What’s Really Cooking?

Published: 22 November 2018

In South Africa (especially the Western Cape), we are spoilt. Not because of the mountain or the ocean, but because we are on the doorstep of the local foodie scene. From Kloof Street to Franschhoek, Somerset-West to Paternoster, we can be proud of how it has exploded over the past few years.

Attempting to quantify what makes a great restaurant is attempting the impossible feat of describing a beautiful landscape. There are multiple elements that contribute to it being an ultimate experience. Food. Atmosphere. Service. Expectations. Often great is just not good enough.

The current tough economic climate does not leave a lot of room for fair-weather offerings.

People have an expectation when they spend money to get exceptional quality, which includes product, service, value and experience.

We often judge by the food, but the experience is determined by the people. When we look at the style, the service, the chefs…all these elements are about the people that make the establishment what it is.

At this year’s Eat Out Mercedes-Benz Restaurant Awards, it was quite refreshing to see how each restauranteur and chef places so much emphasis on the ‘family’. The team of people that work the long hours, the long days, over hot plates in hot kitchens, serving strangers and making them feel like friends.

It’s about the guys that make it happen in front, at the back and from the top. How these rockstar-chefs train, support, grow, encourage and inspire the next generation of young talent by opening sister restaurants and expanding the brand.

It is about balance and one of the chefs that have perfected this is Scot Kirton, the winner of last year’s Eat Out Retail Capital New Restaurant of the Year award and chef-proprietor for the La Colombe Group. Kirton says that the key to adding value is to never compromise on quality.

When it comes to service and style, there are important lessons that every business can learn from the restaurant industry:

Value the customer

Karl Westvig, CEO of Retail Capital, believes that: “If you want to attract business, then you need to show value. Benchmark your price points with your competitors and see how you compare. Many great locations outprice themselves, which may be acceptable to foreign tourists but erodes the local, regular support base.”

Price right and offer promotions and menu options that will attract local and foreign customers and keep them coming back for more.

It is important to also strike a balance between having something for everyone and having everything for everyone. A lot of restaurants want to serve pizzas and pasta to steak, fish and sandwiches which exposes them to high overheads and wastage and often compromises on quality. Having fewer, exceptionally well prepared, meals for every food preference (vegan to pescatarian) is a subtle expression of value you have for your customer.

The high quality of food and service, in turn, promotes the brand which leads to word-of-mouth and more social media sharing.”


“There are many other ways to cut costs but opting for sub-standard produce is your first step to failure,” says Kirton, adding that “importing less, and instead supporting local producers, has helped keep costs down to enable the restaurant to offer affordable dining options”. It’s not just about what’s on top but what’s inside. Fresh local ingredients delivered to your doorstep is not only enhancing the taste experience but also growing local businesses and supporting the entrepreneurial economy.

Kirton also mentions that: “Restaurants have had a tough time of late and we have needed to adapt to keep our restaurants running. At our restaurants, we offer amazing value-for-money winter specials which showcase local South African produce.”

Having a balanced menu with all-time favourites as well as daring signature dishes for those who would like to experience novel taste sensations can also lead to more feet through the door. Kirton adds: “This is a hard industry. You need to be hands-on every day in your establishment. You need to have the passion for it and put in the hours to make it work. New restaurants need to be original and offer something unique, ensuring that the kitchen concentrates on flavours that will excite diners.” It is about quality food plated with perfection.

Service with a style

Service starts at the front door and includes serving the perfect dish. Timing is everything and a lot of restaurants prepare for perfection, but the end product is far from crisp and crunchy with tired waiters, hot wine and cold food.

It is so important to acknowledge the service side of the restaurant, which is too often forgotten because “like the kitchen, the front-of-house needs a presence as well”, says Kirton.

Atmospheric experience

It is a bonus if you can be at the foot of a mountain or close to the sea, but our top chefs have shown us that you can turn a dark alley or industrial loft into a sought-after destination.

Westvig believes that restaurants will continue to succeed, despite turbulent economic times, if they are experiences more than simply places to eat. They must offer value, excellent service, and ambience. “To be a top restaurant in South Africa, it takes an exceptional talent who executes well consistently. We have world-class chefs and restaurateurs and to break into the top echelon requires experience and great dedication to the trade,” he says.

Be unique, be daring, be inspired

“If you build it, they will come.” (W. P. Kinsella)

Retail Capital, which provides funding to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) across South Africa, has noted that many restaurants are taking funding to assist them with renovations, revamps and buying local produce.