The little plant-based deli that could

The little plant-based deli that could
Grumpy & Runt co-owner and chef, Johke Steenkamp, with a lime, apple and toasted almond donut. (Photo: Carla Gontier)

Small businesses face multiple hurdles, but having to close 17 days after launching due to a global pandemic is usually not one of them. Using lockdown to their advantage, however, the two founders of this small business have managed to attract a regular customer base hungry for its signature item: the doughnut.

“I made a child cry today,” says Grumpy & Runt co-owner Carla Gontier on the second day in her business’s six-month history that donuts failed to appear on the front counter. The first time it wasn’t clear what had happened but this time it was definitely load shedding’s fault. The tiny tot in tears had arrived with her mom for one of the plant-based deli’s signature doughnuts and was instead served an important South African lesson: Eskom can ruin everyone’s day.

“I think gone are the days of just sprinkles on a doughnut,” Carla remarks, by way of itemising the flavours they’ve created that could make grown men weep: from South African-inspired milk tart, Malva pudding and coffee ’n’ rusk, to the salt, caramel and crushed Orbs donut, which featured bits of peppermint chocolate-covered chickpeas bobbing in the glaze to promote the launch of a product of one of their suppliers.

If they happen to eat a fantastic cookie, they’ll stick it on a doughnut. If they want a green doughnut, they’ll create an apple and lime combo. What fruit is seasonal, what’s trending, what global brands are doing, what evokes the nostalgia of childhood are all contributing factors to a weekly selection of seven different donuts that always feature something brightly coloured, something chocolatey and often something peanut buttery.

“We want to smash all these things together,” says Carla. “We don’t always get it completely right,” adds co-owner Johke, the “runt” in Grumpy & Runt. Although Johke is the chef and developed the menu, they collaborate on doughnut flavours.

The menu, in general, pays homage to the stars of the traditional New York City deli with sandwiches inspired by the Reuben, the Cubano, the cheese and tomato. But G&R’s versions are entirely plant-based and, moreover, the butter, cheeses, meats and sauce equivalents – used to build their hulking sandwiches, subs, bagels and desserts – were developed from scratch by Johke who has zero formal training in food.

House-made, hand-rolled doughnuts with a twist: they’re dairy-free. These are inspired by a South African classic: milk tart. (Photo: Carla Gontier)

“I went vegan and I couldn’t find the things I wanted to taste,” she says. So she began experimenting with baked goods, figuring out egg replacements, proteins, textures and the recreation of flavours. Most of the figuring out came from studying non-vegan and vegan recipes.

Johke studied fine art at UCT and Carla worked for years in advertising. Apart from being a shareholder in her last agency, neither had any experience starting or running a business. Carla combined the brand strategies and business plans she had put together in her advertising days for her small business clients.

There was “a lot of dumb luck and guesswork”, as well as a lot of Googling, asking friends, people in the industry and those who’d already done this sort of thing, and talking to tax consultants – “and just winging the rest of it.” The property they rent for the deli and kitchen they initially put an offer in to buy. It was rejected but a few months later they discovered the owner wanted to let it.

In April, during early lockdown, they hustled by temporarily assembling veggie boxes with produce from their supplier combined with sweet treats and sandwiches they contributed. But they weren’t set up for the logistics of doing drop-offs. So they put a stop to that and rather focused their energy on what the business could be when they opened again by refining the recipes, redesigning the menu and rethinking the doughnuts.

At that stage there were 13 standard doughnuts on offer all the time – some simple, some wildly elaborate. Not knowing what the demand would be like when food delivery services would be allowed to operate under Level 4, they downsized to seven doughnuts but changed the selection every week.

“We had loads of deliveries; we were really, really lucky,” says Carla. “And we had walk-ins as well cos we had the deli side of things, so people could come in and buy things off the shelves.”

Having said that, some days orders were minimal and sales negligible. “There were definitely times when we were, like, shit, have we made the right move? I gave up my career, quite a well-paid job, to take a gamble during a global pandemic,” says Carla. “I think what got us through it was that everyone was in the same boat. I felt oddly calm.”

