Alex Dale says he feels more Burgundian than British. He’s the guy quietly chipping away behind the Restaurant Rescue Project (RRP), dedicated to saving a few independent Cape restaurants. Anybody who’s joined Dale at a dining table will appreciate his Burgundian ethos. Fluent in French but “useless” in Afrikaans, he pours Pinot from this small French region with abandon.
Chef Matt Manning says Dale has been known to visit Grub & Vine restaurant in Bree Street and open magnums (Dale enjoys Rhône Syrah too), then offer glasses to diners he’s just met. This love of wine with food has no snobbery about it. Armed with dry wit and a persuasive argument, Dale embraces South Africa’s cooking and its people.
He was 30 when he left France to make a life in Cape Town. “I resigned from my position in Burgundy the day Nelson Mandela became president on 27 April 1994. I’ve been here for 26 years, and live in Somerset West with my girlfriend,” says Dale. He’s the founder of Radford Dale, a winery producing a premium red and white range. He also imports wines from France, Australia, New Zealand and California.
But don’t fall into the trap of associating Dale only with dining frivolity. His single mindedness about saving an industry underpinned his decision to kickstart the RRP. “Restaurants and gastronomy are part of the very fabric of Cape Town, and this world-class dynamism is dying a rapid death,” he says. “Government’s measures to curb it have deprived the sector of oxygen.” Ian Manley of ManleySocial volunteered to spread the word, and Digi Strat designed and updated a website in record time. They’ve all pitched in pro bono.
Dale recaps what triggered it. “I’m good friends with a number of chefs, restaurateurs and sommeliers, including Matt Manning. Grub & Vine was Matt’s first restaurant, only open for a year. It was collapsing … The insurers were telling them to take a hike … In the middle of it, they had their first child. Their entire world was about to collapse.
“This didn’t sit well with me. It was during the second lockdown, with no alcohol sales allowed. Most restaurants had survived the first lockdown, emptied their bank accounts and sold stuff to keep staff paid. The second one was … well, curtains. Something had to happen dramatically and quickly. No Government schemes were going to appear.
“I wanted to design a mechanism to bring a large inflow of cash. It was no good to have a trickle – it needed to be a cash dump.” The plan? “I’m a wine producer with an inventory of bottled stock of two or three years. I don’t have cash but I have an inventory that is paid for. If I give a restaurant that stock, there is value attached. But with an alcohol ban and restaurants closed or only delivering meals, how do I part with it?
“So I created a structure where we’d sell it forward: A R1,400 dining voucher at Grub & Vine was intended to be spent at the restaurant later. To be put towards the value of your food and wine spend, but brought forward. The incentive: wine producers would throw in an extra six bottles of wine for the customer to take home.”
Dale backed Grub & Vine by sponsoring 200 cases of Radford Dale six-bottle packs of premium wines, averaging nearly R400 a bottle. It was mid July. “To our astonishment, we’d sold all 200 Grub and Vine vouchers by the Saturday. And brought in R280,000 for the restaurant in cash. I worked all weekend with Digi Strat. By the Monday we’d launched the RRP website.”
“I trained with Michelin establishments, but we position Grub & Vine as an upmarket bistro,” says Manning. “For us, just getting the cash injection was a lifesaver to keep staff employed. That was our goal from the get go. It’s going to help us pay the bills. It’s still winter.”
There are 19 Cape Town or Winelands restaurants participating, with 29 wineries sponsoring prized bottles for guests to take home. So far, nearly 3,400 restaurant vouchers have been purchased by diners and they vary in value. Collectively vouchers have brought in approximately R4.85-million. To date, it’s given 10 restaurants financially hampered by lockdown regulations, a kiss of life. At least 750 employees’ jobs and livelihoods have been safeguarded.
Yet for smaller wine labels struggling to stay afloat from thwarted alcohol sales, committing to 200 free cases was no small thing. “Getting wineries who’re also in a dreadful economic quagmire to sponsor 1,200 bottles is a huge commitment. My objective was to bring R280,000 to R300,000 per restaurant in cash. Some got more, dependent on their voucher pricing,” says Dale.
Finding a budget is tricky when your winery staff are already on reduced salaries, as one exclusive brand marketer let slip. It’s why many collaborated with other wine labels, collectively sponsoring 1,200 bottles of wine (200 restaurant vouchers by six bottles per voucher) split two or three ways. In my opinion, a win for customers taking home a greater wine variety.
Dale and Manning started a list, and names were added as needs were identified. There was no exacting criteria. “The philosophy was that we want to save independent restaurants. Franchises have their own funding models,” says Dale. “Not only do restaurants have the greatest food, ambiance and offering, but also wine. They have also kept our wineries alive.” But there is a caveat. “We only wanted to work with restaurants that were determined to get through it. This wasn’t about winding up money.”
A massive lifeline
Villiera sponsored 200 cases for Upper Bloem restaurant in Green Point. The vouchers sold out. “It was a massive lifeline. Our savings were over-stretched and we didn’t know if we were going to make it to September,” laments co-owner Mari Vigar. “It’s created a tidal wave of goodwill contributions, and financial support just to get over the hump left by alcohol sales – usually 40% of our revenue.”
