Are Maltese restaurant patrons falling out of love with the ‘English-only’ army?

‘I’m sorry, he’s from Barcelona’

Linguistically challenged: in Fawtly Towers, Manuel the waiter sees hotel owner Basil attempt to tell him that,
Linguistically challenged: in Fawtly Towers, Manuel the waiter sees hotel owner Basil attempt to tell him that, "there is too much butter on those trays". Which Manuel promptly corrects him as a mispronunciation of "uno, dos, tres".

It’s a common observation among restaurant patrons in Malta: “one barely sees any Maltese waiters anymore.” They aren’t wrong.

Out of the 4,636 waiters currently employed in Malta, only half are Maltese – the result of a growing economy that has also been driven to a large extent by an increase in personal spending.

One result of such rapid economic growth has been a large influx of foreign workers across all sectors – especially the catering industry – to sustain a demand for services.

And though benefitting restaurateurs while creating a huge number of jobs for both Maltese and foreign workers alike, a number of owners have identified a trend where some patrons don’t like being served by foreign waiting staff.

“From my experience most Maltese patrons tend to prefer Maltese waiters, but it has nothing to do with antagonism towards foreigners” Claudienne Harb

Claudienne Harb, a council member of the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association and operations manager of the popular Lebanese restaurant Ali Baba, cautions against dismissing this as a racist gripe. “It’s part of human nature. We’re more comfortable being spoken to in a way that we’re used to,” she said.

Harb also pointed out that some people tend to write off certain nationals on the basis of one unpleasant experience with someone from that country.

“From my experience most Maltese patrons tend to prefer Maltese waiters, but it has nothing to do with antagonism towards foreigners… you tend to find certain foreign nationals whose communication style can be abrupt and short, ‘to the point’, when Maltese people are not likely to be as direct. So, when these foreign waiters speak they can be perceived as being rude, but it isn’t the case – you’d just have to speak to them for more than a minute to realise it’s the way they speak.”

Minimum wage insufficient

Language barriers aren’t the only problem for the restaurant business. Harb said the need to employ so many foreign waiters has mainly stemmed from the fact that most Maltese are enjoying access to wider employment opportunities. “They can make more money doing something else, or they can make as much without working weekends,” she said.

Increasingly, prospective employees expect not to work weekends or demand regular holidays during peak periods.

And like many other sectors, the catering industry has also lost part of its workforce to the gaming industry, Harb said, adding that many waiters had left to take up entry-level jobs at gaming companies where they could work their way up. Others, especially chefs, were also opting to work in gaming company canteens on a nine-to-five roster, while others had decided to move on and open up their own restaurant.

And while business might be booming for many restaurants, this has not translated in a proportional increase in salaries across the entire sector.

Claudienne Harb, operations manager at Ali Baba
Claudienne Harb, operations manager at Ali Baba

“The minimum wage isn’t enough to cope. If you’re a foreigner, you would likely have to pay rent and if you’re Maltese, you might have a loan to pay,” Harb said, acknowledging that restaurant owners had to increase wages above the minimum, to keep employees happy.

Harb said Ali Baba employees were paid more than the average, pointing to the benefit it gives the restaurant in the long run. “We can’t afford to maintain a constant recruitment process. At the end of the day people in management need to realise that it costs money to retain people.”

Harb, however, said that the glorification of chefs in the entertainment industry has given the wrong impression to people entering the profession.

“Money isn’t the only issue. Malta has to rediscover a love for the kitchen… Some think this [glamourous lifestyle] is what catering is about. No, that comes later – if you want it. At the beginning you must start from the bottom and work your way up.”

She points to the education system as a starting point. “We are very far behind. We have removed this sort of learning from schools and aren’t teaching children like we should be.”

Harb said a successful and fulfilling career is built on genuine interest and acquiring proper expertise, and expressed concern that students are being offered jobs in restaurants before completing their studies. “It will negatively affect the industry in the long run. Ultimately, catering must be considered as a fulfilling career that offers financial stability if the industry is to continue growing.”