Grumpy (left) & Runt, otherwise known as Carla Gontier and Johke Steenkamp. (Photo: Dominique Herman)

And then at the end of May, something started happening at weekends: a queue out of the door. Carla attributes the seemingly sudden rush on doughnuts to a combination of factors. The vegan and plant-based community were posting about them, so their social media took off and piqued interest. Capetonians like checking out the new thing, she added. And, also, there was no other physical shop where people could swing past and pick up vegan doughnuts*.

Where lockdown paradoxically wound up helping them was during the 6-9am window when people were finally allowed out to exercise. The storyboard artist who works upstairs from the deli noticed that people were walking past the building, smelling doughnuts and poking their heads around to see if they could get one.

G&R only opened at 9am but he suggested Carla and Johke do a coffee and doughnut special between 8 and 9. So they put out a sign offering coffee and a cinnamon sugar donut for R40 “and suddenly people were, like, ‘I’ll take one’”, says Carla.

“That, I think, kicked off the non-plant based community – people just liking doughnuts. And we still have those customers. So those people who used to go for their run and then get a doughnut have now kind of let go of the run part and are just coming for the doughnuts.”

Initially, G&R was just going to be a doughnut shop. But on a research trip to NYC and Toronto they discovered that “donuts and sandwiches actually go really, really well together”. And, as it turns out, their take on the traditional chicken mayo sarmie – using a very light seitan made in-house with chickpea powder and a combination of several house-made spice mixes – is such an overwhelming hit that they joke they might as well just be a chicken mayo shop.

‘I want the glazes to be quite solid depending on what toppings they might need to hold, such as cookies or bits of rusk,’ says Johke. ‘You want the perfect drip but not too drippy.’ (Photo: Carla Gontier)

Each vegan doughnut sampled on their North American jaunt had a standout feature: some were light and fluffy, others moist and dense. Some were square, some were tiny and some were huge.

That’s what we wanted to do: how do we stand out in some way? And I think our thing was just, like, massive doughnuts,” says Carla. “We were just playing,” adds Johke, “and we had a few and there was one that was really poofy by accident and Carla said, ‘This is great, we should make all of them like this’. It was crunchy and fluffy on the inside and it was fun to dip and ridiculous.”

A vegan take on the American deli classic, the Reuben sandwich. (Photo: Carla Gontier)

“I felt if we could pull off something that’s sweet and delicious and have this aesthetic attached to it, we could probably create almost like a little world for people to go to,” Johke says. “In my head, it was either we make thousands of different cakes and treats every day, or we do one thing really well and we do different toppings, so it’s like you have a hundred different versions of this one really good thing, and this becomes your signature thing.”

Even with one thing, the schedule of a baker is not for the faint-hearted. Johke is at her rolling and cutting station in the kitchen between 4.30 and 5am so the doughnuts have risen sufficiently for Carla to begin frying them at 6.30am. In between the rolling and cutting, Johke will get a glaze stand going at the back.

They’ve got a small fryer and only nine go in it at the same time, but they are getting one that can accommodate 24 at a time, so that’ll cut down the frying time from its current three hours. A batch yields between seven and nine doughnuts and each has to be fried for two minutes on each side. In the beginning, they made 30 doughnuts a day. Now, on Saturdays, that figure exceeds 250.

Carla and Johke have been dating for two years. They don’t live together yet, so this early-morning production period is their only certain opportunity for alone time – especially considering the rest of the day Johke is in the kitchen and Carla out front.

Being professional partners has had its advantages for their personal partnership. They’ve realised they can’t have a fight and storm off. Rather, learning how to resolve issues quickly so they can get back to working together has become the order of the day.

“Bad shit is gonna happen and you have to just be, like, well, that bad thing has happened, let’s move forward and see what we can do,” says Carla. 

“I think it’s also bad shit’s gonna happen, but there’s no point taking it out on each other and that’s kind of what most people do; they immediately want to blame the other person,” Johke adds.

The couple met as students at university and were friends for a long time before they became involved. “We’ve known each other for so many years,” says Johke. “We used to party together. Now we don’t even drink.”

Giving up booze happened long before they started this business, but it’s a move that proved prescient considering bedtime for them these days is no later than eight.  DM/TGIFood

Grumpy & Runt is on Dunkley Square in Gardens, Cape Town [email protected], 076 677 5979 

∗ Note Rumsy’s Noose and That Doughnut Guy also make vegan donuts in Cape Town but you have to pre-order them.


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