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 Bringing the world to South Africa

 

 In an unforgiving tourist mecca like  Cape Town it takes some doing to establish a restaurant so popular that the  queue for a table sometimes stretches out into the street. For restaurateur  Johnny van der Westhuizen, co-owner of Manna Epicure in the city centre, it has  been a long journey of international exploration and passion.

Born and raised in the tiny rural village of Citrusdal, Van der Westhuizen formed part of a wave of young South Africans who chose to seek their fortunes elsewhere in the world. This “brain drain” caused much worry in the past, but Van der Westhuizen also took part in a second wave – the return of those same individuals to South Africa. They are older, highly experienced, cosmopolitan, well-resourced and keen to build world-class businesses in the country of their birth.

After completing his matric in the 1990s, Van der Westhuizen went to work overseas, starting right at the bottom, first as a worker on an apple farm in the US, then as a security guard in London. He tried to get a job as a waiter, but his English was not good enough at first. He worked as a barman for a while until a former manager of his, who had become a friend and mentor, started a high-end restaurant and recruited him.

Up to that point, he had simply been following the path of so many other young South Africans – finding the best possible menial job while exploring the world and having fun. But the world of gourmet restaurants awakened something in Van der Westhuizen. “Unbelievable dishes and tastes – not the kind of things that I grew up with at the local Spur,” he laughs.

Although he had discovered his passion for food, his career developed in the “front of house” – on the serving side of restaurants as opposed to the kitchen. He interrupted his working life to do a year-long intensive apprenticeship at a well-known hotel in Cape Town and returned overseas. It served him well, and he worked himself up to the position of food and beverages manager at a huge hotel group in Dubai.

Meanwhile, he had met his partner, Agnes Renault, when they worked together at a London restaurant. Renault, who is French, fell in love with South Africa on a visit here, and they decided to buy a run-down guest house in Van der Westhuizen’s hometown of Citrusdal.

They upgraded the guest house and added a small restaurant. Van der Westhuizen threw himself at his great passion – cooking – and trained himself up as a chef. He remembers his first night: “I had butterflies in my stomach. I still get them whenever I prepare a plate for a client. It is an awesome feeling.”

Starting as small as they had in Citrusdal was a blessing, says Van der Westhuizen: “It allowed me to make all of my mistakes quietly.” Had they started in Cape Town, where the public are much less forgiving, they would not have made it, he believes.

Their Citrusdal guest house experience came with another advantage. The small loan they took from Business Partners Limited (BUSINESS/PARTNERS) to improve the business was the start one of Van der Westhuizen’s most fruitful business relationships. Since then, BUSINESS/PARTNERS have given him two more loans for new restaurants and have helped him with invaluable business advice and support. “I’d rather pay a bit more when I know that my financiers are always ready to help, and that they’ve got my back,” he says.

Soon the guest house and restaurant were buzzing, and the couple started another restaurant and a sports bar in Citrusdal. But the town was small, and they started missing city life. They sold up in Citrusdal and relocated to Cape Town.

Van der Westhuizen did intensive scouting for the right restaurant to buy. Once he had his eye on Manna Epicure in the upmarket restaurant strip of Kloof Street, he spent days watching the activity at the premises. Only when they were sure that there was enough potential and that BUSINESS/PARTNERS agreed to finance the deal, did they buy.

Manna had a good local following, but Van der Westhuizen’s challenge was to establish consistency in the quality of the food, and extend the trading hours into the evening. Over a few hair-raising weeks the place was dead quiet, but then the word finally seemed to get out and soon queues started forming as clients flocked to get in. The couple has not looked back since.

Although word-of-mouth is important to establish a good local following, Van der Westhuizen believes in active marketing. The restaurant uses only the best quality Chalmar beef, but they make sure that there is always a special on the menu to fit the pocket of a range of patrons. Discounts are given out as personal invitations. To tap into the tourist market, Van der Westhuizen promotes his restaurant to local guest houses and hotels.

Van der Westhuizen and Renault’s sense of adventure is too large for a single restaurant. Most recently, the couple bought the Deckhouse, an American-style seafood restaurant across the road from Manna, again with finance from BUSINESS/PARTNERS. They are keen on exploring the possibilities of turning it into a franchise concept.

Van der Westhuizen loves evolving and developing the menus of his restaurants, not only to retain the interest of their clients, but also to indulge in his passion for cooking. He often mans one of the stations in the kitchen as an ordinary staff member so as to keep his finger on the pulse, but also for the sheer joy of it. 

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