Lucy Markewicz is in front of her laptop at a table at the Freedom Café preparing for the day. All around her breakfasts and cappuccinos are being despatched from the kitchen – an operation that runs on well-oiled wheels to say the least.
Primrose is being groomed by Lucy to take over ‘front of house’ at the trendy and popular restaurant that has become her signature, allowing Lucy to lead from behind the scenes and freeing her up to pursue her many other foodie business ideas.
“You can’t do everything at once, it just doesn’t work,” she says.
Yet, Lucy manages to keep an almost unbelievable number of balls in the air at the same time. Her two main businesses are Freedom Café and Lucy’s Cake Lab. Her online bakery is the first of its kind in Durban. Then there’s her most recent enterprise, Renegade Kitchen, which takes mobile food to a whole new level with the advent of pop up restaurants. Every now and again, she also finds time to consult to restaurants and write about food. On top of all that, she’s a hands on single mother.
She says she is neither a chef not a cook, neither a caterer nor a restaurateur. Instead she gives herself the rather apt title of culinary entrepreneur.
“I’m just a foodie who has made it into a business. This stretches from canapés and high teas and baking to breakfast, lunch and dinner to eventing and functions. It’s very broad which is why I like the term culinary entrepreneur rather than just chef of cook. Those are quite boxed in and restrictive,” she explains.
On the culinary side, Lucy is self-taught and, while she has learnt from many chefs along the way, she’s a strong believer in experimentation and creativity. Food, she says, needs to be both adventurous and accessible. She’s come up with some bold combinations and courageous constructions, many based on elevating South Africa’s traditional foods to a new level. Some have worked better than others. Many – like her Nicoise Salmon Gravalax and her rainbow layer cakes – are staples on the Freedom Café Menu.
She says she started out just learning to cook and bake with her ex-husband, soon realising that she had a passion for it, especially on the baking side.
This probably dates back to her childhood. “I’ll never forget the birthday cakes my mum used to make for my sister and me. They were always hand crafted as per our requests or my mum’s latest find in her favourite magazine. Those handmade cakes were her special gift to us – a slice of love straight from the heart!”
As an adult baker, she not only indulged her creative side but also began to pay attention to detail. Overall, she began following new trends, trying out different techniques and investigating new ideas.
While “trying get all the details together”, she was baking for her patisserie stall at Shongweni Farmers Market. It was the very early days – long before there were even proper stalls and permanent structures. She was one of just two dozen stall holders.
“I started off wanting to see whether I could do this as a full time gig. I left my job as a sales manager and started baking for the farmers market to see whether I could bake on demand and if I still enjoyed it when it became a job. We got to the point where we were looking for a venue to start up a coffee shop. At the time, my husband wanted to give me the opportunity to live my dream. I didn’t want to get to the age of 40 and realise I hadn’t done anything and had been working in a job in which I’d not been happy,” she recalls.
Within six months, they found the right venue in Kloof (where the Bellevue Café is now located) and started Venille in May 2004 along with a partner. It was a truly courageous step as Lucy did not have any experience in the restaurant industry and had never worked in one except as a bar tender.
This was to prove a very steep learning curve during the six years that she was at the helm.
She started Lucy’s Cake Shop alongside Venille as a patisserie in 2007.
When the business was in its sixth year, a massive expansion at roughly the same time as her pregnancy proved the breaking point. “The restaurant industry is not the easiest, especially without a support structure. My marriage fell apart as the baby was born. It was just a case of too much on the go.
“I think that the decisions you make have a lot to do with (what happens) and I tend to take on more than I can chew. I was over extended and something had to give. So the lesson is try to make sure that you don’t do that. It isn’t easy for someone who is passionate about what they do. You just want to keep going and doing more. “
Venille closed and, bruised and burnt out, Lucy took a couple of years off and worked as a consultant to restaurants and delis while she soul searched what she really wanted to do next.
She smiles ruefully as she remembers that she vowed never to bake another cake in her life. “Then, a year into my consulting, I started getting requests for cakes and started doing lot more baking from home. That’s how Lucy’s Cake shop started up again. After about two years, we moved to Florida road above Spiga and changed the name to Cake Lab with the idea of having my on line store. Cake Lab is about creating your own cakes. It is built on experimental baking. I’m not your usual baker. I haven’t done any of the training or the courses. I’ve learnt everything I know through friends, customers, fellow bakers and colleagues in the industry.”
The opportunity to take over Freedom Café was just around the corner. Whilst consulting, she met Neil Rouke, from the Concierge Hotel. He discussed unbundling Freedom Café from the hotel and giving it to Lucy to run as a completely separate business.
“Freedom was the next chapter in my life just as much as it was a new opportunity. When I looked at what it offered and what it was in terms of its personality – and I believe that businesses have personalities – and looked at my style and what I was doing from a food perspective, I really identified with it. From a look and feel perspective. I felt it was something that matched where I was personally at that point in time,” she says.
Taking over an existing business rather than starting from scratch was a new experience. “It had its own identity so it was very interesting coming in and not wanting to take too much of that away, keeping it as a brand but adding my own energy and stamp. So, I kept quite a bit but also brought a fresh and new feel to the food. I kept a lot of the favourite items on the menu (like the scrambled eggs for which Freedom Café is known, the eggs benedict and the liver pate) but saw it as a nice opportunity to look at local and to bring in a local aesthetic, finding new plays on traditional foods that made them more interesting, trendy and contemporary. “
This time round, she has also kept her businesses completely separate – although the Cake Lab does supply Freedom Café which offers some benefits.
