Author: JACK PERRY
PROVINCETOWN – The black clouds hovering over Provincetown Tuesday morning promisehope and prosperity for cafe owner Sanette Groenewald.
Finally, after a long, dry patch of weather and of business at her Karoo Kafe, the sky is set to deliver the kind of day that Cape Cod restaurant owners solicit in prayers and see in dreams.
A cold front moves across Cape Cod Bay, pushing away the muggy heat that has hovered over Cape Cod for much of the summer, leaving a gift of refreshing air.
Hazy, hot and humid weather can prove too much of a good thing for Cape Cod’s tourist industry. Sure, it draws visitors like bees to honey, but an extended heat wave keeps them on the beach, off the streets and out of the shops.
It leaves them lethargic, cranky and too hot to eat lunch.
“Your lunch business bombs out big time,” Groenewald says as she sautes onions Tuesday morning. “This is a perfect food day.”
Karoo Kafe serves its mix of South African, Middle Eastern, Indian and traditional American food daily from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., but the days run much longer for Groenewald and some of her staff.
Groenewald’s day typically begins before 8 a.m., while Provincetown is still stretching its muscles and shaking the sleep from its eyes. Commercial Street is passable and relatively calm. Delivery trucks idle in front of restaurants. Joggers sweat through their morning workouts and tourists drinking coffee hustle for cover from a rain shower.
Preparation is the key for meeting the day’s demands. Groenewald and her prep cook, Marcella Korabova, a student from the Czech Republic, spend the morning chopping mushrooms, trimming chicken breasts, baking pie crusts. Groenewald has a long list of food to prepare, but she spends part of her time fretting over when her ingredients will be delivered.
Groenewald needs cabbage to finish her curried slaw. She needs more onions and garlic to complete several other dishes, such as her falafel and hummus, but the delivery is more than an hour late.
“It pushes everything back,” she says.
Shortly before 10 a.m., she calls the delivery company. In a calm but firm tone, she explains that she needs her deliveries by 8 or 8:30 a.m. and asks how she can be moved up on the schedule.
Struggling through her first season, Groenewald knows she can take nothing for granted. Hanging up, she says, “If you don’t throw a hissy fit, they just throw you to the end of the line.”
The trucks arrive a few minutes later, but now the first customers are also arriving. Two local restaurant workers grab breakfast-to-go before starting their shift. Groenewald and Korabova will now have to juggle the remaining prep work with customer orders.
Korabova has been a “blessing … an angel,” Groenewald says. Hungry for hours and money to send home, Korabova eagerly works double shifts. She gets angry on days when Groenewald tells her that she needs to go home and rest.
Korabova has helped bail out Groenewald after the first major staffing problem of Karoo ‘s season. Richard Adame, a cook, and Groenewald have parted ways a few weeks earlier.
Adame and Groenewald had been friends for several years. Adame has worked as a bartender in Provincetown, and has dreams of opening his own restaurant. To get a better understanding of kitchen operations, he had asked Groenewald for a job this spring.
Adame has had a busy summer. Working two full-time jobs, he was cooking days at Karoo and tending bar nights at Esther’s, another Provincetown restaurant.
Groenewald is reluctant to talk about it, but she believes Adame’s busy schedule interfered with his commitment to Karoo . Adame acknowledges his schedule was too full, and he needed to cut back. Their relationship in the kitchen suffered and so has their friendship. “It’s the last time I hire a friend,” says Groenewald. The cafe’s breakfast business has been slow this morning, as it has been most mornings. It’s a mixed blessing for Groenewald because it enables her and Korabova to concentrate on completing their prep work.
Around 11:30 a.m., employee Wendy Johnson suggests, “I’ll shake a leg.” Johnson means she will leave the cafe’s counter and try attracting customers on Commercial Street.
Karoo faces a challenge in its location. Its site is on Commercial Street, but the cafe itself is on the side of the building, off the street, and not easily noticeable to passersby.
Groenewald has painted a colorful sign, which is posted on the street. A flag from Groenewald’s native South Africa also beckons diners, but Commercial Street in the summer is a barrage of sites, sounds and smells. Groenewald knows it’s easy to get lost in the mix.
She asks the three employees who regularly work the counter – Johnson, Daniella Bonanno and Jodi Bromberg – to spend part of their shifts on the street.
