Summer survivor Cape Cod Times (Hyannis, MA) – Tuesday, September 7, 2004

Summer survivor
Cape Cod Times (Hyannis, MA) – Tuesday, September 7, 2004
Author: CONOR BERRY

PROVINCETOWN – With the sun darting in and out of clouds and the lunch rush over, Sanette Groenewald takes a short break before the dinner rush at her small
Commercial Street restaurant.

Although Groenewald, owner and founder of Sanette’s Karoo Kafe, appears tanned and rested, looks can be deceiving.

She works marathon hours during the summer, so taking a respite on an early August day is rare for this no-nonsense entrepreneur determined to make it in an industry with high turnover and failure rates.

Like many local restaurateurs, she sacrifices her personal life in the summer, when most Cape and islands businesses have to earn the bulk of their annual income.

Specializing in South African, Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine, Karoo debuted on Memorial Day weekend 2002. Since then, the restaurant has survived two lackluster tourist seasons and is nearing the end of its third summer. It hasn’t been an easy ride. Around 80 percent of small businesses don’t make it past five years, according to estimates by the Service Corps of Retired Executives, a volunteer group that counsels small businesses.

Groenewald works virtually around the clock during the so-called season – roughly Memorial Day through Labor Day. She has spent just three days away from the cafe since mid-May. This summer, daily hours are from 11 a.m. to about 9:30 p.m. or later depending on the crowds. 

Despite the long hours, her anxiety over running a small business has subsided somewhat despite the vagaries of diners’ palates, weather and the economy. Groenewald now knows how better to gauge her business cycle, making adjustments wherever and whenever necessary. Knowing the cadence of her customers and keeping up with industry trends has also helped.

She is so confident of her own success that she recently signed a five-year lease
for her 650-square-foot space on Commercial Street.

Groenewald is determined to make it work. The plucky 37-year-old, who grew up
outside Cape Town, has poured gallons of sweat and tears into the cafe, not to
mention her life savings. It took about $60,000 to get started, including $12,000 of her own money. Groenewald borrowed the balance. There’s simply no room for failure.

“I’m too stubborn to quit,” she says.

Since opening three summers’ ago, much has changed at tiny Karoo, which could aptly be named the Little Cafe that Could:

Groenewald has incorporated the business;

The cafe’s rent jumped from $19,000 to $22,000, and must be paid in full by mid-July.

Groenewald launched her own product line, Karoo Foods, featuring homemade bottled sauces;

She has increased the cafe’s inventory of South African wares (candies, teas and
coffees) and also sells a variety of Putumayo World Music CDs by African, Latin
American, Middle Eastern and Afro-Caribbean artists.

The cafe made the Zagat restaurant guide and is now open from March until Thanksgiving;

Seating has been expanded from 10 to 16 tables.

Most of her original staff is still with her, though she’s currently down a person
in the kitchen.

The menu remains eclectic, featuring everything from high-protein tofu items to
vegetarian dishes, falafel, couscous, ostrich, wild boar sausage, salads and curried
chicken salad. There’s also smoked salmon, spinach and feta pies, and plenty of
spicy and milder African and Middle Eastern dishes.

The less adventurous can order tuna salad, grilled cheese and other American fare.

“It’s working, so I just need to find the exact avenues in which to grow,”
Groenewald says. She thinks there’s plenty of room to expand her product line and increase her inventory of South African items. And she’s attracting a clientele.

“To become an established place, where people keep on coming back to you, you can’t just do a three-year gig,” she says.

“During the summer, yeah, it’s tourists. But it’s tourists that I’ve known for three
years, and now they bring the friends and the family and the kids will bring their
parents, so that’s really nice.

“And then there’s a lot of new people that (say), ‘South African food? Never had it. Must try.’”

The exposure of the Cape Cod Times series as well as favorable write-ups in Yankee Magazine and The Boston Globe have helped business. And so has her increased experience.

“Opening this year was so easy. You’ve got everything down,” she says.

