Time to breathe Cape Cod Times (Hyannis, MA) – Sunday, September 15, 2002

Author: JACK PERRY

PROVINCETOWN – This spring Sanette Groenewald spent all $12,000 of her savings and borrowed another $41,000 to open her small cafe off Commercial Street.

Then she worked day and night to make it succeed.

“It’s like holding on for dear life on a wild horse,” Groenewald said this week about her first summer in business. “On some days it gallops in the right direction and everything is ideal. Sometimes, something spooks it and it gallops in a different direction you don’t expect, and you just hold on.”

Several times this summer, she had to grip the reigns tightly: when she parted ways with one of her cooks; when she had a dispute with a plumber; when somebody tampered with the natural gas tanks behind her cafe.

She had to hang on through much of July when business was slower than expected, and in August when she faced the opposite situation – so much business she had trouble keeping up.

A native of South Africa, Groenewald, 35, serves a mix of South African, Middle Eastern, Indian and traditional American food. Her cafe is tiny, only about 650 square feet including the kitchen, and has just 10 seats.

Overall, her summer was a success. Karoo Kafe fell about $600 under Groenewald’s projections in July, but it made $6,000 to $8,000 more than she expected in August.

“All in all, I know I’m really lucky and blessed with what happened this summer,”Groenewald said Tuesday afternoon, sitting on the deck of her cafe.

In opening a small business, Groenewald is fighting the odds. Eighty percent of small businesses don’t last five years, either because they fail or the owners move onto something else, according to estimates by the Service Corps of Retired Executives. Restaurants can be especially difficult.

Groenewald will stay open into December with reduced hours. She will return to her native South Africa for Christmas and reopen the cafe in January. She will spend much of the winter trying to improve her business and getting ready for the high season. She hopes her second summer will take her for a smoother ride through the wild world of business on Cape Cod.

Someday, she hopes to earn enough money to bring her parents to the United States to see the life she’s built here in the past seven years. She can’t afford that yet, but she expects her sister to return with her in January for a visit.

This summer has been a blur. Groenewald hired a staff. Most were strangers. Most of them became her friends. Now all but two are gone. She knows she couldn’t have chased her dream without their help.

“Saying good-bye was difficult,” Groenewald said. “You don’t know if you’re going to see them again.”

Now the cooler, slower days of September have replaced the hectic pace of August. Commercial Street is by no means empty, but it’s finally passable.

September has given Groenewald a welcome chance to rest and catch her breath, but she worries because business this month has been slower than she expected.

“I’m still in the race, but it’s starting to slow down a bit,” she said. “There’s still a lot that can go wrong. If September doesn’t improve, it may wipe out August.”

Before the season, she projected how many meals per day she needs to serve in order to keep ahead of her bills. Her projections call for 150 per day in September. So far, she’s not meeting that and she’s cutting staff hours to compensate.

Groenewald worked every day in August – 31 days without a break. She found herself crying in the kitchen sometimes because she was just so tired. Her typical day was 16 hours long. She paid herself $1,200 last month, or about $2.42 per hour.

One day, Groenewald thought she was having a heart attack. She felt sharp pain near her breastbone and shoulder. She took a break and finally the pain went away. She thinks that she had a hiatal hernia and figures that was her body telling her to ease up. She closed the first two days after Labor Day, the only time she could afford the break.

“I think I’ve pushed myself to the limit this summer,” she said. “At one point at the end of the summer, I said, ‘OK, I’m tired.’ I’ve always been too stubborn to admit I’m tired.”

Groenewald can’t afford to get sick. She doesn’t have health insurance.

Groenewald is an experienced chef. She took business courses through the Lower Cape Cod Community Development Corp. before opening Karoo, but she learned plenty this summer.

The toughest part was predicting how many people would step off Commercial Street, walk up her steps and order food. Predict correctly and she’d know how much food to prepare and how much staff to schedule. There were plenty of days when she erred either way: too much staff and too few customers, or too few staff to meet the demand.

The difference between busy and slow could be vast. On its busiest day last month, Karoo served 340 meals, 96 of them in one crazy 11/2-hour period. On its slowest day, the cafe served 98 meals all day.

Groenewald intentionally kept her prices under $12. She thinks that helped her succeed, given the state of the economy. Visitors to Provincetown were cautious about their spending this summer.

Low prices also mean tight margins and Groenewald knows she must take steps to boost her revenue. Her hands are also tied by her 10-person seating limit. She cannot add seats until her building is connected to the town sewage system, perhaps more than a year away.

Her rent is also scheduled to increase from $19,000 to $20,000 next year.

To squeeze more money from the small building, Groenewald plans to add higher-priced dinner specials to the menu.

She also wants to add a retail element, selling her sauces and rubs. She has already started selling Karoo Kafe T-shirts.

That’s a good idea, said John Burns, economic development director for the
development corporation. Karoo’s menu is unique and customers who’ve developed a taste for items such as Karoo’s peri-peri sauce will probably want to take some home.

Burns’ agency has kept in close touch with Groenewald this summer. In addition to taking the business courses it offers, Groenewald borrowed $24,000 from the agency to help get her business started.

The agency has a lot invested in Groenewald and sometimes she feels like its “poster child.” After David Willard, a vice president of Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank and the president of the development corporation, stopped in for lunch, he contacted Burns and relayed some suggestions for improving business.

Working too much this summer hampered Groenewald’s creativity, her productivity and her personal life. There was no time for friends, fishing, riding her motorcycle or watching a sunset. She hopes to get her life back next summer.

She plans to take off one day a week next summer. She would like to remove herself enough from the business so that she could leave it in somebody else’s hands for a day or two.

Last week, she finally went out to dinner. It was the first time she had sat down for a meal in three months.