It’s no surprise that opening day leading into Mother’s Day weekend at the popular Polar Cave Ice Cream Parlour in Mashpee was busy.
But with testy customers who just did not want to wait for their cones f-bombing the shop’s teenage staff and a flood of orders overwhelming the small team Friday, owner Mark Lawrence posted “STOP ORDERING” on Facebook and unplugged the phone.
The shop opened at 2 p.m. and “by 4:30 on it was just insane,” Lawrence, 60, said on Sunday.
When he finally turned the lock to the Polar Cave that night at 9:30, more than an hour after the planned closing time, Lawrence said on Facebook it was “the lowest feeling I have ever felt.”
The Polar Cave, which usually reopens by April 1, asked customers Friday to order at least an hour in advance as the shop adjusted to the new challenges of social distancing in a business where the product melts, he said in a phone interview.
He had his “A-team” of employees aged 15 to 20, all of whom had worked there at least two years, ready to go for the opening. Instead of six scoopers inside the shop, a team of seven was split with three out in the parking lot, one manning online orders, and just three to scoop.
With drivers peeling off Route 28 to join the crowded parking lot and word spreading, the impatience — and the vitriol — began.
"The wheels were slowly falling off the bus,” Lawrence, who is from London, said in his British accent.
One employee, an 18-year-old who was running orders to cars, was trembling by the end of the night, he said. After hours of f-bombs and slurs, Lawrence said, the woman didn’t even want her pay or her tips; she just wanted to quit.
One customer got out of her car and came up to the window to scream at him, Lawrence recalled.
“Hold on, hold on: It’s ice cream," Lawrence remembered thinking. “Ma’am, you do not have to be here; I don’t have to be here; these kids don’t have to be here.”
And Lawrence, who has run the shop for nearly 20 years, knows a thing or two about what he called a real "ice cream emergency.”
Some customers, like addicts who have replaced their drug of choice with ice cream, know they can call him in the middle of the night to meet at the shop to stave off cravings, he said. He’s ridden in the family car to funerals of customers and taken ice cream to the hospital.
“We just have a personal connection that is the Polar Cave," he said of those 50 or so customers who have his cellphone number.
And for the rest of the community, too, and with the virus upending life, he said, “I want to be open every day to give customers that sense of that normalcy for a few moments.” The experience of going to get ice cream "brings happiness and it’s corny as hell but that’s what it is.”
Most of the 300 or 400 customers Friday were just glad to see the shop, closed since Christmas, reopen, he said. Some patiently waited for as long as three hours.
But about one in five were nasty from the start, he remembered.
“They’re just impatient. They’re used to how it was. In the past they didn’t have a problem waiting an hour [in line]. But they aren’t going to sit in their car for an hour.”
Lawrence said he has dealt with his share of difficult customers and situations in his 40 years in the hospitality industry But, he said, “this is way worse because of the lack of humanity, the lack of respect.”
For now, the shop is trying to prevent the rush it experienced Friday and would be “open on a daily trial basis,” he said.
But the nastiness is still on his mind as he thinks about his former employee who may never work in such a job again.
“Right now she’s very fragile. It devastates me," he said.
Lucas Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.