A side order of racism: The Spur incident that spiralled out of control and left a bad taste for life
Allen Ambor founded Spur Steak Ranches in 1967 when he invested R4,000 to open the Golden Spur in Newlands, Cape Town. After he opened the second restaurant in Sea Point, he decided that franchising was the best option to grow the business, which listed on the JSE in 1986. In this edited extract of A Taste for Life, Ambor recalls the 2017 racial altercation in the Texamo Spur that led to a right-wing boycott of the chain. A Taste for Life is published by Tafelberg.
I started the day, as I usually do, by going to my yoga class and sitting cross-legged on the floor, my palms steepled together, the pose centred close to my heart. It is called the Atmanjali Mudra, or the Namaste position, and it signifies the reverence we find in our common humanity: “The light in me sees the light in you.”
Then followed an hour-and-a-half of Asanas, exercises incorporating breathing and awareness, as the body is stretched and balanced and strengthened and the mind learns to focus. Sometimes, life runs away from you, and the harder you try to keep up, the more it teeters out of kilter beneath your feet. You need to find a way to restore the balance, to align the body and mind. My way, as a student and later as a teacher, is Iyengar yoga…
… On that day in 2017, I was feeling in fine spirits as I parked my car and strode into the lobby of Spur HQ in Century City, Cape Town. I ignored the lift – I had already had my lift for the day – and I took the spiral stairs two at a time, calling a warm “Good morning!” to anyone I met on the way. The light in me greets the light in you. Then I sat down in my office and saw something that knocked my lights out. I wasn’t familiar with the workings of Twitter, but as I watched the tweets rush by, there was one word that stood out, like a rock in a raging torrent. Spur. And not in a good way.
In years gone by, before social media, smartphones and the internet, the incident at the Texamo Spur at The Glen Shopping Centre – the fight, the scuffle, the argument, the spat, the altercation, people were calling it – would have been witnessed or overheard by just a few horrified onlookers. An uneasy silence would have fallen over the restaurant. The manager would have stepped in to soothe ruffled feathers; the aggressor would have been shepherded out with a warning; the whole thing would most likely have been forgotten within a day or two.
Once, at the Golden Spur in Newlands, a drunken sailor started causing trouble with his fellow diners. I intervened and asked him politely to leave. He stood up and swung at me, but his aim was blurred by the booze. I shepherded him outside and decked him first. I felt the shame wash over me as I watched him get up and stagger away. It didn’t feel like the right thing to do, no matter what he had done. He was a customer, and you build a business by putting the customer first. But what about the other customers, in a situation like this?
I watched the video of what had happened at the Texamo Spur that afternoon. Someone had shot the footage with a smartphone, and it was being shared for all to see on social media and the news sites. The hashtag on Twitter was: #Spur-ManMadness.
We see the man standing at the table, jabbing his finger, towering over the one child’s mother and the other small children in the frame. It is a horseshoe booth, purposely designed for comfort and relaxation. You can lean back against the long cushion, with your elbows on the crest, just as you might do if you were sitting at home, watching TV. In the foreground, next to a tumbler of shocking-green cream soda, is a placemat with the feather-crowned head of the Native American chief in pride of place. Overhead is a hanging lamp in the shape of a tepee, illuminating the silhouette of a bison. All around are the icons, the artefacts, the signature embellishments of a brand and a franchise constructed with love, care and toil over half a century.
And here is this guy, doing his level best to destroy them. I can feel my blood boiling as his voice rises and his face reddens. He leans forward, steadying himself on the seat-back, his other hand raised in the air. He switches to Afrikaans: “Ek sal vir jou ’n poesklap gee.”
The woman at the table is standing up to him, springing to the defence of the children in her care. It is worth mentioning at this point that she is black, and he is white. They are arguing over whose child hit who on the head in the kiddies’ play area. It’s difficult to hear what they’re saying. Their words collide in cross-talk, the curses rising up like flames from a grill. Eventually, the man turns to leave, and it looks like the encounter is over. It’s not. As a parting curse lands, he pushes his way back, shoving away the hands that are trying to calm him down and hold him back.
The woman lifts her child in an instinctive gesture of protection. The man, without warning, grabs the edge of the table and hefts it to the side, scattering cutlery and sending chips flying from the polystyrene takeaway boxes. Then he leaves, this time for good, trailing commotion and shocked stares in his wake. ‘This is a democratic country, if you hadn’t noticed!’ the woman calls after him.
