Azaiz and his small Tunisian restaurant
TUNIS (JP): “I have 27 grandchildren and one great-grandchild from my seven children. So I must continue working,” said Azaiz cheerfully. “During the holidays they all come to my house. At the Ied (the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadhan), if I give one dinar to each child, that means 28 dinars all together. That’s a lot of money!”
One month ago Azaiz opened a small restaurant called “Etoile” (Star) nearby the tourist center of the city of Sousse (with some 125,000 inhabitants) on the coast of the azure-colored Mediterranean.
Sousse is the third largest city in Tunisia, a Muslim country with over nine million people, covering an area as large as Java plus Bali and Madura. Tourism is a well-developed business and a major source of income.
Azaiz’ small restaurant serves mostly the local people. Small restaurants, cafes selling coffee and tea, as well as stalls selling sandwiches and fruit juice are in abundance, spread all over the city. They are located along the side streets of the busy and fashionable tourist boulevards covered with glittering hotels, restaurants and nightclubs. Only a few tourists visit these warungs. Tourists only come to the local eating-places in the middle of tourist areas mostly to order soft drinks, but seldom eat the local food.
Before starting his own business Azaiz had worked as chief cook at a school for the blind and then became a waiter and barman in an international hotel for over 20 years. After his retirement at 60, he opened a restaurant, and five years later he moved to this three-by-six-meter warung.
It is general practice that people continue working after retirement, as their pension is small. Azaiz rented this space since he could not afford to buy it. The price of a house or a piece of land in this part of the city is very high. The space is tidy and wide open on one side. A cooler to store fish, vegetables and fruit next to bottles of soft drinks and mineral water narrows the entrance. It is cool in April but it will be hot in the summer, as the temperature reaches over 40 degrees Celsius, and cold in the winter when it drops to some 10 degrees.
Azaiz has equipped his restaurant with four tables, each having four chairs, plus a kitchen and a pedestal wash hand basin. Customers need to wash their hands after eating the grilled fish or the fried hors d’oeuvre called brik.
Four glasses and a large bottle of Coca-Cola containing tap water always stand on the table. Many people prefer mineral water to tap water, given the poor quality of the water there. Right after a client has left, Azaiz or one of his staff wipes clean the colorful tablecloth.
Different to traditional warungs (stalls) in Indonesia, most Tunisian warung are located in a building with walls that are covered entirely or partly by ceramic tiles of many colors and designs. Sometimes two or even three different designs are used. Azaiz’ restaurant also has tiles. Ceramic tiles are characteristic in this country.
Almost all buildings and private houses use them, plastered on the outside as well as the inside or fixed as a frame around a door or window, or decorating the walls. In older houses ceramic tiles are used as floor coverings. Most designs of the tiles are traditional. Nowadays they are produced in factories in different sizes, varying from 5 by 5 cm to 20 by 20 cm or larger. Some designs consist of a compilation of small tiles. Four small tiles set together form a complete design for one big tile.
Restaurant Etoile is open continuously from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. and managed by Azaiz and his five employees who work in shifts. His son-in-law is the chief cook who does the shopping in the souk (market) early in the morning.
Azaiz helps taking the orders from the customers and serving them. He always tries to have a social chat with them. He also supervises the work of his employees and controls the quality of the food.
His menu consists merely of Tunisian dishes with reasonable prices, e.g. three dinars for a grilled fish with chips and vegetables or for traditional couscous with lamb, veal or just vegetables. “This business is only one month old, so it is too early to say if it is going wel”. Azaiz works long hours to get more customers but he is optimistic about the future. He believes that personal recommendations from satisfied clients are the best promotion for his business.
Setting up a business like this is not difficult, provided one obeys the regulations. Azaiz does not fear competition from similar restaurants since each one has its own speciality. “If my client asks for a chicken dish and I do not have it, I will send one of my employees to buy a chicken dish from a neighboring restaurant. That way I always meet the request of my clients and make them happy”.
When a client asks for a cup of mint tea he sends a waiter to another cafe. Clients living or working in the neighborhood can also order food from him and Azaiz brings the order to them. Other clients come to take away the food and later bring back the serving dishes and glasses they borrow from Azaiz. Most of his clients are men as it is not customary for Tunisian women to eat in restaurants or cafes.
Like other Muslims, Azaiz has been to Mecca too — twice, a few years ago. The first time he went with his sons and the second time with his wife. At the time the cost was 3000 dinars ($2,100) per person, a large amount of money for him.
*) The writer is an economist-demographer based in The Netherlands.
Published in: The Jakarta Post, June 03, 2001