HOPE SPRINGS

New restaurants emerge out of the Lockdown Chrysalis

By Bianca Coleman 18 September 2020

The Poké Co makes a colourful selection of poké bowls and other yummy, wholesome dishes. (Photo: Supplied)

After long depressing months of restaurants, bars and hotels closing during the stringent Covid-19 lockdown regulations, as spring follows winter, new places are opening, bringing with them all the hope of a fresh new season.

Things have been a bit rough lately in the hospitality industry. Restaurants closed in their dozens, if not hundreds, some permanently where there was no chance of recovery. The number of jobs lost is astronomical. Incomes have dried up, and all this before we begin counting the toll of mental health issues like the inevitable depression and anxiety. Rough indeed.

But like a winter during which so much withers and dies, spring is inevitable as life springs forth once again. And so it is with restaurants. Many have made it through to the other side, and seeing their social media posts about being open for business again has you leaping with joy (if you haven’t sunk into the couch, heavy with lockdown’s high sugar, fat and carb snacks which are scientifically known to give pleasure to the brain’s reward mechanism and whatever gets you through the night, Susan, pass another cupcake).

Then there are those which have yanked us out of the negative doom and gloom mindset of all the closures by making the surprising announcements that they are taking the plunge and opening brand spanking new restaurants. And that’s just the kind of positive news we need right now.

The Poké Co founder Andrew Flanagan opened the fourth store in the chain on 14 August, 2020. Cape Town born and raised, Flanagan worked overseas on yachts for seven years before returning home in 2016. At that time, poké bowls were becoming popular in the US and he thought they would be a jolly good idea for him to try to launch in South Africa before having to go down the job application route. Coupled with a father with seafood supplier connections, it looked good to Flanagan. With Uber Eats entering the food delivery market alongside OrderIn and Mr D in 2017, the setting was perfect for opening a kitchen in Woodstock, purely for deliveries.

“It was a really important time, in terms of recipe development and menus,” said Flanagan. During that time, they had the advantage of working behind closed doors, as it were, with no customers watching the learning process, with the food as well as kitchen procedures implemented for consistency. Flanagan has no formal food training but he does have chef friends like Didi van der Vyver, who did some consulting and fine tuning; and Sian Kaplan (now at Harbour House) who came in later to assist with the introduction of smoothies and smoothie bowls. “Sian had a lot of experience and did a comprehensive report on what we were doing – which was based on my best guess. I think I passed the test,” he laughed.

Order from the menu, or build your own bowl at The Poké Co. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

The first Poké Co store opened in Loop Street in the CBD in January 2018, followed by one in the Point Mall in Sea Point in December the same year. The third is in Kloof Street, Gardens, joining the group in December 2019. All three have reopened but this little sibling, still so young and tender when lockdown hit, is taking the longest to rebound due to diminished foot traffic in the area – probably due to fewer tourists and backpackers. Flanagan is optimistic domestic travellers will pick up the slack.

Survival during lockdown was helped by distributing meal kits so people could make their own bowls at home. These are still available but, now that customers can get them ready made in-store or delivered, the popularity is declining. Along with skeleton staff, an existing delivery model, and rental negotiations, the business was able to continue. 

“Every week is getting better, slowly and steadily. We aim to get back to where we were before,” said Flanagan.

And then came the Covid-19 miracle: a fourth store in Claremont. “We had signed this lease agreement in February, and as we had already committed, we went ahead,” said Flanagan. “We may have been able to get out of it, but at what cost? We’d done a lot of the planning prior to lockdown but we definitely had those conversations, looked at balance sheets, looked at cash flow… because we had been looking for a long time in the area and were quite excited by this particular site, we thought even if we open only for deliveries, we could ride it out it till November, by which time the situation could improve. It’s also a completely new delivery market; there are no other similar offerings in the area.”

Originally due to have opened in March 2020, Flanagan pushed it as far out as the – luckily reasonable – landlord would let him: “We had some good timing in that in August things began opening up, and we’re hoping that fear factor has subsided. So far we’re very happy, and the store has exceeded our expectations.”

At The Poké Co, you can order bowls from the menu, or build your own. I tried The Leeward, one of the most popular, with salmon sashimi, cucumber, edamame, pickled beetroot, avocado with house ponzu, creamy togarashi dressing and toasted coconut flakes. For my folks’ surprise lunch, I ordered The Chick (shredded chicken, pineapple, cucumber, carrot, red cabbage with ginger ponzu, miso tahini dressing and toasted macadamia nuts – which has set Mom off on a new passion for those nuts) and a Tiger Bowl for Dad who loves hot stuff: pan-fried prawns, cucumber, carrot, pink radish, coriander, jalapeños, with Hawaiian heat and creamy wasabi dressing, and crispy wasabi salmon skins.

