Hectic life in the service lane

People who serve diners and pub-hoppers work hard – and experience a variety of ‘adventures’ – for their money. | Pixabay

People who serve diners and pub-hoppers work hard – and experience a variety of ‘adventures’ – for their money. | Pixabay

Published Dec 23, 2023


Durban — Thousands of diners and pub-hoppers will descend on eateries and bars over the festive season, kicking back and being served on their holiday breaks.

But it’s no working holiday for kitchen, wait staff or bartenders, who will feel the heat of Durban’s summer, in the service arena and, they hope, in their tip jars.

Some ungracious patrons do not tip, or leave insulting tips like recent reports of a waiter in Cape Town who returned a R5 tip off a R480 bill. Others behave outrageously or put hospitality industry staff in harm’s way.

One local woman worked as a waitress while she was travelling the world.

Lucille Ann Pillay of La Lucia recalled working at a US resort where the world’s rich and very famous came to play. Staff were instructed to serve celebrities without intrusion – get the order and deliver their food and drinks with no chit chat.

It went sideways when Roger “James Bond” Moore and his family were in her section, and she was delivering the drinks to their table. Pillay had the tray loaded and carefully balanced on her arm when one of Moore’s gallant sons stepped up to help her unload.

Unfortunately, he moved one too many from one side of the tray, unbalancing it and toppling it over into Moore’s lap.

She said he reacted with amusement and grace – but it didn’t prevent management from banishing her to a “lesser” venue with fewer celebrated guests at the resort.

Pillay also enjoyed serving actors Sean Penn and Robin Wright with their kids. She said they were really relaxed and even helped her clear the table after an unruly session with the children.

Durban waiter Dylan Smit has spent many years working behind bars or waiting tables and has some stories to tell.

Probably the most “disgusting” incident happened at one of the nation’s favourite franchises.

“It was the breakfast rush and the store was pumping. The staff were walking up and down the aisles, serving their tables, and there was this horrendous smell.

“We knew something was just not right, and kinda made the assumption that a guy at one of the tables had messed himself,” said Smit.

“He sat there for a whole hour, with full tables all around him, and when he left, there was a huge brown stain. I wasn’t serving him, but no tip he left behind could have made up for that.”

Smit described how he, his colleagues and customers at a different restaurant were caught in the crossfire of armed robbers who struck the bank next door.

“One of our customers had just deposited a large sum of money at the bank when robbers, who we think had followed him into the bank and knew about the deposit, hit it.

“The cops intercepted them and there was a big shootout before the police caught them. In the heat of the moment, I went outside to see what was happening and rescued another waiter who had frozen in fear, pushing him into the restaurant. It was chaos.

“A mother with her two kids clinging to her ran right through the restaurant and into the staff toilets to hide.”

He’s also been the target of enraged patrons, such as when a woman, who was infuriated because Smit was not allowed to serve the water she was demanding at the shooter-only section of the club, crawled under the bar counter to attack him.

“I was at the till and had my back to the under-the-counter entrance when someone started swinging at me. My first reaction was to hit back, but I realised it was a woman and caught her in a huge bear hug. I’m not a small guy, but she was a foot taller and even wider and I had to bear-hug-walk her back under the counter to hand her to a bouncer.”

Former waiter Joshua Greener tells of a gun-toting regular.

“On one occasion, a regular customer got drunk and started acting up by threatening my manager, who managed to keep it cool until the customer was about to leave,” said Greener.

“The customer then started threatening the manager, saying he’s ‘not that big’. Next thing, he is showing us he has a gun in his bag and saying he’s not afraid to use it. He even went as far as threatening my manager to be careful when he goes home. The customer was permanently banned.”

Greener said while tips weren’t expected, if you had worked hard, they were appreciated.

Tanielle Lambert said some made bad jokes about tipping, despite often unnecessary demands.

“The worst tip is when they make a comment like ‘I have a tip for you: look both ways before you cross the street’ as a joke. I don’t think it’s funny and as bartenders/waitrons, we don’t like it.”

Waitrons, particularly young trainees, can also be exploited by managers.

Ashleigh, who asked that her surname be withheld, said she had served a large table of 10 people who had left a R1 000 tip. The waiter who was training her gave her R200 and pocketed the rest, telling her she was not a full-time employee. She said this was a frequent occurrence, and she often worked 12-hour shifts for five days straight and took home just R290 as “commission”.

One former waitron who worked at a high-end restaurant turned disaster into a big tip.

Asking that her name not be used, she related how she was serving a table for two when she knocked over a glass of water which spilled onto the male patron’s lap.

“I felt so awful, my first instinct was to grab a napkin and start trying to soak up the liquid. The couple saw the funny side of this unwelcome attention and had a good laugh. I’m not sure if it also encouraged the man – who paid the large bill – to leave a very generous tip.”

Sunday Tribune