Sunday 29th July, 2007

Denzil Mohammed
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Means to a cellphone

Well if it’s one thing you don’t want to hear while you’re enjoying a glamorous night out on the town it’s “them customers stink!”

My friend and she friend was having some expensive desserts in a fancy ice cream joint last week, treating themselves after a hard-fought week at work.

Unfortunately, they were sitting next to a pretty messy table at the far end of the cafe. It seemed the staff thought they were the messy ones.

A waitress watches them with a fatal cut-eye and bellowed across the cafe as if she were selling nuts in Jean Pierre, “Them customers stink!”

And then she went behind the counter to complain further with the cashier without lifting a cleaning finger.

Now that’s service. According to one reader who responded to last week’s column:

“When I’m in T&T, I imagine myself as a reckless explorer in a savage land, living by my wits end. The only other place I’ve been to that has given me such a sense of unease is Columbia.”

Yes, far too often we have to fight for the things we actually pay for, as though it’s a favour for which we are to be eternally grateful.

Like one reader who placed a food delivery order at 4.15 pm.

“Forty-five minutes later I called to check on the delivery and was told the driver said he was not coming out in the hot sun and traffic.

“I asked to speak to the manager, who then suggested she would go and beg the driver. What?!

“I called the main office the next day and the person who took my report said she did not think that happened.”

No way. I couldn’t go on. That was way too unbelievable. That kind of thing doesn’t happen in Trinidad, does it? Then I remembered the sneeze-laugh.

I was studying late one night in my final year on campus and needed some serious recharging. But after waiting twice the scheduled ten minutes, the pizzeria cashier with the missing tooth said the fries for my combo were given to someone else. And, who knew it, they already threw out the oil, so they weren’t making any more.

Toothy then asked if fries were what I really wanted in the first place. Seriously.

“Well, yes, ma’am. That’s why I ordered it.”

“Take some cookies, instead, nah.”

I was too hungry to cuss.

But I got the cookies only after the cashier cracked a joke, prompting the worker preparing the cookies to say, “nah, Keisha!” do a kind of sneeze-laugh over the cookies, snort, and wipe her face.

It’s an endemic problem in T&T, which, unfortunately, we can’t help but compare to other countries when we travel. Speaking from personal experience alone, generally, service staff do whatever they can to please the customer.

It’s not merely good characters and kind hearts. It boils down to money.

Neither my friend nor she friend is going back to that dreadful ice cream place. I’ve never returned to that campus pizzeria since. The reader refused to order anything from the restaurant chain that is humanitarian enough not to let its delivery drivers go out in the sun.

In other words, customers have been lost.

Some time ago, at the same ruby of a restaurant where my mother and I had to run for cover lest we be pelted by drunken customers, my buddies and I dined since it was one of the few whose kitchens was still open. Unfortunately, it was a Saturday, not a Tuesday.

The staff took 20 minutes to seat us, which was fine, but added another five for the time it took the hostess holding our menus to talk to a fella wearing Sean John. When the waitress finally came, I asked: “How are you doing?”

“Boy, I tired,” was the reply.

I skipped the sirloin and ordered a burger and fries. We ordered no cocktails (even the Cokes, the waitress admitted, was flat), no appetiser and no dessert. Instead of spending money on a nice night out, we just wanted to quell our hunger and leave as fast as we could, lest the lazy waitress keep us another hour or two.

In other words, money was lost.

And when tourists and foreign investors experience this, it is embarrassing.

T&T does not have a tradition and culture of service. It’s only been in the past decade or so that the service industry has burgeoned with hotels, bars, restaurants, cafes and travel agencies. We didn’t have that much money before, and vacancies weren't splattered all over the newspapers as they are now.

Today, however, a job is just a means to a new cellphone. There’s so much demand that there’s no need to treat anyone specially—or properly. People will still patronise; people will still spend.

Exactly how much more money do we need to pay to get good service? As fast as these popular chains pop up, more high-end, exclusive joints open offering similar fare at dissimilar prices. And people will go because it’s where they know they’ll get good service.

But as options amplify and as we, Trinis, grow out of this phase of fascination of what’s new and trendy and hot and foreign, we just might move out of adolescence and into adulthood where we become more circumspect, discerning where and when our hard-earned money should be spent, thereby showing businessmen that if they want something from us, they need to give us more than just a tired burger and fries.

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