Because I’m currently obsessed with broth, I took some of that too, with fishcakes and noodles. The range of soy- and mayo-based dressings are available to buy as well. The miso tahini is working out well over my salads. 

At the beginning of lockdown, Cheyne Morrisby had five restaurants. Sadly, Fire Monkey closed during this period but there’s a new one coming, which is excellent news. Morrisby said he is still dealing with the closure of Fire Monkey. “It’s an emotional loss. The amount of energy and love that goes into the stages before opening are huge. There is also the other side of staff and relationships formed in the time that we were open. It’s a tough one to digest and process.”

The eponymous Cheyne’s in Hout Bay powered through all opening levels, and was used as a blueprint and ideas factory for the other restaurants that were planning to open, said Morrisby. “We adopted a new mindset that almost changed the DNA of our staff. We then cross-pollinated this to Lucky Bao, Ding Dong and then Shio. When I stand back and look at what we went through and where we are now it’s a beautiful thing to see the strength and unity in our restaurant group.” 

In the same corner of Green Point/De Waterkant that is home to the three eateries, is – was – The Piano Bar. This is the location for Morrisby’s exciting new project. “I am busy working on the concept but it’s based around [jazz] kissatens in Japan. They were underground jazz clubs that were part of the Japanese social scene in the 1920s and 1930s; they were places of escape where music, food and drinks set the tone for the night,” he explained. 

“The food will be simple grills, noodles and sides. I am also working on a designated Japanese whiskey experience bar. We plan to open on the first of October. Thankfully this has given us the opportunity to bring key staff from Fire Monkey and reignite those relationships.”

Morrisby said he is nervous and excited but it’s a zone in which he is accustomed to operating: “The more risk, the more creative I become. There is a renewed sense of energy out there and landlords are happy to explore avenues and ideas that were often left to tenants. It’s great to see a unity now.”

The recovery of the restaurant industry needs to be done carefully and mindfully, and will be a long process, added Morrisby. 

“Cape Town restaurants often operated out of arrogance so there are new lessons to be learned here. Covid taught us all a big one. The lesson I learned was to find myself through all of this, who I was without my restaurants. It was a pretty tough process of feeling alone but also being responsible for all my staff, and it really highlighted how involved I am within every restaurant I have. 

“The turnaround came when we were allowed to trade and rebuild from within, operating out of love and understanding for each other. This is ultimately what pulled us through – true, raw and transparent.”

Tintswalo Atlantic, the luxury boutique hotel in Hout Bay, opened its new restaurant all the way back in a previous lifetime – July 2020. The Tintswalo Kitchen is open to resident guests (obviously) as well as casual diners, if R650 for five items from a small plates menu is considered casual. 

The Tintswalo Kitchen experience can be enjoyed in a relaxed seaside environment with a choice of cosy fireside dining, or outdoor seating on the deck above the crashing waves. (Photo: Supplied)

The setting is *insert all the relevant glorious adjectives here*, with tables set up on the deck which is literally a stone’s throw from the waves crashing on the rocks below. And I use literally in the correct sense; guests at Tintswalo are offered a small smooth rock to toss into the ocean while making a wish. 

Lunch and dinner is served from Tuesdays to Saturdays, as well as Sunday family lunches. 

“Having survived two devastating fires over the years, followed by Cape Town’s drought, one thing we know well at Tintswalo is perseverance under any circumstances. We have without doubt learnt to plan for a rainy day and through good mentorship we have ensured our survival during these unprecedented times for all of us in this industry,” commented Lisa Goosen, CEO of Tintswalo Lodges.

Tintswalo needs to be shared with more people and the new restaurant does make it more accessible to many more people, continued Goosen. “We instinctively knew that the after-lockdown shockwave will see locals wanting to get out and explore the beauty of our own city and thus we are grateful that the restaurant has been well received by our amazing supporters in Cape Town.”

Being able to welcome back guests to the hotel has brought with it some challenges when it comes to accommodating them for a meal, as well as diners from elsewhere. Creating a new secluded space for resident guests by converting two guest suites into a private lounge and bar at the other end of the property, has allowed the public area to be turned into a bigger restaurant for casual diners to enjoy the view and the new small plates menu. 

“Previously we tried to find a way to manage the balance between resident, in-house guests and casual diners by being open for lunch bookings only one day a week. The demand for this was amazing, and so when lockdown came we looked at ways we could reinvent our offering. This led to the decision to create a small plate dining concept and to open daily for lunch and dinner reservations by casual diners, while still being able to offer the seclusion and exclusivity of the lodge to our overnight guests,” said Goosen.

