ANYONE who has watched a restaurant reality TV show knows there is little glamour and a lot of hard work in running and owning such establishments.

Restaurant owners will tell you it takes more than a love of food and a willingness to play host to make it work.

And even if they put in the hours, most will acknowledge there is truth in the old adage: “Just because you’re busy, doesn’t mean you’re making money.”

The statistics are not favourable either. A Cornell University study recently found the number of restaurants failing in the US in the first year was close to 60%. But the romance of owning an eatery still attracts many to the industry.

One such dreamer is Rachel Irvine. She was inspired to open Bedouin Café & Deli in Cape Town in 2012 after a chance meeting with a South African woman who had lived on the Syrian and Iraqi border for a few years. The woman had married a Syrian and lived among the Bedouin tribes, completely immersing herself in their way of life, learning to make several Middle Eastern dishes including Labneh, a creamy yogurt cheese.

Irvine was so intrigued by this woman’s experiences, and seeing an opportunity to offer something to the public they had never tasted before, she learned the recipes. Bedouin became a shop window for Labneh and the other Middle Eastern foods manufactured on site.

STARTING a business is nothing new for Irvine. As founder and MD of public relations firm Irvine Partners, she was already used to the challenges facing entrepreneurs. Even so, she was about to take on a huge load running two businesses simultaneously. Irvine is a high-energy individual but even she admits it was a lot tougher than she thought it would be. “Looking back, I have to admit I did not know what I was thinking.”

She says that although there were a couple of bumps along the way — such as a former employee who made a habit of stealing gas cylinders — on the whole, it has been a hugely rewarding experience.

“The way the staff have bought into what I’m trying to do, and the fact that regular customers have taken ownership of the deli, has really surprised me,” Irvine says.

The camaraderie she built with customers resulted in one of them “writing” Bedouin’s omelette recipe. He thought theirs would be improved with Labneh juice added, told Irvine, and his is on the menu.

“I set out to have the kind of restaurant that was unlike what I had experienced in Cape Town. Many restaurants are once-a-month places because their meals are just too pricey. By comparison, Bedouin’s most expensive meal is about R60,” Irvine says.

It annoyed her that many restaurants serve coffee in tiny cups. Bedouin proudly serves its coffee in mugs.

“No, man! Small trendy cups are just rude,” she says.

Unlike Irvine, Cyrillia and Laurent Deslandes are old hands at starting restaurants. The French-born and trained Laurent, and South African-born Cyrillia, have owned and run prestigious fine dining establishments in France and Australia.

When they opened Bistrot Bizerca in Cape Town in 2007, they had their hearts set on an unpretentious bistro.

Bistrot Bizerca has won several awards and is a fixture in the Mother City. This kind of success requires long hours: they have to be up at 4am for the opening of the markets to get fresh produce, and take care of their two young children.

Bedouin Café & Deli and Bistrot Bizerca have a common approach. Where many restaurants tend to have large menus catering for everyone’s tastes, they both opted to have a limited menu because, as Cyrillia Deslandes puts it: “We only do a few dishes but we do them really, really well.”

By having only a few dishes on the menu, Bistrot Bizerca has an advantage in that it can source the best ingredients consistently and does not have to compromise on food quality. A more streamlined pantry also reduces the chances of ingredients going to waste.

The store of ingredients is also smaller at Bedouin Café & Deli, and Irvine is willing to bet it is fresher than most.

She only uses organic and free range ingredients. Irvine dismisses the notion that using fresh organic ingredients is unprofitable, and says that those who argue against it have not really tried to do so.

THE Deslandes and Irvine’s focus on getting their menu right is often overlooked by restaurant owners. Many do not recognise the danger in putting a dish on the menu with ingredients that are hard to source or meals that take too long to prepare.

There is also a danger of the price set for meals being so low that it does not cover the cost of making it, or so high that it drives customers away.

Running a successful restaurant also requires offering something unusual, such as Bedouin’s Labneh cheese. Bizerca’s drawcard is that it has a seasonal menu, with only a few permanent customer favourites, and there is always something fresh and exciting to draw customers.

Another key element for success in the restaurant business is finding a good location — one easy to find and reach, and offering ample parking.

Some restaurateurs underrate the importance of negotiating a fair lease agreement, which could set up their business for failure even before it opens because they have their cost-to-income ratios wrong.

What is the use of a great spot in a swanky shopping mall if the owners are unable to cover other costs?

For Irvine and the Deslandes, running their own restaurants has been anything but easy. Despite the challenges, it has still been a rewarding experience.

“It has opened up a world for me,” says Irvine. “Without it, I would not have not discovered the wonderful people who run the place, and the customers I now call friends who love Labneh as much as I do.”

This article was first published in the 19 August 2015 edition of Business Day

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