Donna Stephen

Cape Town service sucks

2004-11-26 15:10

There isn't really a polite way of saying that, and I have no intention of fudging the issue.

I'm sure that it's not significantly better in Jozie, but in my experience, it's far worse in Cape Town than anywhere else I've ever visited.

Perhaps I should contextualise first, before I have hoards of people accusing me of being a Cape Town-hating Gautenger, or of comparing service in Cape Town to service in other parts of Cape town.

The Mother City isn't unique in this - I've had incidents of bad service in many of the rest of the world's cities I've visited, but by far, we're one of the worst.

... and I'm not talking about cheap and nasty places either.

Sometimes you can put it down to the person trying to help you, and in many cases, not help you, having a bad day.

Or, like my one experience in a German electronics shop when the poor guy from East Berlin could hardly understand my garbled mix of German and English asking for a phone socket adapter for my modem cable.

He thought I was a Turk with a bad attitude when I asked in English and when I launched into the German equivalent of "I need a thingamajig for my doodad" he delivered a very brusque and frightening, "I can't help you here," in three languages.

What offended me wasn't that he couldn't help me or couldn't understand me, which is debateable - it was his attitude.

He made it clear that he wasn't interested in trying to help. But I blamed my bad german, said danke schön and left.

Here, though, there is no excuse.

I've found that there are several kinds of bad service. I've been at the receiving end of enough of it to be almost clairvoyantly attuned to it! They extend from the bad to the shockingly bad.

AWOL (absent waitrons, or lost)

There's the kind where you are ignored. You walk into a café, it's not particularly full.

You stand there feeling just a tad conspicuous, waiting to be seated. The waitrons are deeply engaged in a discussion.

The café is not noticeably busy - this is why they're standing around, talking. But still, they ignore you. You try to attract their attention and someone ambles over and looks at you. Silently. That happened to me once, and I?ve never been back to the place.

Next option, there's no-one around at all. There are people eating, there are sounds of activity in the kitchens, just no-one at the door. It's not self service. In fact, it's one of those places where, if you were to casually waltz in and sit down, they just might ask you to leave. But still there's no-one there.

That's ok, if it lasts for about a minute, but when it's onto the third or fourth minute, one begins blaming oneself for not being demanding and pushy.

Sweeping service

I can say that I've been swept off my feet at a trendy Greenpoint café. Alright, I'm exaggerating - not off my feet, just around my feet.

This would be the kind of Bad Service where you're swept and mopped around. Ever been in a restaurant while they're cleaning around you?

There is a popular café frequented by foreigners where they make a habit of it. And I'm not talking about bussing tables - I'm talking about the attention to cleanliness which involves someone sweeping up a dustcloud around your table. I have hygiene-issues.

I love cleanliness. But not actively around my table when I'm eating! What I'm pretty sure about is that none of the people so enthusiastically sanitising the floor around my feet would do that around people in their own homes.

It shows a basic lack of respect for other people and I find it repulsive.

I don't count a slightly messed up order as bad service. We're human, we make mistakes. Unless you've asked the waitron if the dish contains sugar, he says no, you tell him you're diabetic and you'll die if you have sugar, and the dish comes drenched in sweet and sour sauce.

And this is my personal favourite: The Snub.

On Sunday a friend and I stopped in at a popular coffee shop franchise in Kloof street in Cape town.

It's about four o' clock on a Sunday afternoon and about a quarter of the place is full. After being subjected to AWOL, my companion and I chose to snack there, regardless.

I can see that there are about three tables of two to three people for every waitron. Not busy at all.

It took about twenty minutes for the first waitron to appear once we were seated and almost twenty-five minutes for our empty cups to appear for our bottomless coffees.

At this point one is grateful that at least the "bottomless coffee" is self service. From past experience I know better than to order anything from the kitchen - the food is usually awful, but a muffin'a muffin is safe.

I'm a fast learner - I also know better than to bother our waitron with any question so complicated as "What muffins are available?"

So I walk up to the counter, read the muffin labels under the baskets and make my choice.

I've been around the counter for about three minutes, so I've introduced them gently to my presence, not wanting to scare them off.

I stand conspicuously between the counter and the till, somewhere right of the cheesecake and left of the coffee beans. I remember to smile, take a deep breathe (wondering why if feel like Oliver Twist asking for more) and say, "M..."

She looked at me, and in that fleeting second of recognition, that I might ask her to Do Something, shot me a glance that would have turn the cheesecake rancid and walked away.

I stood for three more seconds, more stunned than stubborn, while she examined the wall next to the oven, went back to my table, paid for my coffee and left.

And I actually left a tip. I shouldn't have, but I did. The waitron servicing my table, whom I saw fleetingly as she dispatched my coffee forty minutes previously was nowhere to be found.

Earlybillbringing

This last kind, I'm not sure qualifies as bad service - I simply find it quite rude. It has happened so often at a certain place that I no longer frequent that my friend and I call it "earlybillbringing".

It's when you're at a café for cake and coffee, have ordered and eaten the cake and coffee, and your waitron decides that you've had enough, it's time to leave, and plonks the bill down on the table, unasked for.

Sometimes there's the accompanying look in their eye: "If you want that cup of hot-chocolate or a glass of juice you're just going to have to get it elsewhere, buddy."

How does one respond to that? I used to pay up and leave, and now I just ignore it and order that cup of hot-chocolate.

Perhaps many of the wait-people in the food industry don't have the choice. But part of being a grown up is lying in the bed you make for yourself.

In other words, if your job is serving people then you should do it. I didn't even say happily, although politeness would be welcome - I meant just do your job. How many of you would be able to keep your jobs if you didn't do them passably well?

  • Donna Stephen is the www.women24.com editor, and a self-appointed member of the service police. If you've had a close encounter with the kind of service that sucks, let Donna know.

    Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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