“It’s been exciting but also at times a slightly overwhelming experience as we only had three weeks to do menu development and testing along with all the other hurdles that come with opening a brand new restaurant, especially in the current uncertain times the hospitality industry finds itself in,” said head chef Sean Klette.

Sean Klette is head chef at Tintswalo Kitchen. (Photo: Supplied)

“I was fortunate that Tintswalo was looking for a new kitchen team and so bought two younger members from The Shortmarket Club with me into the fold, which obviously makes the transition a lot easier as we’ve worked together before. The whole kitchen team (old and new) has really risen to the challenge of opening the restaurant, along with the usual day to day running of the lodge, and I feel we’ll only improve as time goes on.” 

For the small plates menu, Klette and his team collaborated to see what worked and what didn’t. He intends to change the dishes every few weeks or so to keep the menu interesting, current and seasonal. 

“There’s a little bit of everything. You can expect quite a bit of seafood like our Bouillabaisse, Strawberry & Champagne Oysters, as well as our fresh Tuna Tataki,” he said. “The fun thing about a menu like ours is that we use a little inspiration from everywhere, so you’ll find some Asian, French and Italian, as well as South African influences. I’ve also been influenced by chefs I’ve worked under previously, like Wesley Randles, who I look at as a mentor. As a chef, food is my passion and I really enjoy playing around with different flavours and concepts.”

Opening a new restaurant at this time is daunting, and the pressure to do well and exceed expectations is always in the background of everything Klette and his team does. “The entire hospitality industry is in dire straits at the moment so we are pushing to put our best foot forward at all times.”

As business owners, Goosen said they always anticipate the best for their future, for the industry, as well as themselves. “The industry thrives off of each other and we hope to be able watch many establishments within Cape Town flourish in the coming months as we claw back confidence in diners and travellers.”

Klette said he has faith in the resilience of industry and South Africans as a whole, and believes we will bounce back from this, preferably stronger than before. “My wish for Tintswalo is that our new offering will entice people to come visit and experience all the beauty that the lodge has to offer.”

Lemon panna cotta from the Tintswalo Kitchen menu. (Photo: Supplied)

My last story is a bittersweet one, for me personally and no doubt for many others. Fork, the original tapas joint which opened in Long Street in 2006, closed right at the beginning of lockdown. I looked up my last review and it was almost a year ago and learning it will never reopen makes me sad – and mad that I didn’t visit more often.

“Business over the last couple of years had started to decline. This is mainly due to the security and safety issues in Long Street. While I was the Long Street Association Chairperson I campaigned long and hard (meeting JP Smith/The Mayor/Cape Talk) for more SAPS/LEO to be present on the streets….i.e ‘the bobby on the beat’,” said owner Ed Saunders, of the decision to shut down in March. “We had a very successful trial period, but unfortunately the powers that be could not commit to the daily support or presence needed to have good safe visibility in order to give everyone confidence to come to Long Street. I also worked very hard with Mo Hendricks at CCID but without the support from the City, we hit a dead end.

There’s a “but” coming though…Fork is relocating to Franschhoek with an anticipated opening date in early November. 

“With so many fine dining restaurants in such a small area, Fork hopefully will be like a breath of fresh air to the locals,” said Saunders. “Tapas is the future. As you know, Fork has become synonymous with serving delicious food in a warm, friendly, environment where people come to ‘shoot the breeze’ with a plate of great food and a glass of wine at any time of the day – old school style!

“As we have had to virtually start my business again, my wife and I are moving to Franschhoek so that I can make sure it works.” 

Saunders said he is very excited about the move, where the new Fork will be in the former Ryan’s Kitchen location – a beautiful space with lots of big windows and a courtyard with outside seating. To help you pinpoint it, it’s on the left just before you come into the village itself. The pickup/drop off for The Franschhoek Wine Tram ticket office has moved to directly opposite the restaurant, so that’s a huge bonus.

If, like me, you worry about things that are out of your control, Saunders reassured me it will still be Fork as we love and know, all the way. “It works,” he said and we can’t argue with that.

Saunders said he is quietly confident that business is slowly improving and people are eating out more. “However, we still need to batten down the hatches, watch the costs as much as possible and wait for October 2021 to see a real upswing in the marketplace,” he concluded.

There’s clearly still a long way to go, but there’s nothing like a hefty dose of aspiration and positivity to keep a person motivated. Be the donkey, follow that carrot. DM/TGIFood

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