She can now gauge such variables as rent, gas and electricity, which are “pretty
much a constant” though costs have risen since she opened in 2002.

Food prices have spiked, too, including the cost of chicken, now around $2.40 a
pound. She has had to raise the price of a chicken sandwich from $6.95 to $7.25.

“Chicken prices just went nuts,” she says.

However, this is the first year Groenewald has put herself on the payroll, “so I’m
getting a little bit of money.”

How much is a “little bit?” Between $4 and $5 an hour.

Operating in a tourism economy has its ups and downs, with variables such as the
national economy and even the local weather forecast affecting the performance of a business. And, of course, in this age of heightened security concerns, many
Americans are not venturing as far from home as they did in the pre-9/11 world.

At Karoo, this July was down from last year, while June was a little better than the year before. June 2003, one of the rainiest on record on the Cape, was a virtual washout for many local businesses.

Despite better weather this summer, it’s still been rough, says Groenewald.

“I’m getting a good amount of traffic, but the amount of people in town is less, so, of course, the portion that you get is less,” she says.

Compared to some local establishments, Karoo appears to be ahead of the game.

“There’s a lot of places that are talking about being 30 to 35 percent down,” she
says, “so as long as I can hold up with last year, I’m doing good.”

She wonders if higher accommodation rates and stipulations such as five-night
minimums might be encouraging more day-trippers than overnight visitors. That hurts her nighttime business.

And, the Cape’s traditional three-month-long season is somewhat of a myth.

“Basically, it’s down to mid-July till Labor Day,” she says. “They always say,
‘Yeah, you’ve got three months to make a year’s money in,’ but you really don’t. You have August and half of July. Once Labor Day comes, it switches off.”

The spring is generally lousy, too.

“April, May – you don’t make any money,” Groenewald says. She doesn’t usually begin to turn a profit until August.

The restaurant can serve up to 240 meals on a midsummer’s day, but by early
September “you’re down to 85 and you maybe break 100 over the weekends again.”

The so-called shoulder season in the spring and fall “is gone,” she says, yet she
remains open anyway.

“Advertising,” she says, explaining why it’s worth staying open even if business is
slow. “That’s the time you feed the locals. … It’s an investment that pays off in
the long run.”

Karoo’s line of sauces and other retail items have helped keep the cafe on par with last year. She hopes to increase business with the help of the Internet.

She started bottling her own sauces last summer after receiving numerous requests from customers. Today, chutneys, hot sauces and perri-perri, a South African barbecue sauce, are among her best-selling items.

“In the first year, people were like, ‘Could I just buy a soup cup of that? I need
to take this home,’” she says. “So, for the second year, I started putting it in a
bottle and it’s working great.”

The one thing Groenewald has not managed to gauge is the weather, though her
business does tend to benefit from the odd rainy day. But a month’s worth of rain, as was the case in June 2003, is definitely bad for business, she says. “Sunny weather is great, but if it’s too hot and humid you don’t do lunch,” she says.

The perfect day is cloudy with a slight drizzle.

It’s like being a farmer: “If the weather is not right, you don’t harvest,” she says.

The cafe is usually busy from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. By 3:30 p.m., it’s time to catch up on food prep and get ready for the dinner crowd. Families usually start arriving by 5 p.m., followed by pre- and post-show crowds, since Provincetown is home to numerous clubs and theaters.

As more people trickle in for dinner, Groenewald rises from a table in the cafe’s
African-themed dining room, replete with zebra-striped seats and assorted artifacts, and heads for the kitchen. It’s a small-but-clean space where she and an assistant cook prepare more than 220 meals on a busy day.

Groenewald is determined to make her business work, citing the strong work ethic she acquired from growing up in South Africa.

“There’s just no option to fail because I don’t have my family, you know? Nobody’s going to pick me up,” she says. “I’ve had winters here that I was hungry, (and) that’s enough motivation to keep you going.”

For her, the trials of running a business come down to a simple maxim: A person can either give up and say “please save me, or just do it.”

She chooses the latter.