Hard work and a head start paid off for the fi…

Olivia Damon is still in shock. Having worked at the Societi Bistro in Gardens for a few years, the owner Peter Weetman had designated her for this project: to be the first franchisee of the Café Societi. We first reported that story in August 2020; Admittedly, it took a relatively long time for this to happen, but when it did, it was within a matter of weeks.

The premises of the Homecoming Center in Caledon Street, District Six/Zonnebloem have been secured, Damon has been informed and the Café Societi has opened its doors three weeks ago. For someone who’s been plunged into the depths and swimming energetically, Damon is in high spirits, laughing and excited, but there’s still an air of wonder about him.

Once upon a time, she couldn’t even get the right milk for coffees, and look at her now. “I’ve always been afraid to make coffee because the milk would never come out for a cappuccino,” she said. “I had to learn on the job.”

With 11 hot coffee drinks available, Café Societi has your caffeine fix covered. (Photo: provided)

Damon has the training, the gift of milk, and with that, the confidence. It was her attitude – hardworking and always enthusiastic – that brought her to Weetman’s attention, and she had been on his radar for coffee for a while. Suddenly being the boss of your own place is overwhelming, she admitted, along with the business side of things like advertising, marketing and administration – for which she is supported by Societi Bistro. Damon is also overwhelmed with gratitude (there were even tears of joy) for the trust placed in him. “I just want to tell Peter again how grateful I am for this opportunity,” she said, dabbing her eyes with a tissue.

We’ve both known Weetman for years and agreed that he’s tough but fair, and has provided many opportunities for hard workers along the way. “To get Peter’s trust is a really big thing,” Damon reiterated.

Location is also important; you will recognize it immediately – this is where the home of the Fugard Theater was located, the building renamed HCC: Homecoming Center, owned by the District Six Museum Foundationwhich administers all matters relating to the District Six Museum and the Homecoming Center, including a large number of community projects.

In November 2021, the foundation issued a call for tenders which was directed to Neighbourgood, an organization that reallocates city properties left vacant due to the pandemic and creates community-focused coworking and cohousing spaces for young professionals and digital nomads.

The partnership sees Neighbourgood spearhead “day-to-day” property management, maintenance, events and later permanent tenants. When Neighborgood was looking for a tenant to take over the theater’s former foyer space for food and drink, a mutual connection (a lawyer) put him in touch with Weetman. That was less than two months ago, if you need more insight into how quickly this all happened.

“The whole story comes together and here I am in the middle, creating something new,” marveled Damon, who gets up at 6am to travel from Westlake into town by taxi to open the cafe at 7am in the morning. It trades seven days a week, until 7 p.m. A bonus is the reintroduction of events in the theater spaces – such as the Shakespeare Schools Festival this month – as well as in the adjoining room (part of a larger work and living space) where an art exhibition s opens next week, including Sunday services. Everyone who passes by is a potential customer, which is a huge boost for a budding pursuit.

The Café Societi concept is not an on-site consumption model. Yes, you can walk down the street and order coffee, pastries, meals like pasta and the famous mushroom risotto or lemon pie from Societi Bistro, and soups for cold days and nights. However, it was designed to be app-based, which is very convenient and is part of what impressed Neighborgood. You download it and create an account from which you can select what you want, pay through the app and collect. Quick and easy. You can mark your favourites, and make “bundles”, for example a nemesis pain (croissant filled with chocolate nemesis, a staple Bistro dessert) and a cappuccino would make a superb breakfast or afternoon treat. It’s just as well that I don’t live around the corner or I’d probably shrug my shoulders and say who cares anyway and I have this every day and never wear anything again with a zipper.

If you stumble through the door, you’ll be greeted, likely by Damon herself, who will also tell you more about the app to streamline future visits into a digital experience.

