The furore around the incident at Obz Café between student activists Ntokozo Qwabe, Wandile Dlamini and waitress Ashleigh Schultz has put a spotlight on the racial and power dynamics in the food service industry. Many waitrons work long hours and are students working to get pocket money; and because there is a distinct power relationship between customer and server, they often get bullied. KWAZI DLAMINI spoke to waitrons in Durban about customer experiences.
Nomvuselelo Zenzile, 44, waitress/supervisor, Ntuzuma
I have been working here as a waitress for 10 years and I have dealt with a lot of bad customers. Some customers don’t know the menu – they order something they are not sure of, then when they see it they say they can’t eat it. Surely we are going to refuse because the company doesn’t allow that. That is when they start calling us names and telling us we don’t know how to do our job; we are not educated and we must go back to school. But because of experience I know how to deal with such issues. I inform the manager whenever I face that situation but the customer is always right. The funny thing is that most people who ill-treat waitresses are black people.
Sisipho Mvulane, 26, waitress, Nanda
Honestly speaking, I’m tired of being a waitress. In fact, I’m tired of being disrespected by strangers. One time I had a customer throwing food at my face because he she was not satisfied with it, and most of them use the line “I pay your salary”. We do report to the management, but they always side with the customer because they also want to protect their business – even if the customer was wrong. One incident I will remember for the rest of my life was when a lady racially abused me. She was here with her family and they did not finish their food, so as I was preparing to pack the food for her as a take away she angrily said, “Are you going to pack my food with your black hands?” I was shocked and disappointed but I just kept quiet.
Bongiswa Chonco, 26, waitress, Umlazi
I have been a waitress for three years now and I can promise you this job needs someone with a thick skin. Your day can get ruined anytime by customers and your boss calling you to the office. One day, a colleague of mine was calling me and I shouted back because she was calling from the top floor and I was telling her I was still busy taking orders she must wait. Then a customer intervened and asked me why am I shouting; I don’t respect them as customers and that’s probably because I slept with the manager to get the job and she is the reason I go to the toilet. I called my manager and I was told not to shout ever again in front of customers. But the manager later came to me and told me the lady has issues and I shouldn’t mind people like her.
Sandiso Sibeko, 24, waiter, Jacobs
I have only been working here for eight months but I have had countless encounters with unsatisfied customers. I have learnt to handle them in a good manner. Sometimes you bring the wrong order and a customer will shout at you like you just asked for both his kidneys. One time I refused to give a customer drinking glasses simply because she did not buy the drinks inside and she shouted at me calling all sorts of names until I had to call the manager and he explained to her. The customer just fumed and stormed out of the restaurant without paying for the food.
Sello Mnikathi, 22, waitress, Chesterville
I am yet to come up against a rude customer. I have met customers who complain about their orders but it’s always calm and we fix things in a good manner. One time a customer said he wanted a quarter chicken meal and we have three quarter chicken meals here, so I asked whether with chips or roll and he said chips. When I came back with the order he asked me if it doesn’t come with a roll and I said it does only when you ask for it, and with more money. He added money without throwing tantrums.
Samkelisiwe Mvusi, 25, waitress, South Beach
I have learnt to be calm in this job and always smile, even when being shouted at. People come and unload their problems on us and that is not cool. The previous restaurant I worked at there was a lady who ordered a full chicken and she wanted it to be cut into eight pieces. When the chicken came back, she changed and said she said it must be cut into four pieces. The waitress went back to get a chicken cut into four pieces, when she came back the lady said the chips are now cold and she must take them back. The waitress was still waiting for the new chips while she continued serving other customers, and when the complaining customer saw that, she lost it and started complaining. She called the waitress useless until the waitress finally had enough and told her they must go outside and settle it by fighting. It doesn’t really have to come to that but sometimes customers push us to the limits.
Voxes have been edited for brevity and clarity