Ntombi Ndlovu (waitress) with Sibusiso Khwela (manager), owner Nikki Southwood, Jomo Phungula (head waiter) and chef Rosemary Mqadi. Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)
Ntombi Ndlovu (waitress) with Sibusiso Khwela (manager), owner Nikki Southwood, Jomo Phungula (head waiter) and chef Rosemary Mqadi. Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)

Surviving Covid with a welcoming smile

By Tanya Waterworth Time of article published May 1, 2021

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Durban - Surviving the Covid pandemic has been a huge challenge for the owners and staff at Blue Zoo Restaurant and Café at Mitchell Park, one of the oldest restaurants in the city, having opened in the early 1900s.

It is testament to the spirit of Durban and especially the hospitality industry to persevere in the face of hard times.

This week Blue Zoo owner Nikki Southwood said their staff had kept them going. The Southwood family has owned the restaurant for 25 years.

“We were closed from March and opened again in July. At one stage we were almost not going to open again. It was a hard decision but to remain open was mainly for our staff. It was so hard to see what they were going through. And when the second wave came in December/January, we sat down with our staff and they said they wanted to stay open,” said Southwood.

She said many of their staff members had been with the restaurant for years and added that even though they received TERS payments, it was still a tough time getting through the month.

She also appreciated their many regular patrons.

“We are living in unprecedented times at the moment. It’s getting better and we are grateful that a lot of our regulars are back, as are families who want to take their children for an outing. That we are an ’outside’ restaurant also saved us,” she said.

While they have had the odd customer who did not want to adhere to Covid protocols, such as mask wearing or sanitising, Southwood said they had been strict regarding all regulations for the safety of staff and patrons.

She added that the restaurant re-opened with a reduced menu and is also currently revamping the menu in line with healthy eating trends. Old favourites, such as the lamb curry and lamb roast, as well as their famous scones, will remain.

“Freedom Day was our busiest day this year and for the first time, things felt a bit normal,” she said.

Chef of 24 years, Rosemary Mqadi said she had been “very happy” to get back into the kitchen when they re-opened, while manager Sibusiso Khwela, who has been at the restaurant for 10 years, said he had enjoyed welcoming back their patrons.

“We have one lady who remembers coming here as a small girl when Nellie the elephant was here giving rides to children,” said Khwela.

Nellie the elephant provided happy memories from childhood for many a Durbanite over the years. Nellie was given to Mitchell Park in 1928 as a gift by Indian statesman and scholar, Valangiman Sastri, who was India’s first agent-general in South Africa. The young female elephant was presented to Durban Town Council as a gift from the maharaja of Mysore in India. Nellie became a legend, especially at children’s birthday parties over the next 21 years.

Originally constructed as a tearoom in 1915 and nestled in the shade of giant trees in Mitchell Park, the restaurant has welcomed guests through the transition of the city from a colonial settlement to the vibrant multi-cultural hub it is today, two world wars, the Spanish Flu pandemic, economic recession and all the human drama woven into those 100 plus years.

According to the Durban Local History Museum and research by Professor Donal McCracken in his book In The Steps of Nellie: A History of Mitchell Park, the first tearoom kiosk may have been erected around 1910/1911, but the wood and iron tearoom constructed in 1915 soon became the place to see and be seen for tea and cake.

In about 1938 a new tearoom was built where the Blue Zoo restaurant stands today, while the base of the original site was used for the bandstand which remains today.

The Independent on Saturday

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