The vegetarian meal that would change my life forever…
Is entrepreneurship inherent or does circumstance open this door of opportunity? For me the answer is both, as I had many small businesses that ran through my days at school to the captive market of fellow scholars, but the decision to never work for someone again came down to a single moment.
I was a waiter at a world-renowned meat restaurant l in Sandton, spending Sunday evenings and Monday lunch serving various affluent individuals, while I studied at RAU (now University of Johannesburg).
After four months of learning the ropes, I had a good handle of how things worked, and had even contributed a couple of ideas that made our order taking more efficient.
The moment arrived unexpectedly one Sunday evening in April of 2001. I had a big table of even bigger spenders, some local businessmen entertaining guests. The table was mainly men, which meant custom steak cuts were going to be the meal of choice, and when the Meerlust Rubicon 1988 was requested, I knew it was going to be a great evening for me.
When it came to ordering, a lady at the table informed me that she was vegetarian, and nothing on the menu catered for her preferences. With her being the wife of the man who was clearly going to pick up the tab, no request was too big, and I suggested she order a variety of side dishes.
A quick negotiation with the chef later, and a vegetarian platter like no other had been created, and I proudly exited with the train of other waiters heading to my table.
Metres from the table, the owner walked by, and did a quick turn when he spotted the vegetarian splendour. I beamed from ear to ear, as impressing him meant a promotion was soon to follow, but instead I was stopped dead in my tracks by the look I was given. “What is this?” The words spluttered out his mouth as his face turned deep red. “Our vegetarian dish,” was my less confident answer. “WE ARE A MEAT RESTAURANT ,” he said, as I was steered back to the kitchen.
At this point the head of the table came to my rescue, cutting us off on our way back to the kitchen. He explained his wife was vegetarian but he didn’t want to turn up the opportunity to serve his guests a fully South African experience. As they say, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The owner said his dishes were not up for discussion and if a vegetarian wanted to eat at a meat restaurant, then what did they expect. I was instructed to bring out the veggie dishes as sides, as they appeared on the menu. An altercation ensued between the guests and the restaurant owner, and minutes later they left, outraged at what had transpired.
I couldn’t believe what had happened. Surely businesses were built on innovation, professionalism and meeting the expectations of your customer? Surely those who work for you, who differentiate your offering and represent the essence of your brand should be acknowledged and retained, not ostracized and made to conform?
As I watched my table of guests leave the restaurant, I felt no anger, but rather an excitement to a calling I had felt all my life. I knew it was time, and as my hand untied my apron and my mind raced thinking of what my future held, I knew I would never work for anyone again.
Another South African entrepreneur had just been born.