Economic and Racial profiling for the dine-out crowd

Did you know IKEA will be opening in Cairo soon? Yeah, I’m excited about it too. Not just because of the affordable foldable Scandinavian designs, but also because of the Swedish meatballs and lingonberry jam served at the IKEA café (swallow your disdain; the combination of sweet with the tart and savory is a gastronomic experience).

Excited as I may be, it is nonetheless an excitement tempered by trepidation. You see there is a most regrettable practice in Egypt – Cairo in particular – regarding restaurants/cafes: The Minimum Charge. Initially intended as a way to improve the bottom line for the restaurant owner, the “Minimum Charge” now seems to be used as a screening filter for the clientele. The mechanics of the scheme are very simple: demand a high enough “minimum charge” and the lesser fortunate “B and C classes” will not come. This is economic profiling in action – your value as a customer is directly proportional to the fatness of your wallet.

Not only does this offend everyone I know, but I’d venture so far as to say that imposing a minimum charge actually hurts the potential revenue by imposing a maximum charge for the restaurant. Instead of ordering what you want, you end up ordering exactly what will get you to the minimum charge threshold.

The ire I feel when a waiter leans over to whisper, as if giving me a friendly warning, “But sir, we do have a minimum charge” rises like a tsunami of bile. Were it not for the company I keep, I would use a string of expletives and curses reserved only for the most heinous of personalities and follow it up with a destructive tour of the dining room, venting my rage upon the restaurant manager’s soft face. Sadly this all happens in my head and I, like most other patrons, put up with this abuse at the hands of an increasingly classist service industry. If there are any doubts as to whether or not this stratagem is employed to keep out the lower socio-economic classes, then ask yourself this question: are there any minimum charges in Boulaq or Ain Shams?

It’s the middle class that drives consumption and consumerism in an economy: that is your customer base. And in the year 2010, these classes have more disposable income than ever before, so why not let them spend it at your establishment? Unruly or impolite customers can be shown the door. Kicking a patron out for being an ass is one thing; but shutting out a patron for their social class or income level is a different, and darker, thing altogether.

Which brings to mind a newer trend among the “rarefied” establishments. During a recent phone call made to a popular Cairo lounge to place a reservation, I was informed that guests wearing Arabian garb or Niqab would be denied service. When pressed as to the reason why, the operator let it be known that the restaurant would like to bar entry to Arabian tourists. While this position may have been based on a few bad apples creating trouble, this type of profiling is nonetheless alarming. In a country renowned for its hospitality and status as a premier tourist destination, racial profiling at the door of a restaurant or nightclub is the antithesis of everything that is Egyptian.

Yet even so, a minimum charge would be tolerated if one could count on good service. It’s only fair that the show be worth the price of admission, right? No, dear friends, this is not the case. Some of the best restaurants in Cairo don’t have a minimum charge and have no problem with undesirable clients. And yet other restaurants – in an effort to impose an air of exclusivity and aloofness from the inhabitants of the very city they are meant to feed – demand these arbitrary sums of money from patrons as a promise of what they’ll spend there. From an accounting standpoint, it makes life easier – a ten pound minimum charge means that I’m guaranteeing revenue each day, multipliable by the number of patrons walking in through the door. But it only works if they walk in through the door to begin with.

Which means there is some hope: refuse to pay a minimum charge, and take your business elsewhere. Eventually restaurants and cafes will have to realize that asking for a minimum charge is both short sighted and outdated.

We are the customers, we are always right. We would do well to remember that.


Cooking Time: 120 minutes 60C water bath


About Wesam E Masoud
Chef Patron of @chefsmarketmasr, Host of @CBCSofra's #matbakh101. I have one degree in Medicine & 3rd degree burns from cooking.

2 Responses to Economic and Racial profiling for the dine-out crowd

  1. Silverfoot says:

    Minimums suck big time. Bas I think it’s more of a deterrent for loiterers than for people of limited income. I remember being 18 and spending hours in Harris Café and ordering only a coffee and a juice, nothing more. An expensive place is in itself unaffordable, people of limited income won’t go there anyway, minimum or no minimum. You wana argue that that is unfair and classist?

  2. Botros Gibreel says:

    Well aside from the fact that bitches be crazy over money, the minimum keeps the trash out. I don’t want to eat, drink or socialize next to trash. They’re animals anyway so let them lose their souls…

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