For Luke Dale Roberts, the RRP injected more than R1-million across The Test Kitchen, Pot Luck Club and Salsify at The Roundhouse. “There have been a few restaurant initiatives but that one was absolute genius. The Test Kitchen sold out in seven hours,” he says. The vouchers cost R1,850, and included six prized Stellenbosch wines to take home. Salsify paired with Graham Beck, Steenberg and Capensis, while Pot Luck Club partnered with Warwick. Those vouchers also sold within days.
“The wine packages were so good that everybody’s had a fair crack at the whip,” says Dale Roberts. “Basically it gave us approximately R350,000 per restaurant. It’s prepaid meals, but it means an injection for a restaurant to pay wages and get up and running, having haemorrhaged money for the past five months.”
Sadly, the Shortmarket Club is on pause for now, but Dale Roberts is aiming for an early October reopening of The Test Kitchen, rebranded as The Test Kitchen Origins. Diners will be able to reserve a lunch or dinner table. “The Test Kitchen was always about pushing the limits and experiences as far as we could possibly take them. But now came time for calm and retrospection. The break has given me that time to reflect on the way forward,” says Dale Roberts.
A key change is that the fine dining experience price tag has been reduced to R650 for three courses or R895 for a five-course menu. Dale Roberts envisages it as a pared down yet luxurious dining experience that “goes back to the origins of what delicious food is” and provides an opportunity for more people to try The Test Kitchen in a more manageable form”.
He adds: “The Test Kitchen was ready for a change, with people wanting to spend less time in the dining room, while still feeling comforted, pampered and well fed. The Test Kitchen Origins is about creating a Test Kitchen experience that is more accessible to the community.”
A cancelled export allocation allowed for 300 bottles of Aristagos 2018 to be rerouted to a worthy local restaurant initiative. “My family is from the West Coast and the Swartland, so to give back to a great restaurant like Wolfgat in Paternoster was a no-brainer,” says Swartland winemaker David Sadie of its partner. Still, Sadie’s personal limit was sponsoring 50 cases, as part of the wine trio of David and Nadia, Savage Wines and Donovan Rall.
The RRP has meant breathing room for Alex Grahame of Bree Street’s Seabreeze Fish & Shell. He and wife Ruth had already been forced to retrench their 29 staff, but a boost from sold-out vouchers with De Grendel wines meant they could keep doors closed while they negotiated better rental terms to reopen. “Our temporary August closure was mostly about the bad weather and poor fish availability at this time of year. If it wasn’t for the RRP, we would have had to be open, while losing money. It’s given us a breather for weather conditions to be optimum for trading,” says Grahame.
SeaBreeze reopened as a sit-down restaurant in September. “The good news is that we’ve managed to bring back 18 of our staff.”
Dale rates the wine list at The Codfather seafood and sushi restaurant in Cape Town in his personal top three. The restaurant’s vouchers are paired with Alheit and Spider Pig Wines. Dale’s “best” wine selection is at Aubergine restaurant. Harald Bresselschmidt has run Aubergine for 25 years, and deservedly, is sounding weary. “The RRP was surely a good idea to get money in the bank. Our wine partner gave of their stocks generously,” he says. “But this alcohol lockdown just lasted too long. How much can you take?”
Aubergine’s vouchers sold quickly, partnered with wines produced in Greyton by Lismore Estate Vineyards. Winemaker owner Samantha O’Keefe lost a cellar, her home, half her vineyards and the entire 2019 vintage in December last year, so is no stranger to misfortune. Bottled wine stock stored in Stellenbosch was the only “currency” she had left. Yet when asked to contribute wine to the RRP, O’Keefe immediately said yes to sponsoring 200 cases of Lismore Syrah and Chardonnay.
“I immediately agreed to give wine, not knowing how that long-term hole would be filled,” says O’Keefe. “After the entire food and wine industry selflessly gave to Lismore after the fire to help me go forward, it wasn’t even a question.”
How is the RRP looking now? “There is a bit of Covid fatigue setting in. But now’s the time. It’s urgent,” says Dale. “Restaurants have been living off fumes for months. A high proportion have told me they would have closed already, if not for this project. Their reserves are totally depleted. They need this support; we’ve got to sell these vouchers.”
At Cape Town local nose-to-tail favourite La Tête, Giles Edwards is offering dinner boxes on Thursdays and Fridays, but the sit-down restaurant remains closed. It will probably reopen in early October. La Tête’s voucher wine partners are Elgin Ridge and Luddite.
“Trust me, we are very much opening, so those vouchers will be valid,” says Edwards. “We were the strongest we’d been when we closed this March. But after our first three years, we’ve realised we’ll only have one shot at it. We don’t want a false start.
“It’s me and my brother James in this business. We have no investors. We want to know that when we open, and people redeem their vouchers, we’re the best we can be.” DM/TGIFood
To buy a voucher to help save a restaurant (and take home delicious wines), go to Restaurant Rescue Project.
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