In just a few minutes, he has turned a Spur from a place of welcome and joy into a place of discomfort and unhappiness. What would I have done, had I been on the scene? I like to think that I would have put myself between the two antagonists. Not out of bravery, but out of an instinct to protect my customers and my business. I had a different dimension in me when it came to Spur. I developed a courage and insight that I would not have had in my daily life. I grew a new shell, based on knowing that if I didn’t act, how could I expect anyone else to step up and take the risk? As with the drunken sailor, I would have intervened in an attempt to make peace.
Sad to say, the management in the store on this day were not up to the challenge. Now, as the furore spread from the Twitter stream to the news pages, we were left to pick up the pieces, and the task fell to our Group CEO at the time, Pierre van Tonder. He was on a business trip overseas when the call came through on his cellphone. It was a journalist, wanting to know how we were going to respond to the showdown at the Texamo Spur.
What Pierre should have said was that he needed half an hour to investigate and get the facts. What he should have done was ask his colleagues back at Spur HQ for advice. Instead, feeling pressured, without thinking it through, he said: “We’re banning the man from every Spur in the country, for life.”
Who can say what he was thinking? This appears to have been the start of a serious shortfall in Pierre’s judgement, followed regrettably by more to come. The nationwide consumer boycott that followed, led by a right-wing political organisation and coordinated chiefly on Facebook, lasted for months and cost us heavily, not only in lost revenue, but in lost goodwill and reputation, which are harder to earn back. “It doesn’t matter who suffers, as long as it’s not the business.” From the beginning, that had been my mantra at Spur. And now the business was suffering. Many people, taking the side of the “wronged” party – ironically, the man Pierre had unilaterally banned for life – felt that Spur had let them down.
We at Spur value all customers equally, but this man was an aberration. He had lost his cool for reasons I didn’t know and could only guess at, but in the clear light of day, backed up by the CCTV camera and those who were on the spot, it was clear that he’d overreacted badly and was in the wrong. To the boycotters, the issue was simple. We had banned the man for his behaviour in the restaurant. Why hadn’t we banned the woman? “They were both wrong!” said a post on the Facebook page called “Boycott/Boikot SPUR Steak Ranches”. I couldn’t see any equivalency in the action of the two parties. The woman, to me, was blameless; it was the man who had lost his cool and threatened violence, in the presence of little children.
This wasn’t a he-said-she-said scenario, as it may have been in the pre-digital era. The evidence was as clear to see as it was hard to watch. The CCTV video, released to the media by Spur, made it shockingly obvious that the man in the blue shirt was the aggressor in the encounter at the horseshoe booth. The angle in the CCTV footage is the reverse of the smartphone video. It shows the man reaching out during the argument, and yanking the child from the woman. She grabs the child back. For the moment, in a place that is meant to be a playground, a happy hunting ground for the junior members of the Spur Tribe, a child dangles between two adults who are shouting and swearing at each other.
If you have ever wondered why restaurants display a sign saying Right of Admission Reserved above the entrance, here is the answer you’ve been looking for. But this wasn’t just a case of unacceptable behaviour by a patron. The man in the blue shirt, unable to control his rage, crossed a physical boundary, and children were drawn into the fray. I could understand why a father would feel angry about his child being biffed on the head during play, if indeed that was what had happened. What I couldn’t understand was how he could let his anger get the better of him to such a frightening extent. It would have taken the wisdom of Solomon to fix the whole mess without aggravating or alienating one group or another, and the truth is, none of us were wise enough at the time. But the boycott was raging, and it wasn’t about the money.
How do you place a value on the corrosion of loyalty, on the breakdown of an emotional connection forged over decades? I heard about an elderly couple in Somerset West, who were wandering by their local Spur one day. They had been regular customers for years. “Come on in,” said the manager, who knew them well. “Sorry, we can’t,” they said. “Our son told us we’re not allowed to go to the Spur anymore.”
Those words cut me like a knife. Not allowed. It was the complete antithesis of everything I had ever wanted the Spur to be. But in the midst of it all, we had to make our own position clear. DM/ML/BM
Daily Maverick © All rights reserved