Text and image by Sheere Ng @ Makansutra
Alfa, who loves to talk about watches with customers
The question that waiter Alfa Fu gets most often at the restaurant is not “Where is the washroom?” but “how come you are still here?”
He began as a strapping young kid fresh out of vocational school and now, 36 years later and 60, he is a portly man with graying fringes that resemble Chinese dolls, still waiting tables at Pete’s Place, one of Singapore’s oldest Italian restaurants.
Customers who returned after decades are often surprised that the restaurant and its warm bricked European country ambience are still intact. But what amazed them even more, was that the people serving them then are still there, with just a few more lines across their face and inches around their waist. And this sense of timelessness is the appeal. They first went dating there many moons ago, got married and now are back with their grown kids for that same dinner and service.
“It feels like home and I’m happy to see them. The staff there are always very smiley and the service is very good. They know what regulars like us want and give us advice on what to eat,” says Mdm Ng Gek Hwa, who has been visiting the restaurant with her family for the last 20 years.
According to Grand Hyatt, where the restaurant is located, besides Alfa, there are two others who have been working there for over three decades. They shuffle about in black shirt and pants, dishing out Coppino (the restaurant’s signature spaghetti with lobster, scallops, clams, prawns and crabmeat) and twisting giant-sized wood pepper mills over dishes.
To customers like Mdm Ng, these waiters leave a lasting impression not because of their long service, but because they remember the customers – from names to habits. These golden servers at Pete’s Place remember a “Victor” who likes his tea pot with lots of leaves as he prefers a robust brew. And there’s also Mdm Lau, who like her table pre-set with warm water and serviettes, without any pepper and salt shakers because she never uses them. Alfa is also known to be the man to look for, for a discourse on watches, his pet hobby. “Some who come, lunch or dinner, like to talk and converse, not just eat and go,” he says. “If you want to just eat and go, why not go to a food court?”
The friendly gestures go both ways. In 1985, Alfa bought his first car, a second hand Honda Civic, from a customer called Dr Wong who offered him at two to three thousand dollars lower than market price. More recently, another customer made a special visit to the restaurant to bring him beef rendang that she cooked.
But even though Alfa and his colleagues have good rapport with the customers, building friendship was never in their mind. Their old-school way of thinking decrees that one shall not cross the line between a customer and a waiter, and all friendly exchanges shall be kept within the restaurant.
There are many reasons why the three men have stayed at Pete’s Place for so many years. Jumahad Bin M Yunos, who began serving there in 1972, says he is used to the environment, the operational style and the semi-casual service culture, all of which have been kept humming the same through the years. Indeed, the restaurant’s biggest transformation thus far, was the checkers on the tablecloths that have gone a few inches bigger. And even though they’ve seen a few managers come and go over the years, Jumahad says they still receive the same support and understanding from their superiors when dealing with “nasty” customers.
Another reason for their loyalty to the job was the harsh reality of jobs availability for the academically challenged. “I have no education, where else can I go,” said Alfa, in a self-mocking, resigned manner.
Nevertheless, these men say they have had fun. In the last 30 over years they never looked back, despite the daily 12-hour grind on the job (including a couple of hours break in between). Alfa even lost a woman he dated for six years all because she didn’t think his job was glamorous enough.
But, as they have spent a good part of their lives in the restaurant, they are not looking forward either – their retirement is up shortly (at Hyatt , it is 62). “Not thinking, don’t dare to think,” says Alfa and Jumahad unanimously.