With a stack of menus and a polished sales pitch, Johnson stands on the sidewalk, trying to make eye contact. “South African food with entrees for under $8,” she says.
By lunchtime, Commercial Street is a sea of people. Bicycles. Strollers. Cars can barely pass. Some people keep walking as if Johnson is trying to recruit them for a cult or sell them a used vacuum cleaner.
“When I first started barking, I used to shout,” Johnson explains. “Now I do it on an individual level.”
Her pitch works with a big family from Pennsylvania. Seven people. “A big score,” Johnson says.
Rick Borofski and his wife, Wendy, of Pittsburgh are visiting with their three children, Alexander, 9, Emma, 5 and Annie, 4. Wendy’s parents, Dave and Carol Hassler, are also vacationing with them.
The Borofskis and Hasslers have started their day on a whale watch, cut short because of rough seas. The same cold front that has helped Karoo has hurt other businesses. Another family inside the cafe, from Scotland, have been on a sailing trip that got washed out.
The Borofskis and Hasslers fill six small tables. With another family inside, it doesn’t take long for the cafe to fill up. Rick Borofski is an easy-going guy who eats part of his meal standing up and doesn’t seem to mind. “The food’s good,” he
says, munching on a lobster roll.
The town limits Karoo Kafe to just 10 seats because it doesn’t want to overtax the septic system. Although it’s small, the restaurant could accommodate at least twice that on sunny days if chairs could be placed both inside and outside on the deck.
A bench along the deck can accommodate a few more people, but a couple of rain showers Tuesday morning have left it wet so most customers are trying to find seats inside.
Several people walk up to the cafe, see that chairs are unavailable, turn and leave. Groenewald hopes to add seats next year, after the building she leases hooks up to the town sewer system.
By 12:30, the restaurant is humming. The line for ordering is seven deep. People are sitting at all the tables. The deck has dried out enough for some people to grab seats on the bench.
In the kitchen, Groenewald and Korabova work fast and efficiently. The kitchen is just 108 square feet, but they never seem to get in each other’s way. The preparation is paying off. It takes Groenewald or Korbova just seven to eight minutes to send out each order.
Volume is important, Groenewald’s margins are tight. She figures she makes about 10 cents on the dollar. “You have to turn the tables quickly,” she explains.
Groenewald can never concentrate exclusively on cooking. She must keep an eye on the front of the restaurant, too. Sometimes she takes orders, then runs back to the kitchen to cook. Sometimes she delivers meals herself, hurrying out of the kitchen through a side door and onto the deck.
Noticing the crowd out front, Groenewald calls upstairs to employee Pat Medina. Medina is the bookkeeper and a jack-of-all-trades. When it gets busy, she drops her paperwork and helps downstairs. It’s busy. Medina comes down.
In the thick pace, a little blonde girl spills hot chowder on her foot. She screams. The two women accompanying her scurry to comfort her and take her to the bathroom to run cold water over her foot. Medina rushes for ice. A half-hour later, with the girl’s blistered foot in a bandage, all seems better, if not perfect with the world.
The little girl, wearing sunglasses, munches on a grilled cheese sandwich.
The lunch rush continues until about 2:30 p.m. Groenewald and Korabova, both working double shifts, begin preparing for dinner.
The long shift is typical for Groenewald. She’s put a lot of effort into her dream and while her cafe seems to be a hit, it hasn’t yet started paying off. She hopes the business turned a corner toward profitablilty in July. Karoo lost $17,000 in May, the first month it was open. It lost $4,000 in June, but made $6,000 in July. Groenewald needs another $11,000 profit this year to break even.
Groenewald hadn’t planned to pay herself much, but it’s been even less than she expected. She makes far less per hour than any of her employees, less than minimum wage. Groenewald paid herself $1,200 last month. Working more than 100 hours per week, she’s earning less than $3 per hour.
At about 3 p.m., Petr Koranda, a prep cook, shows up for his evening shift. “Oh, boy, we’re ready for you,” Groenewald says. Koranda has to help prepare for the dinner crowd.
Koranda, also from the Czech Republic, is pleased that he has finally moved into a house. Sunday has been his first night in a real bed since his arrival; he lived the first month in a campground.
Tuesday, lunch has been busy at Karoo . The cafe has served more than 100 meals. In making projections for her business plan, Groenewald had determined she would have
to serve 200 meals per day in July and August. This day, she’s already more than
half way there.
