Author: JACK PERRY
Editor’s note: Late each spring, scores of dreamers open their own businesses on Cape Cod, gambling their savings on a few short months. This summer, the Times will periodically follow the owner of a new cafe in Provincetown as she tries to create her own season of opportunity.
PROVINCETOWN – Sanette Groenewald faces her first big test this weekend.
It is summer on Cape Cod, if only for the three-day weekend, and Groenewald, who has just opened Sanette’s Karoo Kafe in Provincetown, will have her first taste of the high season’s promise and demands.
Groenewald has poured all of her savings – $12,000 – into her quirky cafe off
Commercial Street. Her credit cards helped buy another $16,000 in equipment, and she’s borrowed $25,000 to help with cash flow.
Having left the “comfort zone” of a regular restaurant job to chase her dream,
Groenewald knows she’s taking a gamble.
“I’m scared out of my mind,” she says. “I go between really scared and really
excited 10 times a minute.”
She has good reason for both emotions.
Eighty percent of small businesses don’t last beyond five years, either because of poor performance or because the owners decide to move on to something else, according to estimates from the Service Corps of Retired Executives. Restaurants can be especially difficult. The little spot now occupied by Sanette’s Karoo Kafe has been home to several different businesses in the past three years, most recently the Lazy Dog Cafe.
But Groenewald thinks she can make it work. Trained as a chef in her native South Africa, Groenewald, 35, has a blend of South African, Middle Eastern, Indian and traditional American food on her menu. She believes she’s offering unique food at a reasonable price, and she envisions a mix of townies and tourists visiting her tiny cafe.
“I’m trying to give people something a little different. People are so ready for a new flavor and taste,” Groenewald says. “I know what people are looking for. You need comfortable places to go and get food at reasonable prices.”
Groenewald hopes to make enough money to fly her parents to the United States so they can see the life she has built here over the past seven years. When she really lets her dreams dance, Groenewald looks five years down the road and sees Karoo Kafe franchises. It’s a vision of the great American success story for a woman who left her native country because of increasing violence.
South Africa is a beautiful land, not unlike Provincetown in spots by the sea,
Groenewald says, but it’s also a place where she sometimes worked with a revolver wrapped in her apron for fear of robbers with AK-47s. And it’s a country where opportunities for women are limited by tradition and chauvinistic attitudes.
For Groenewald, who is anxious to apply for citizenship when she becomes eligible in 2004, the United States may be the land of opportunity. And for many Cape Cod businesses, summer is the season of opportunity.
Some must make enough money in the 10 to 12 weeks of summer to last through the year. Everything rides on June, July and August, when millions of visitors pour onto the Cape. If a business cannot ride that wave, it might just wipe out on the rocks.
Groenewald opened her cafe in early May, but she considers everything before this weekend a warm-up. This is her first sample of summer. Will the customers walk through her door? Will they like her food? If she gets her wish, if dozens of hungry townies and tourists order her chicken sosatie or bobotie, can she keep up with the demanding pace?
Groenewald is talkative and outgoing, but she considers herself a private person, and now her dream is playing out in public, just off one of Cape Cod’s busiest streets.
“Everything I’ve worked for is in here. I’ve got $300 left in my savings account,” she says sitting behind a table she painted herself to save money. “You don’t often in life get to live out your dream. This is what I’ve been dreaming for so long. Now I have to go out and make it happen.”
Starting a new business is always risky, but Groenewald has advantages that should help her succeed, says John Burns, economic development program director for the Lower Cape Cod Community Development Corp.
Groenewald has experience. She was trained as a chef in South Africa and she ran her own restaurant in Cape Town for two years. She also worked in Provincetown, at the Dancing Lobster restaurant, for the last three years, learning to understand local trends and tastes.
New businesses face a lot of obstacles and have little margin for error, Burns says. There are some forces they cannot control – the weather, for one – but entrepreneurs can take steps to improve their chances.
Groenewald has done her homework, taking several business courses through the
development corporation, including its Business Builders series for entrepreneurs. She developed a business plan and projected cash flow – both moves that help a business anticipate trouble and head it off, says Burns.
Burns also thinks Groenewald’s personality will help. She’s friendly, but she’s also determined.
“A lot of people give up after the first bump they hit,” Burns says. “She’s going to have her share of problems, but she’ll weather them because that’s who she is.”
Sanette’s Karoo Kafe is tiny, only about 650 square feet, including the kitchen. Most customers will take their meals to go. There are only 10 seats. On nice days, customers can gather on a deck that runs alongside the space.
Groenewald’s personality is all over, from the signs out front to the food on the menu. She painted the two signs herself, saving $1,500. A grilled cheese sandwich is on the menu because it’s Groenewald’s favorite food. The chicken and mushroom pie is “comfort food” in South Africa.
It’s also her mother’s recipe.
After signing a lease March 1, Groenewald spent 13-hour days cleaning her new space, hauling in equipment, painting bright colors over the dark green, maroon and black. She still wants to hang paintings on the wall. She drove a 14-foot U-Haul through Boston alone to pick up her kitchen equipment and found herself thanking God for making her brave as well as crazy.
Still, Groenewald is anxious because her cafe isn’t yet running like “a well-oiled” machine. She’s been around enough kitchens to recognize the required demands and rhythm, but she knows she’s not there yet.
She wonders if she will find enough employees. So far she’s relied on friends like Richard Adami, who helps in the kitchen, and Pat Medina, who does a little bit of everything from bookkeeping to working the counter. Groenewald knows she will need more help as the summer builds.
“This place is still a work in progress,” she says.
Cooking is Groenewald’s passion, “my painting,” she says, and she loves to watch the faces of her customers as they sample her food. She will need a lot of those customers, an average of 200 per day in July and August, fewer in the quiet months.
If she does that, she can pay her bills, including $19,000 a year in rent, which must be paid in full before the middle of July, and more than $400 per month in a loan payment (not including her credit cards). It should also allow her to draw $1,500 per month for herself. The restaurant will be open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. this summer. She expects to work 15 hours a day. At that pace, she’ll earn about $3.50 per hour.
Groenewald thinks she has the right idea, the training, the experience, the right place, but she doesn’t know for sure. Her venture could be a huge success or a bust.
“I guess,” she says, “that’s part of what makes it so exciting.”