Thursday, 14 December 2006

Airside News Cafe, Johannesburg International Airport

Mention Johannesburg to a visitor and watch his or her eyes narrow. “Ooh,” he or she says, “you won’t catch me going to Johannesburg. You get robbed as soon as you leave the airport,” before launching into a story about a neighbour who was mugged near the Carlton Centre in 1996. Distressingly, I have to report that daylight robbery now takes place inside the airport. In the Airside News Café concession in the International Departures terminal, to be precise.

I have an awkward relationship with News Café. I love their coffee, but I have harboured a vague sense of resentment against the company ever since an unsmiling blonde in their Hatfield branch in Pretoria served me a microwaved muffin so hot that I blistered my mouth when I bit into it—leaving my lips puffy, weeping and peeling for a week like the aftermath of a bad collagen job.

The News Café in Johannesburg International should be great: it abuts one of the new, vast glass walls of the terminal, overlooking a runway. The layout is excellent, with a mixture of fast-food style seating on one side of the unit, and more relaxed and sophisticated hardwood bar tables and ostrich-leather armchairs on the other. A polite staff member brought us menus, and we ordered a cinnamon bun, chocolate chip muffin, one cappuccino coffee and a glass of orange juice.

Apart from the British actor Jim Broadbent, who was sitting at a neighbouring table, the area seemed strangely empty: perhaps all the other customers had left the café when their eardrums began to bleed. You see, somebody at News Café has decided that the way to attract customers is to play what is known in the music business as Adult Contemporary, or AC for short. That means Sheryl Crow, U2 and Aerosmith. And it must be played at so loud a volume as to make normal conversation utterly impossible.

The primary purpose of this noise may be to mask the squeaks of disgust when customers receive their order. My cinnamon bun arrived coiled warmly on a plate. The microwave zapping it had received (is it compulsory to microwave all baked goods at News Café?) had caused its original layer of glace icing to slide off and congeal at its base in a solid, crystalline mass. To replace the icing, the waiter had, on his own initiative, poured a generous helping of single cream over the bun, which combined with the microwave treatment to give it a warm, glossy exterior and hard, leathery inner core—think Paris Hilton on a plate. The muffin had also been microwaved to within an inch of its life, and arrived without its advertised butter and jam.

The coffee was perfect.

And the daylight robbery? Well, as so often happens, the victim doesn’t realise it until much later. In fact, it wasn’t until I was sitting in the aeroplane waiting for us to taxi onto the runway that I pulled out the payment slip and had another look at it. The bill came to R53.80 plus tip, which is on the steep side for coffee, fruit juice and two inedible cakes. In fact, the News Café branch at Johannesburg International Airport charges about 15% more than the menu prices currently listed on News Café’s web site. Even more galling: because the café is located airside, the 14% VAT in its menu prices usually paid to the taxman instead goes straight into the company’s pockets. Ker-ching!

So now, when I tell people that I was robbed in Johannesburg International Airport by someone carrying a knife, I don’t generally mention that the man who took my money was also carrying two pastry-forks, an order-pad, and a bottle of ketchup for the people at the next table.

That ruins the story.

Johannesburg International Airport
Kempton Park
South Africa

Telephone: +27 (0)11 390 2084

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