How coffee saved a Joburg eatery during the Covid-19 pandemic
South Africans had a hard time during the highest levels of the country’s lockdown which was introduced in March to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Not only did the country have to adjust to a ‘new normal’, they also had to deal with high Covid-19 infection rates and distressing daily death reports from the deadly disease during the winter months.
As the nation implemented one of the most stringent lockdown measures in the world, its citizens also did not have the comforts of takeaways, cigarettes or alcohol for an extended period of time.
But for many, including those at Johannesburg’s popular Voodoo Lily Cafe which has during the countrywide shutdown evolved into the Gourmet Grocer, coffee came as a saving grace.
For the recently relaunched eatery in Birdhaven which is adjacent to the suburb of Melrose, caffeine came as a morale booster during these unprecedented times for its loyal customers.
But it also proved to be a way to keep their staff employed and their business thriving during a time when restaurants and hospitality enterprises were some of the worst financially hit sectors during the global health crisis.
Gourmet Grocer owner Larry Hodes explained to The Saturday Star during a visit to the now in-demand eatery this week that readjusting their business and making coffee one of the main focuses during the lockdown has allowed them to survive and keep their doors open.
In order to set themselves apart from their competitors, Hodes enlisted the help of master roaster and brewer Marco Da Silva to birth Coffefe Roastery, which claims to be ‘unapologetic about celebrating the unique, no bulls*%&t nature of all coffee beans.’
“We wanted something that was not snobbish, that wasn't too upmarket, pretentious or inaccessible,” Da Silva said. “We also want to cater for those who don't know much about coffee and we want to help them learn about what they like.”
Hodes explains his relationship with Da Silva as “absolutely meant to be” as they both share a passion for all things caffeine and found each other at the “perfect time.”
Da Silva agreed and added that when the country first went into lockdown, his wholesale coffee business was under severe threat.
“I used to roast coffee for restaurants, cafes and corporates but the pandemic destroyed everything because most of my clients that I had for many years couldn't survive so they were forced to close down.”
But Hodes came to the rescue when he enlisted the services of Da Silva, who was already supplying his two other restaurants with coffee. But this time, they took it step further.
“He was converting the Voodoo Lily into the Gourmet Grocer and he wanted to add a unique coffee element to it so I brought my equipment which was previously in a warehouse to the premises and while I still supply coffee to other clients, what Larry and I did was merge my wholesale side with his retail side and make it one relaunched brand.”
“We now have this huge roaster in the grocer which in itself attracts people to the store out of pure curiosity as they are intrigued to know more.”
Coffefe Roastery was then born and the name is as unique as their coffee operations.
“The name inspired by Donald Trump and his ‘‘covfefe’ tweet which sparked social media mayhem a few years ago.
Back in 2017, the US president mistakenly tweeted ‘covfefe’ instead of ‘criticism’ as part of a post referring to what he described as unfair media scrutiny. The post went viral at the time and became a meme.
“By using a play on words for selecting the name of our brand, we are not trying to say we support Trump or his politics but just like him, our coffee is unapologetic and not traditional just like Trump is not necessarily a traditional president.”
“It's not just for hipsters and we want people from all walks of life to enjoy it.”
Community involvement was also key to the pair’s caffeine offerings and they even created the ‘Birdhaven brew’ to pay tribute to their loyal consumers.
“Our house blend which is the Birdhaven blend will always be available and is hugely popular but we also have so many other offerings for people’s personal preferences,” Da Silva explained.
When the Gourmet Grocer was officially launched in May, he experimented with a few brews from coffee hotspots around the world including Columbia, Guatemala, Brazil, Costa Rica, India and Indonesia.
The master brewer also played around with flavours from Africa including those originating from Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda.
“African coffees offer some of the most exciting and exotic coffees and the most interesting flavours.” “They are very fruity, have interesting components and are in demand around the world,” he said.
Da Silva and his team then narrowed down their caffeine offering to three different beans from Columbia, Guatemala and Tanzania which are all concocted in a certain way.
Their world class offering of coffee beans as well as their willingness to experiment and eagerness to involve their customers in the entire process has seen their revenue increase during a time when most eateries are facing financial difficulties.
“Compared to what Larry was usually doing, coffee increased his operations by around 20%,” he said.
Da Silva said that even when sit-down services in restaurants were not permitted, people still used to line-up to get their coffees to go.
“My experience is that people are always interested in coffee and that coffee enjoyment is a cultural thing.” “It's part of our routine and the aroma of roasted coffee is intoxicating.”
“During these challenging times, people were turning to coffee and any food or hospitality venues which had a strong focus on coffee and didn't just rely on food or sit-down options, survived the lockdown because coffee pulled them through,” Da Silva conceded.
He also believes that many people are still working from home and are paying more attention to the quality of coffee they consume as they no longer can rely on the caffeine supplied in the workplace.
“Instead of buying instant coffee, people are increasingly becoming aware of how easy it is to buy fresh coffee from your roaster and be able to enjoy it at home,” Da Silva said.
“‘You don’t need fancy or expensive equipment and there are simple ways to make great coffee.”
The master roaster is also determined to engage with the grocer’s customers and even offers advice on how to choose the best coffee for them.
“We are open to mixing a blend of coffees according to a customer’s personal preference for them to enjoy at home.”
“That is the relationship we have with the clients here. They come and say what they want, and then we weigh it up and mix it and very few places do this.”
While coffee is a large focus of the Gourmet Grocer, the European-feel eatery with ample seating options on the pavement alongside the bustling Wren avenue, is a unique and satisfying dining experience.
Hodes, who is a hands-on owner who, while managing its operations also personally attends to clients needs and even takes their orders and wipes down tables, is proud of his newly launched enterprise.
He had three successful eateries prior to the arrival of the pandemic but the lockdown measures made it difficult to operate.
Then in May, a few days before Mother’s Day, Hodes and his wife Annie were trying to make arrangements for the momentous occasion at their Voodoo Lily Cafe which was situated at the same venue.
During that time, only takeaways were permitted so they knew they had to think outside of the box.
“We went onto WhatsApp and Facebook to find out which artisanal, gourmet and bespoke products were available for us to sell on Mother’s Day and 24 hours later the Gourmet Grocer was born.”
“It's been an incredible story because all these suppliers who used to sell their goods at markets and to restaurants now offered it to us and we started this brilliant collaboration with small businesses.”
The grocer now sells unique goods such as sauces, oils, flours, pastas and sweet treats which came as a comfort during a time when the nation was confined to their homes.
“There are healthy goods but also decadent ones and the grocer is all about the foodie and it must be positioned around someone who appreciates the great things in life.”
Now that sit-down dining options are permitted, Hodes has readjusted his menu to offer his customers anything their heart desires.
There is something for health enthusiasts, those looking for a decadent meal and also a fusion mix of food originating from Turkey, India, Mexico, Greece and America.
“We want to appeal to a variety of people but the key thing we really want to focus on is the freshness and quality of the food.”
Even pets have something to enjoy at the Gourmet Grocer as they lounge in the Spring sunshine alongside their beloved owners.
This is as the Gourmet Grocer’s offers doggy treats such as chicken livers, chicken breasts, doggy biscuits and for the most esteemed palettes, 20 grams of royal beef fillets.
“We are situated near the James and Ethel Gray park so many people walk their dogs there then bring them here where they all have something to enjoy.” “We give people what they want with a smile and they appreciate it.”
“We have become the corner for everybody to come and meet,and sometimes we had over a hundred people waiting to be seated and we had to ask people to come back another time because we couldn't fit them in because of the regulations.”