The idea for Café Societi germinated before Covid when Weetman and Johan van Heerden (who, among other things, was responsible for telling Damon that his life was about to change almost overnight because he’s the sweetest and manages emotions better) were looking at ways they could scale the business successfully and ethically. “Franchising the bistro was never going to be an option; it has too many moving parts and is very personality driven,” Weetman said.

Breakfast on the go – order and pay through the Café Societi app, and collect at the door. (Photo: provided)

After percolating and distilling the concept, Covid provided the time to work on developing the app and going through the massive amount of documentation that comes with the franchise. “Then things opened up and we had to refocus. We are slightly behind on everything, Olivia has been very patient with us,” Weetman said. “Neighbourgood and I started talking about four or five weeks ago and I said ‘listen, I have a launch and a menu change and a new chef – I want to do this; it’s an incredible opportunity”. I was on the original fireplace design team so the kismet is crazy. Neighborgood asked me if I could consult for the reception area.

“Then everything happened very quickly; two weeks from supply to rental to operation. It was a juggling act; we had talked to private entrepreneurs, we had to find and polish talent – ​​and find investors at the same time – and the big problem was finding the right venue.

Get a prepared dish like fettuccine limone. (Photo: provided)

“Olivia used to open the restaurant, had the keys, ran her own petty cash; all these little skills add up. I’m really proud of her, she did an amazing job, and I’m not saying that in a condescending or paternalistic way. She’s ahead of the curve. We told him ‘these are things that have to start moving in your direction’; yesterday she interviewed and employed two people.

Weetman said there were other employees, women, at the Societi Bistro that he had his eye on for future possibilities. “If you want to do shit, ask a woman,” he said.

Olivia Damon and her team at Café Societi at the Homecoming Centre. From the left, Shameema Siwayo, Shaqeel Abrahams, Olivia Damon, Anesu Mubandu, Faseegah Najjar. (Photo: provided)

Being early days, and such a quick open, there are plans to offer flowers, a range of homewares – linens, crockery, glassware – all supporting local artisans, and an extension of Curated. Africa, another facet of the Societi Bistro business.

“We dream of opening 300 franchises across the country, from cities to vineyards; it could take seven years, it could take three months,” Weetman said, half-joking in reference to how quickly this happened. “Yes, there are high traffic areas to look at but, like Societi, my preference is always for beautiful old buildings with history and character.

“I think what will be left after Covid we can all debate until we are bruised in the face – will people be working from home? Will they return to the offices? It’s very situational. I think the one thing that will definitely remain is convenience, and that’s what Café Societi offers.

Now I wonder… how much a daily nemesis pain be for the figure? DM/TGIFood

Café Societi – Homecoming Center is open Monday to Sunday from 7am to 7pm (later for events). For more information send an e-mail [email protected] or click here.

HCC: return center15A Buitenkant Street, June 2, 6 p.m.

* An exhibition titled Salon Afrique – a Homecoming Reimagined opens to the public on June 2, 2022 (first Thursday), at the District Six Homecoming Center as part of the launch celebrations for the new HCC cultural venue.

Salon Afrique aspires to reflect the voices of South African and Pan-African artists united in their ability to celebrate Africa and our position in the world through a deeper investigation into memory, cultural identity and lived experiences than the works depict. Artists from Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe, DRC Congo, Ethiopia and Zambia will be represented.

The exhibition, along with the accompanying cultural program, offers a homecoming away from home – a safe welcoming and experiential space for creative expression – an immersive living room of art and traditions, where cultures and people meet and connect.

In response to the history and tradition of the Homecoming Centre, curators Beathur Mgoza Baker of Madlozi Art & Heritage and Sara Bint Moneer Khan of Mashura Arts set out to create a space of affirmation, belonging and pride. Both are independent curators recognized globally for their critical engagement with themes of identity, belonging and memory, as well as the conservation of the body and practice of contemporary decolonial art.

Follow Bianca Coleman on Instagram @biancaleecoleman

The writer supports The Donor Gift Foundationthe largest African-based non-governmental disaster response organization on the African continent.

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