Hard work and a leg up pay off for Café Societi’s first franchisee
It was years in the making, but when it came to it everything happened in a few short weeks as the first Café Societi franchise opened at the Homecoming Centre in District Six. The concept is an app through which you select and pay for your food and drinks, then collect at the kerb. Now Franchisee Olivia Damon is adding her story to the history of the area.
Olivia Damon is still reeling. Having worked at Societi Bistro in Gardens for some years, owner Peter Weetman had earmarked her for this project: to be the first Café Societi franchisee. We initially reported on this story in August 2020; admittedly it’s taken relatively a long time to happen, but when it did, it was in the space of weeks.
The premises at the Homecoming Centre in Caledon Street, District Six/Zonnebloem were secured, Damon was informed, and Café Societi opened its doors three weeks ago. For someone who was thrown in at the deep end, and is swimming energetically, Damon is in high spirits, laughing and excited, but there’s still an air of amazement about her.
Once upon a time she couldn’t even get the milk right for coffees, and just look at her now. “I was always scared of making coffees because the milk never wanted to come out right for a cappuccino,” she said. “I had to learn on the job.”
Damon got the training, got the knack of the milk, and along with that, the confidence. It was her attitude – hard working and always enthusiastic – that brought her to Weetman’s attention, and she had been on his radar for the café for a while. Suddenly being the boss of her own place is overwhelming, she admitted, what with the business side of things like advertising, marketing and admin – for which she is supported by Societi Bistro. Damon is also overcome with gratitude (there were even some happy tears) for the trust that has been handed to her. “I just want to tell Peter again how grateful I am for the opportunity,” she said, dabbing her eyes with a tissue.
We’ve both known Weetman for years and agreed he is tough but fair, and has provided many opportunities for hard workers along the way. “To get Peter’s trust, that is a very big thing,” reiterated Damon.
The location is significant as well; you’ll recognise it immediately – it is where the foyer of the Fugard Theatre used to be, the building rebranded as the HCC: Homecoming Centre, owned by the District Six Museum Foundation, which administers all matters pertaining to the District Six Museum and the Homecoming Centre, including a vast number of community based projects.
In November 2021 the foundation put out a tender which went to Neighbourgood, an organisation which is repurposing city properties that were left vacant due to the pandemic and is creating community driven, co-working and co-living spaces for young professionals and digital nomads.
The partnership sees Neighbourgood driving the “day to day” property management, maintenance, events and later on, permanent tenants. When Neighbourgood was looking for a tenant to take over the former theatre foyer space for food and beverage, a mutual connection (a lawyer) put it in touch with Weetman. That was less than two months ago, if you need more indication as to how quickly this all happened.
“All the history comes together and here I am in the middle, making something new,” marvelled Damon, who gets up at 6am to travel from Westlake into town by taxi to open the café at 7am. It trades seven days a week, until 7pm. A bonus is the reintroduction of events in the theatre spaces – like the Shakespeare Schools Festival this month – as well as the adjoining hall (part of a bigger working and living space) where an art exhibition opens next week, and including church services on Sundays. Everyone who walks through there is a potential customer, which is an enormous boost for a fledgling pursuit.
The Café Societi concept is not an on-site consumption model. Yes, you can walk in off the street and order coffee, pastries, meals like pastas and Societi Bistro’s famous mushroom risotto or lemon tart, and soups for cold days and nights. However, it was designed to be app-based, which is super convenient, and part of what impressed Neighbourgood. You download it and create an account from which you can select what you want, pay through the app, and collect. Quick and easy. You can mark your favourites, and make “bundles”, for example a pain au nemesis (croissant filled with chocolate nemesis, a Bistro dessert staple) and a cappuccino would be a superb breakfast, or afternoon treat. It’s just as well I don’t live around the corner or I’d probably shrug and say who cares anyway and have that every day and never wear anything with a zipper again.
If you do stumble through the door, you’ll be welcomed, probably by Damon herself, who will also tell you more about the app to streamline future visits into a digital experience.
The idea for Café Societi germinated before Covid when Weetman and Johan van Heerden (who, among other things, was the one tasked with telling Damon her life was about to change almost overnight because he’s the sweet one and deals better with emotions) were looking at ways they could successfully and ethically scale the business. “Franchising the bistro was never going to be an option; it has too many moving parts, and is very personality driven,” said Weetman.
Having percolated and distilled the concept, Covid provided the time necessary to work on developing the app, and to wade through the massive amount of documentation that comes with franchising. “Then things opened up and we had to refocus. We are slightly behind in terms of everything, Olivia has been very patient with us,” said Weetman. “Neighbourgood and I started talking about four, five weeks ago and I said ‘listen, I’ve got a launch and a change of menu and a new chef – I want to do it; it’s an amazing opportunity’. I was part of the design team for the original foyer so the kismet is insane. Neighbourgood asked if I could consult for the hospitality area.
“Then everything happened really fast; two weeks from offer to lease to operation. It was a juggling act; we had been talking to private entrepreneurs, had to find and polish talent – and find investors at the same time – and then the big trick is to find the right venue.
“Olivia used to open the restaurant, had keys, ran her own petty cash; all these little skills add up. I’m really proud of her, she’s done an incredible job, and I’m not saying that in a patronising or paternalistic way. She’s ahead of the curve. We said to her ‘these are things that need to start moving in your direction’; yesterday she interviewed and employed two people.”
Weetman said there are other employees, female, at Societi Bistro he has his eye on for future possibilities. “If you want to get shit done, ask a woman,” he said.
Being early days, and such a fast opening, there are plans to offer flowers, a homeware range – linen, tableware, glasses – all supporting local artisans, and an extension of Curated. Africa, another facet of the Societi Bistro enterprise.
“We have a dream of hitting 300 franchises around the country – from cities to the Winelands; it might take seven years, it might take three months,” said Weetman, half-joking in reference to the speed at which this took place. “Yes, there are high traffic areas one must look at but, like Societi, my preference is always going to be for old beautiful buildings with history and character.
“I think what will stay after Covid we can all debate until we are blue in the face – will people work at home? Will they come back to offices? That’s very situational. I think the one thing that will definitely stay is convenience, and that’s what Café Societi offers.”
Now I wonder… how bad can a daily pain au nemesis be for the figure? DM/TGIFood
HCC: Homecoming Centre, 15A Buitenkant Street, June 2, 6pm.
* An exhibition titled Salon Afrique – a Homecoming Reimagined opens to the public on June 2, 2022 (First Thursday), at the District Six Homecoming Centre as part of the new HCC cultural venue’s launch celebrations.
Salon Afrique aspires to reflect the voices of South African and pan-African artists united in their capacity to celebrate Africa and our position in the world through a deeper investigation of memory, cultural identity, and lived experiences that the artworks portray. Artists from Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe, DRC Congo, Ethiopia and Zambia will be represented.
The exhibition, together with its accompanying cultural programme, offers a homecoming away from home – a safe welcome and experiential space for creative expression – an immersive salon of art and traditions, where cultures and people meet and connect.
Responding to the Homecoming Centre’s history and tradition, curators Beathur Mgoza Baker of Madlozi Art & Heritage and Sara Bint Moneer Khan of Mashura Arts decided to create a space of affirmation, belonging, and pride. Both are independent curators renowned globally for their critical engagement with topics of identity, belonging, and memory, as well as curating the body and decolonial contemporary art practice.
Follow Bianca Coleman on Instagram @biancaleecoleman
The writer supports The Gift of the Givers Foundation, the largest disaster response, non-governmental organisation of African origin on the African continent.