At 3 p.m. Daniella Bonanno relieves Johnson on the counter. The restaurant is quiet and the staff catches its breath. A nice breeze blows across the deck. Ella Fitzgerald plays on the stereo. Johnson thinks its a “perfect time for Ella.”
Karoo continues to serve food, but business probably won’t pick up again until after 5 p.m. Groenewald says this period, from 3 to 5 p.m., is ice cream time for tourists.
By contrast, Commercial Street is a mob scene. Families in Cape Cod T-shirts take in the sights and sounds. Baby strollers are pushed by couples of men and women; women and women; men and men. A shirtless man with pierced nipples holds hands with another man as he walks through the crowd.
Near MacMillan Wharf, tourists take turns taking pictures. Children fresh from the Whydah Pirate Museum walk past with pirate swords and hats. An older man gently wipes ice cream from the face of his disabled grown son.
Provincetown Harbor is sparkling blue. The tide is out revealing the dark edges of
the beach. A group of children plays what appears to be a combination of soccer and
baseball with long sticks.
By 5:45 p.m, back at Karoo Kafe, Bonanno has moved the candles on the tables
outside. The cafe takes on a slightly different feel at night. “It makes it feel
cozy,” she says.
Bonano spends part of her time behind the counter explaining the unique foods on Karoo ‘s menu. “Peri-peri” is a South African barbecue sauce, she explains to one customer. It’s hard to tell whether he’s disappointed or relieved when she explains that Karoo ‘s lobster roll is a typical lobster roll – lobster and mayonnaise.
The evening builds slowly with a mix of townies and tourists stopping by for takeout or dinner on the deck, which is buffeted by a comfortable breeze that hints of fall.
The energy picks up when Toni Hadi arrives shortly before 7 p.m. Hadi, a retired school principal wearing a bright yellow dress and bright lipstick, is planning a big night, but she’s a little miffed.
“I thought they were going to reserve some tables,” she says, carrying a gift. She is hosting a 40th birthday party for her friend, Ana Carter.
Groenewald comes out from the kitchen to resolve the problem. “I only have 10 seats,” she explains. Groenewald seems to know half of her customers, including Hadi and Carter.
Hadi stakes out one table. When another opens up, the problem solves itself. Carter, a waitress at the Crown and Anchor, seems pleasantly surprised when she arrives to find a group of friends.
“We’re all past 40 and happy she finally got there,” Hadi explains.
Bonanno has been busy taking orders and delivering food, but she has received some help from a beautiful little girl named Alyssa, who has been eating with her grandparents, Larry Mahan and Tom Hochard.
Alyssa, who has celebrated her own 5th birthday on Tuesday, has been swimming all day and rests her head on the table before thoughts of waitressing perk her up. She helps Bonanno deliver Hadi’s peri-peri chicken wings on rice.
Hochard, who owns a landscaping company, has an interesting business relationship with Groenewald. He barters for food in exchange for taking care of her plants.
He has provided her with potted plants of zebra grass, red petunias, and lobelia, which has blue flowers. He wants the plantings to be consistent with Karoo ‘s African theme and match the color of her sign.
Hochard was a lawyer for a Manhattan firm before deciding to make a change. “I was just burnt out,” he says. “I decided to do what I loved.”
The name of his business: A New Leaf Landscaping.
By 8:50 p.m., Groenewald is sitting in the kitchen doorway, compiling a list of food she must prepare for the next day. Fortunately, the refrigerator is right next to her, so she can look inside and survey what she needs. She’s tired and doesn’t want to stand up.
A family huddled in sweatshirts, eats on the deck. A lone man reads by candlelight, eating his soup. A little girl in a lifeguard sweatshirt asks Bonanno for vinegar for her fries.
Emily Whiting and Christa Torrens are the last customers of the day. They’re from Cambridge and visit Provincetown two to three times a year.
A few minutes before 9 p.m., Groenewald takes down her “open” sign and removes the South African flag hanging on Commercial Street. It’s been a good day, thanks in big part to the breezy weather. With a kitchen to clean, Groenewald still has hours to go before she sleeps.
“This is more or less what I expected July and August would be like,” Groenewald says, after serving 230 meals. “Hopefully it will stay cool for a while.”
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. This is the fourth installment.