Serving Pakodas in the Estonian Summer - II
Read Part-I before this.
Working at the food truck was quite a roller coaster. Before this gig, I thought that winter swimming was the toughest thing I did. Boy, was I wrong! At the back of my mind I knew that the food industry was quite physically demanding, but after this experience I know this first hand. Working long shifts at the truck I would come back to my dormitory so exhausted that I would barely have the energy to take a shower. Working next to the large 25L fryer, and spending time close to the hot oil would dehydrate me despite drinking a lot of water. Despite all these lows, the highs were quite amazing. I have some anecdotes that I’d love to share here. To top it off I made some lasting connections while working at the truck.
Silliness and Embarrassment:
This one springs to the top because I think it belongs to r/TIFU (Today I Fucked Up subreddit). Some posts there are NSFW, there you’ve been warned!
It was a glorious day, business was going fine. I was taking orders and facing the customers. I was in a very upbeat mood, had a big smile on my face and I was being particularly welcoming. If you passed by the truck you’d probably think that the falafels had something in them! That is exactly what I was going for.
A couple walked up to the truck, and the man got quite close to the counter and gently whispered their order to me. I, being the playful doofus that I am, thought that the man was being silly. I blame watching too much Monty Python to justify what I did next. I whispered back the order and kept talking to him in whispers. The more I spoke to him the more I realized that something was wrong, and I believe after 4-5 sentences it finally hit me. The man had a condition and that was his real voice! He wasn’t on a dare, or pulling a prank on me. He could only speak in whispers. I realized this mid-sentence when I was returning the change, and it was too late. If I weren’t brown I’m pretty sure I’d have turned 3 shades redder from the embarrassment. When he came to collect the food, I politely apologized, and spoke to him in my normal voice. Thankfully he forgave me and told me that it happened all the time. He also told me that not everyone apologized even after realizing what they’d done. That was my saving grace.
A lot of us are aware that everyone is fighting their own battles, but this incident made me realize it again. It is quite funny when I think about it, and it brings a smile to my face.
The Way to People’s Heart Is through Food:
I had Mango Lassi on my menu, and it was a crowd favorite. There was a middle-aged Finnish man who particularly loved it. He ordered it one day while he was on his lunch break. Then on the way back home after work, he bought a product that was essentially just a Mango flavored cereal which was being sold as “Mango Lassi” in a leading dessert shop in Tartu and gave it to me to try. Apparently he even wrote the shop an angry email telling them that if they wanted to have the real mango lassi they had to come to my food truck. Although I was quite floored by how the lassi was received I wasn’t expecting what happened next. The man invited me to his home to have a Finnish meal. I went and I had a great conversation about Finnish food and was quite happy to share a meal with him. I learnt about the existence of cloudberries in this meal. The man had bought some and shared them with me. They were heavenly.
Side-note: A lot of people ask me about the food in Estonia. I tell them that in India we have mangoes, and in Estonia (and the northern countries) they have berries. The wide variety and freshness of the berries is something that is unbeatable, especially in the summer. So I can’t complain too much.
The Way to People’s Heart Is through Language:
Serving an international cuisine in Estonia is quite challenging to say the least. One of the first hurdles we faced when manning the truck was explaining to the customers what was in the food. When serving the Syrian menu, we had Jameela who speaks Estonian at the level of a native. A bit of context here, Jameela wears a hijab. It is extremely rare to find women who wear a hijab in Estonia. So Jameela would be at the counter and would keep drawing in customers by speaking in Estonian and explaining what was in the food. When she would be at the billing counter the orders flew in at a pace that would be quite hard for us to keep up with. Jameela’s ability to draw in customers is a skill that I admire a lot. Most people would simply keep walking, but more often than not people would be struck by how a hijab wearing woman was speaking fluent Estonian. I tried doing what Jameela did. No, I didn’t wear a hijab, but I learnt some of the Estonian lines by heart. I’d be able to get some customers interested but I’d falter as soon as they asked me something assuming that I knew Estonian. Sure, I’d get some of the questions from the context and body language, but I was nowhere as effective as Jameela was at keeping customers. This was great to experience why localizing something is very important for business. Interestingly, the second most popular food item that we sold at a Palestinian/Indian food truck was French Fries. That is localizing the menu for you, Estonians love their potatoes.
This entire post would be incomplete if I didn’t speak about the people who I worked with. For the most part, I was working with Pono, who is a Hawaaiian of Korean descent and she had just completed her masters program. Over the two weeks that we spent at the food truck, we bonded quite a lot. When the business was slow, we’d talk about so many things. After the last shift of the Indian week, Pono and I closed shop, and we cracked open a couple of beers, sat down on a bench and savored a job well done. It was a pleasure working with her. Pono went on to open up a bar in Tallinn called Arkana after deciding not to pursue a PhD.
Apart from Pono, working with Jameela and Dan taught me a great deal. As mentioned earlier, Jameela wore a hijab. When working there would be people who would be visibly uncomfortable by this. Sometimes there were people who would yell something rude in Estonian. Jameela would be unperturbed by it and she would simply smile at them. I learnt a lot about kindness and resilience from those incidents.
All in all, I achieved both the objectives I set out to achieve.
Have interesting experiences. Make some money while at it.