business very long if you can’t keep good customers and you can’t acquire new ones.

    (btw, I love your blog. Very well considered entries. As did many others here, I found you through the CI seasoning discussion.)

  20. > Smart owners take the long view, and they should know that the $10 in question here is worth far less than the money they will make from your repeat business. Now, they have lost not only that future business from you, but they have also lost the potential businesses of many other customers.


    > btw, I love your blog. Very well considered entries. As did many others here, I found you through the CI seasoning discussion.

    Thanks. I post infrequently compared to other blogs, but I try to make what I do post of value.

  21. That this happened to you in a store in your neighborhood is really sad.– When I first came to the U.S., I had to change planes in Philadelphia, I was hot, tired from a trans-Atlantic flight, so bought a coke in the airport (and thought the $1.99 price was high), handing over a $20 bill. Counting my change, at the counter, it was only $7+ change; well there was tax, confusing for foreigners like me; but when I complained that I had given them a $20 bill, so change should be $17-something, another woman behind the counter (who had turned her back to us, and therefore had not seen this transaction) turned around and said, that she saw that it was only a $10 bill I gave her colleague, and that I was lying. The thing was, the bank in Germany had no smaller change that $20 bills, so $20 bills was all I had, so there was no doubt on my side what size bill I had given; so I had been cheated by this pair of vendors. They apparently knew they could get away with it, as I -like all their customers at the airport – was in obvious hurry to make my connection, rather than calling the police with uncertain outcome. (I thought I could possibly point to a crisp new $20 bill in their cash register [unless it also disappeared], consecutively numbered with one in my possession). Oh well, a lesson learned. Always say out loud the denomination by which you are paying.

  22. I’m really sorry this happened to you. That’s awful. It really does sound deliberate, taking advantage of the situation. I wonder if what happened to me at Empire Cake was a deliberate flim-flam on THEIR part. That hadn’t occurred to me.

    I, too, now ALWAYS say the denomination out loud when I hand someone a bill.

  23. I got an unsolicited email from someone name Jessica at Empire Cakes stating it was GREAT talking to me this morning and looked fwd to seeing me in a wk for a cake tasting.

    I am married – never called nor heard of them – I don’t live anywhere near NYC.

    Used my full fist name and not the one I have gone by since the 7th grade.


  24. I stopped by Empire Bakery while in the neighborhood a few weeks ago. And had the same game played on me (happens all the time in NYC… I used to live there). Anyhow, I was able to confirm that their bakery is nothing special and posted it on a well-known review site where my reviews appear at the top.

    Frankly, going there and having the hand em a $20 get change for a $10 game played was hilarious. And I didn’t call them on it. Because if someone is going to cheat me out of $10, they’ll try to cheat me out of a lot more (dishonesty is apparently a 24/7 thing).

    I’d love to see at least 3 people who are age 70+ go in there and document what they’re doing. Because rather than calling the BBB and nothing happening, NYS would nail their butts to the wall for senior abuse.

  25. Back in the good old days, when cashiers could still count change, it was common practice to not put the bills used to pay for the purchase into the drawer until the change was given and everyone agreed the transaction was complete.

    If the twenty and the single were still on the top of the register the cashier would know you’d been shorted.

  26. It’s been years, but I loved your posts about cast iron cookware, and it looks like a lifesaver for me as I’ve got a few of them.

    Horrible about those Empire people — are they still is business, or they go down in ignominious defeat?

    Sorry that there’ve not been any posts for a while. You’ve got some neat stuff up there!

  27. I have no idea how this came up for me this morning! You became my FB friend a few years ago because I begged you! I have never forgotten how you helped me with my cast iron pot. But I’m reading the above stories about the Empire people. May be they are just ignorant but may be they have this scam set up. My ex bought some petrol in Afghanistan back in the 70’s. I wasn’t with him on the way to India but he told me he was sure he had handed over a one hundred pound bill and didn’t get the correct change. I drove back with him and we went to the same petrol station. My ex again handed over a one hundred pound bill. I watch very closely and noticed the petrol guy took the bill, his hand swung down to his side and back up again. Once again my ex was told it had only been a 20 pound bill. I got out of the car and made a huge scene. The ex got his change back! This had actually happened to me in a Turkish restaurant on my way to India. I didn’t know the rest of the world was as honest as the Brits. I called the police but they didn’t back me up. This is very common practice and perhaps it happened to you. We all know about that street game with the ball and three cups. I had just arrived from England and was new to NYC. I watched the game with interest and figured it wouldn’t be hard to win. Well, of course, I did win the first game – but not the second. I became incensed and started yelling at the scam gang. In my innocence I called the police. The gang picked up their stuff and moved to another street. I followed them, still screaming that the police were coming. The leader got so pissed off at me that he threw my $20 bill to the ground and left. I don’t live in the city or else nothing would please me more than to go and buy a miserable donut and show them what they could do with it. Karma’s a bitch!

  28. I have to correct a mis-type above. It should have read ” I didn’t know the rest of the world wasn’t as honest as the Brits.”

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