For some, such trauma might put them off cooking for life, but for Nicollette the experience was life changing in the way that it clarified her passion for food and cooking. That was back in 2016, and since then her marriage ended and her husband left the business, but Nicolette never left the kitchen at her 80-seat Transkaroo Restaurant in Groot Brak River on the Cape South Coast. “Food is my life," says Nicolette. “I'm in the kitchen with my staff every day. I don't run the business from home."
The steady hand of the restaurant's sous chef, from whom she learned a lot, helped her maintain the restaurant's high-quality boerekos cuisine as she settled down in her new role, but it was also her intense life-long interest in cooking that made her feel at home in a bustling restaurant kitchen.
Fortunately, by that time, Nicolette was a seasoned restaurant manager whose business career actually started when she worked in her father's convenience store in the Strand, Cape Town. Later she and her sister ran their own convenience store until she moved to Groot Brak in 2010 when her husband got the job as chef at the Transkaroo Restaurant. It was small, intimate restaurant with a sterling reputation for hearty, high-quality meals. The name refers to the well-known train service that ran between Cape Town and Johannesburg, as the restaurant is based in the town's old train station building.
Soon Nicolette was appointed as front-of-house manager, and for a couple of years she and her husband worked side-by-side as employees. Then the founder sounded them out about buying the Transkaroo from him, and they jumped at the chance. But his price was high, and the banks were wary of financing a restaurant.
A year later, however, the owner dropped his price dramatically. This time, they approached Business Partners Limited who agreed to finance the purchase together with investment from Nicolette's parents, who became actively involved in the running of the restaurant when the deal went through in 2014.
The finance deal with Business Partners Ltd was heavy on the paperwork, says Nicolette, but it went smoothly. It was the aftercare from Business Partners Ltd that impressed her most. They signed up with a Business Partners Ltd mentor who looked at the business's performance every few months. And the Business Partners Ltd staff in George maintained regular contact and support until the loan was paid back in 2019. “I've never seen such a level of support before," says Nicolette.
As new owners, they aimed to make the change of ownership as seamless as possible because consistency of quality, service and atmosphere was crucial in keeping the loyalty of the restaurant's supporters, most of whom are from Groot Brak and the adjacent Mossel Bay and George. Any change of menu happened incrementally over the years, says Nicolette.
But emotionally she found that there was a big difference between running a restaurant as employees and as owner. “Suddenly you are responsible for twenty families," says Nicolette. “You work harder, but at the same time it is really satisfying when you see the results come in."
As an established restaurant, the Transkaroo had always been profitable for Nicolette and her mother who together own the shares in the business. By the time the Business Partners Ltd loan was paid back in 2019 the business found itself in a very comfortable, steady position.
Then Covid-19 hit and overnight the business went into survival mode. As soon as the hard lockdown of April 2020 lifted, the Transkaroo started selling take-away meals and found “incredible support" from its loyal patrons in the town. It kept the business going, but Nicolette had to cut the staff numbers from 16 to seven in what she described as a heartbreaking decision. Keeping all costs to a minimum was the key to surviving, says Nicolette.
Community support for the Transkaroo remains very strong, even though customer numbers are nowhere near their pre-Covid-19 levels. Nicolette is grateful that most of her clients were always locals, with only about 20% from the tourist trade which is virtually wiped out for now.
She is cautiously optimistic that 2021 will be a year of recovery. People are really hungry for going out and socialising, she says, and when business returns to normal the Transkaroo Restaurant will be there, as consistent as ever.