25 years of ready made meals and baking

The beginning,

I was up at 4:30, still dark outside, after tossing and turning the whole night, terrified by what was about to happen.

Today was the day when The Market Place would open it’s doors for the first time, I felt woefully unprepared, cooking wasn’t the problem, I could figure my way through that, but running a business, serving customers, managing staff. What had I got myself onto!

I can’t believe that was 25 years ago, the first democratic elections had been held and the atmosphere was a little more optimistic, interest rates were horrifically high.

I had no idea how this was going to go, with all the money used up, including maxed out credit cards, if we didn’t make enough turnover in the first month it would be over in a flash. I had no idea about costing, i thought spreadsheets were something that went on the bed. I had no experience whatsoever.

Now, looking back, I’m astonished by the blind enthusiasm that got the shop through the first year. I had never been so tired, sometimes working right through the night. I would get halfway downstairs to the bathroom when one of my two kitchen assistants would yell “customer” and I’d run back up.

One day one of my customers came in, marched me to the door, put up a “closed due to unforeseen circumstances” sign – it seems I looked that bad! I marvel at how I kept going, sometimes I wonder at the wisdom of having done so. The costs to me personally have been high, I learned to try and enjoy the days when things went relatively smoothly, they seemed to be few and far between.

We had our fair (or unfair depending on how you look at it!) share of shop invasions in the early days. The first time was a huge shock, the next time, I asked the police to deliver the catering order I had been working on, and they did, gave the customer a fright, police arriving with flashing lights and all.

The Rewards

I have a brilliant team working in the shop, they have kept things up through hard times. When my partner was terminally ill, I spent a total of 5 months at his side in the UK while they kept things going here.

The rewards of running a small business are not always financial. Our baker, Steve, came to us when we were busy laying tiles prior to opening, Michael wanted someone to help mix tile glue, looking outside I saw a group of men, “anyone want a day’s work” I asked, Steve stepped forward. Now he does pretty much all the baking that you see in the shop and has a wife and two beautiful daughters that he supports.

I’ve learnt that being an employer involves negotiating with debt collectors, having the sheriff show up with garnishee orders, driving a partner to the hospital while she is in labour, forcing someone to get treatment for a life threatening illness, responding at all hours when people have been mugged or worse, being sued, all in the life of a small business owner in South Africa.

I’ve been through divorce, illness and injury but somehow, however tenuously, managed to keep a grip on things.

Making good, nourishing food for my customers is a driving force, promising that I will never make anything differently for them than I would at home, simple good food without additives, enhancers or preservatives. I am passionate about good ingredients and flavour. I love the fact that so many people will be sitting down each day to enjoy a meal we have prepared.

Loving that my staff can support their families and that people far and wide know The Market Place. On the flight from London recently my Mum was chatting to a lady who said, “of course I know that shop”.

Love that we are part of the community, some of our customers are elderly or infirm, we do the best we can to meet their needs, need the soup sieving twice, making something wheat free, need to leave your keys for your visitor from Durban, we got it.

Love it that we have so many loyal customers and so grateful to them for keeping us going through thick and thin, to them I say a big thank you.

In 2008 Bruce Whitfield wrote an article in Finweek “A tale of two takeouts, one born from passion, the other from necessity”., “soup ladles at 20 paces at dawn”, “a culinary battle in the leafy Johannesburg suburbs of Craighall park”, Well passion is still here.