The two businesses also have completely different personalities, allowing her to explore different sides of her professional character. “The cake business is prettier, cleaner and simpler. I play with different techniques and get to be a little more girly. On the restaurant side, although you can still put a lot of creativity in, it’s about giving the customer what he wants and making sure you can do it at speed. The cake business lets you take your time and set the parameters yourself. In terms of the restaurant, when you’ve designed a menu, it’s there for a couple of months. With cakes, you are making a different one every week.”
So where does Renegade Kitchen fit into the mix? It is probably somewhere in between, she suggests. Here, she says she is able to “play more” with details while exploring some “slightly more selfish” ideas.
A pop up restaurant comes with a specific take-it-or-leave-it offering which contrasts with having to pander to clients requirements and tastes in an established eatery, she goes on to explain. “A friend of mine and I were looking to get into pop up restaurants and looking for a name that encompassed this – something that was a little more about pushing the boundaries, almost street foodie and grungy. We were really just looking at different things, at being the rebels. That is another different element to my personality.”
But this is also where she knew she had to pace herself as, as a single mother, she couldn’t throw herself into a third business. The concept of a pop up restaurant was perfect. “I can fit it into what I’m doing. This is something I want to make more of a niche so that I am doing things when I want to do them rather than when people want them done.”
It took about six months before idea became a reality. Renegade Kitchen’s first pop up restaurant was in Morrison Street for the International Union of Architects’ Conference. At that point, the building at 9 Morrison Street was no more than a shell and she had to set up her kitchen to serve both conference delegates and locals. The atmosphere was incredible, she remembers. It proved a huge success.
Since then, Lucy has done some smaller versions for private functions as well as a pop up restaurant at the jazz club, the Chairman, on the Point. “It was quite an interesting and challenging experience because the timing was quite different. You only started to serve food from nine or 10 in evening and kept going until one or two in the morning. I wasn’t there all the time and we had staff that would run into the night.”
To some extent it was a restaurant trial and the Chairman has since introduced a food offering, suggesting an interesting way for new restaurants to test the waters.
Lucy stresses that she is now looking forward to seeing Primrose become the face of Freedom Café. “It was always my dream to have people working for my business that have shares in it. It’s not just about me making the money and having the fun. I like to have people in my business that are passionate about what they doing and want to make it a career rather than just a means to an end. My vision is to have people that I can take with me on my journey forward.”
But disengaging won’t be easy. “In this industry, people want a face. I’ve realised that, in my first bus, I was that face. I was always there, I never left and knew everyone. But I burnt out and I realise that that is not really what I want right now. I want to be more on the creative side doing the rest development coming up with the concepts,” she admits.
That’s not to say that she won’t remain directly involved in Freedom Café. Using the example of a farmer who never spends time on his farm and ends up with very skinny cows, she says being present within one’s business is a daily necessity. But, she adds, it also makes sense to have sufficient controls in place and trustworthy staff to ensure that you can also spend time away from your business.
Lucy says she would like to focus more on the Cake Lab and get the bespoke and couture cake side doing really well. She also envisages ramping up her creativity and doing more pop up restaurants as well as writing a blog for Renegade Kitchen. The ideal day would be checking in at the Cake Lab and then spending a few hours at Freedom Café before moving on to develop new recipes, source the all-important fresh, quality ingredients that she swears by and developing new business opportunities.
“That part hasn’t happened just yet – but it’s a work in progress so we’re getting there,” she smiles.
On running a foodie business Durban …
What are the challenges at present?
In Durban, we just don’t have the numbers. I think food is definitely a numbers game. It’s about numbers and spend. In Cape Town and Joburg, you have higher incomes so more people can spend money on eating out.
You’ve got to look at the economy and how you can respond to it and how you change your business to work with it rather than to fight it. You need to look at how people are eating and what and why they’re eating the way they are. You need to keep these in mind when you design menus and arrange events.
What makes Durban unique?
Because Durban has such an amazing outdoor life with its beaches and the closeness of the game parks in KwaZulu-Natal, it has become more of a destination. Durban has had a lot of exposure of late. We have been voted one of the best places to go in the world by CNN. We’ve made it on to some of the top 10 and 20 lists as a holiday destination. We really have come into our own.
We have uniqueness. Although we are very cosmopolitan, there’s realness and a rawness which you don’t find in Cape Town. Durban still has a down to earth aspect with which people identify a lot more these days. The trend globally is about going back to your roots – being more crafty, slowing things down, not surrounding yourself with technology.
What’s the eating vibe?
Durban is a very conservative market that lags the far more adventurous Cape Town. But something’s changing. We’ve got a really dynamic and creative youth in Durban, so you’re finding a real kind of amazing underground vibe. We’ve cracked the surface (thanks to a) band of people who are making things happen. Young people are being exposed to a lot more so there’s definite change.
Afro’s Chicken, ZAK & Tonic, Funny Bunny – a lot of people are doing a lot of good for the food industry in our city. I also think that the coffee culture has really taken off in Durban. Yes, it did start off in Cape Town and Joburg but Durban has really embraced it and we’ve got some great roasters here now. People don’t breakfast anymore, they coffee –so there’s a big shift in how people are looking at food.