Restaurants in Makhanda: People, power and the pandemic

by Savannah Ingham

COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdown of South Africa has been a painful experience for many reasons. It has been mentally, physically, spiritually and economically taxing to everyone in our country, including the small business owners that fortify the core of our economy.

I spoke to the staff and owners of three local eateries here in Makhanda (including a start-up) to get their point of view on how lockdown has affected them both professionally and personally. As well as to hear what their advice is for budding entrepreneurs in an inhospitable financial climate.

Lemon and Spice-restaurant in Makhanda, South Africa. Photo by Author.

Lemon and Spice is a well-loved eatery in the area, it is owned and operated by Dharmesh Dullabh and Meenakshi Kara-Dullabh. Meenakshi and Dharmesh have been involved in the catering business for many years and have owned Lemon and Spice for 3 years. I was able to chat to Anelisa Sukula, who has been the manager of the operation for the last three years, about how the business was affected and about her personal experiences of the lockdown.

Students had been an important source of income, so the shut-down of UCKAR (University Currently Known as Rhodes) was especially damaging. The overheads of their establishment, this including an unforgiving rent requirement for their building, still had to be paid for. Three staff members had to be cut off and salaries had to be cut down. The period was financially, mentally and emotionally draining for the whole team, but she feels it brought them closer together. Due to the lockdown regulations preventing sit-down meals in their establishment, the business adapted to do deliveries. This in turn supported some of the pop-up businesses that started when the need for delivery services became greater.

Anelisa shared her experiences of using public transport to get to work. Apparently, many of the taxis she used were not adhering to regulations; overloading themselves and using ineffective “hand sanitiser”. She said that there was a prevalent and incorrect belief that only old people could contract COVID-19 which led to commuters not following regulations. She also feels that the government could have done more to support small businesses after closing down the economy.

Dharmesh and Meenakshi want small business owners and young entrepreneurs to know that they should try to, “Take everything a day at a time. Do not get overwhelmed. You can do that by being grateful for everything that you’re still able to hold on to. Just keep going. One day at a time”.

House of Curry-restaurant in Makhanda, South Africa. Photo by Karisna Bissett.

Jiya Daya is the owner of House of Curry, a popular takeaway restaurant in town. Her business had to completely cease operations for 2 months while her rent and other overheads still had to be dealt with. Jiya’s staff were able to claim from the Unemployment Insurance Fund’s TERS (Temporary Employee Relief Scheme) programme. TERS pay-outs have been halted due to suspected cases of corruption and fraud that have stopped some of the money from getting to where it is most needed.

The business is up and running again and things are basically back to normal, besides of course the necessary COVID-19 precautions. Interestingly, Jiya did not start making use of delivery services. Her reason for this is that her customers are mostly walk-bys and regulars.

Although the whole process of shutting down her business caused considerable shock, Jiya is grateful that she did not have to cut down on staff and takes a pragmatic point of view when it comes to her business. She emphasises how important it is to continue offering high quality service, even during difficult times. Her advice to young entrepreneurs is to start small and build up your operation gradually. On a personal and professional level, she urges people to, “Never, never take things for granted”.

LA Café - Café in Makhanda, South Africa. Karisna Bissett.

Many of us know the Provost Café at the Albany Museum prison. It has recently come under new ownership by a young Makhanda local and former Rhodent named Thoko. It is now known as the LA Café and has been open for business since the 20th of October. Most people will know Thoko as "The Water Guy" (the owner of Aqua Pure). His goal is to create a dynamic, comfortable space for students in a way that does not block out the wider community.

It may seem counterintuitive to start a new business in 2020 when so many that already exist are struggling. Thoko credits his capacity to do this with his ability to fund the venture himself, the help of loyal and capable employees (around 7 people in total including those at Aqua Pure), and his personal independence and fearlessness in trying new things.

Thoko’s advice to young entrepreneurs is to not be worried about stepping on people’s toes or about what people may think of them. He wants to see up-and-comers throwing their energy into trying and building as much as possible while they still haven’t got much to lose.

He advises that people be wary of partnerships, that they keep their business shares close and he believes that it is important to make use of the knowledge and skills of the people around you while relying on your own discretion. He emphasises how important it is to provide good, consistent service while remaining flexible to changing conditions. He feels that it is a waste of time to fear failure simply stating, “Go through shit in life, you’ll come out a better person”.

The LA Café is up and staying, serving quality coffee and cuisine at an affordable price, offering the use of private reading and working rooms as well as a number of other exciting add-ons and knick-knacks. Oh, and did I mention? They have eduroam.

South Africa, the Eastern Cape and Makhanda in particular have been suffering from the eroding effects of an unstable economy and uncaring officials for a while. Small business owners have shown both resilience and adaptability in fighting for their financial and professional independence while drawing together (metaphorically of course) and caring for the people around them.

It is important to work for and preserve what you already have while remaining flexible to change, but it is also possible to start something new regardless of circumstances which may be out of your control. For those who are at the beginning of building their professional brand, this is heartening.

Lemon and Spice can be contacted at +27 60 304 6597 for pre-ordering and deliveries. I recommend the veg burger with the potato and lentil samosas.

House of Curry is open again on 45 New Street and is offering tasty takeaways to the people of Makhanda, the chickpea curry and spring rolls are delicious.

Check out the LA Cafe at the old Albany Museum Prison.

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