Consistent Service & Racial Perceptions

A few weeks ago I decided to set-up my laptop in the take-away section of a local coffee shop, a well known one at that. The staff, always friendly and the place always buzzing.

You see I had a meeting scheduled at this coffee shop and the restaurant area was a bit too noisy and I just needed a quiet table to do some work while I waited.  I switched on my laptop when the Manager walked over and said “this is the take-away section, the waiters don’t service this area”. I explained to him that I have a meeting downstairs in the restaurant in a hour, and asked if I  could put my coffees on one bill. “Unfortunately not, you will have to place your order at the counter”.

At this point I decided to let it go, and just asked for the wifi log-in. The coffee was good and I enjoyed working in the quiet space.

After a while a lady sat down at the table next to me with her two children. She ordered breakfast and juice – the waiters SERVED her…a few minutes later a group of three sat down at another table, all this in the take-away area, and well, the waiter took their coffee orders and SERVED them. The Manager walked by on two occasions, oblivious to two tables being SERVICED in the take-away zone!

I quietly continued with my work, but could not shake the uncomfortable feeling and thoughts running through my head. Surely, this can’t be happening?

Anyway, 5 minutes before my scheduled meeting, I packed my laptop away and went down to the Restaurant where I asked to see the Manager.

I introduced myself to him and said:

“You know when I arrived you made it very clear to me that waiters do not serve customers in the take-away area and that I needed to place my coffee order at the take-away counter. Which I have no problem with. But, if you look at your take-away area right now then you will see that there are two tables being served. The one is a mother having breakfast with her two children, this I understand because the kids play area is there. The other is a local business team, reviewing all their files in the quieter space.”

He apologised profusely and said that he will talk to his staff because they know they should not wait on tables in the take-away area. How typical, passing the buck to the very friendly and accommodating staff! This just annoyed me more!

I literally spelled it out for him:

“You know, I can understand why your waiters are servicing those two tables. You cannot expect a mom with two kids to order breakfast downstairs in the restaurant while her small kids play in the unsupervised play area  in the take-away section on the upper level.

What is a concern for me though is the fact that you made a point of telling me that the waiters do not wait tables in the take away area and I need to place my order at the counter. You have since walked pass the area twice and have not mentioned this to the people seated at the other tables.

What I am feeling and thinking makes me very uncomfortable right now. You have three tables in your take-away area with paying customers. My observation is that the two tables with the white customers are being serviced by your staff … someone else may see this as an incident of racism, but I know better since I come here often. I need you to be aware of the perception that this morning’s incident can create. If you don’t wait on customers in the take-away section then be consistent. Someone else in my position may not be so objective. Perception is everything.”

I thanked him for his time and moved my meeting to a smaller coffee shop; too much noise. I still get my take-away morning fix every other day.

This incident made me realise how easy it would be for me to use the race card, especially when confronted with a situation like this. But I prefer to reason and look at the actions of staff within the context of their morning. I arrived when things were very quiet, the others arrived when it got busier. The Manager, may not even have noticed that tables were being waited on in the take-away section, etc.  A lack of consistency could easily have resulted in me labelling this establishment as racist…