The Gourmet Grocer is a pandemic success story – the transformation almost overnight of the popular Voodoo Lily restaurant in Birdhaven, Johannesburg, into a retail outlet selling an exciting and ever-growing range of artisanal, locally produced grocery products.
Restaurateur Larry Hodes, who revamped and relaunched Voodoo Lily in July last year, recognised the need and opportunity for a quick pivot into a new sector of the food business when certain lockdown restrictions were lifted, moving into level 4.
“It was May, and Mother’s Day was around the corner. My wife Annie and I decided to invite small local producers to sell their stock from our premises. We put out a request for interest on WhatsApp and Facebook, and the response was remarkable – many were suppliers to restaurants and markets who were battling loss of sales, and they leapt at the chance to be able to produce and sell again. Within 24 hours we had a grocer.”
Hodes adds, “Setting up and getting the Gourmet Grocer operating successfully has been the result of excellent collaborative effort with local small suppliers. Since the start, over 90% of the Gourmet Grocer’s suppliers have been small businesses, and supporting SMEs will continue to be key in our evolving business model.”
The Gourmet Grocer has fast become a hub in Birdhaven’s village-feel community, and is steadily adjusting its range of products and suppliers according to growing demand.
Hodes has created what he describes as “a place of theatre” in the store, while the Voodoo Lily restaurant continues as before at outside tables. “We have regular customers who come back again and again, to buy their favourite food items or to see what’s new.” On entry into the store on a weekend, customers come face-to-face with ice cream being freshly made, then on to the deli where a French rotisserie prepares chipotle-butter-basted free-range chickens. The winery offers a collection of “great” wines, beers, gins and whiskies; the bakery, a tempting selection of fresh baked goods; and the “pantry”, a wide range of non-perishable goods.
The next aromatic treat is the brand new Coffefe Coffee Roastery, a collaboration between Hodes and coffee aficionado and supplier, Marco da Silva, which offers a range of “unpretentious and unapologetic” options in sustainably and ethically sourced coffee products, and has on hand, a roaster and barista who ensure a delicious and down-to-earth coffee experience served with more than a hint of humour.
Hodes says the evolution of the Gourmet Grocer and its different offerings is proving to be a win-win situation for the suppliers and the store, and has set the way forward for his business.
He knows and understands the local community, having owned and operated restaurants in the area for some years – first Arbour Café and more recently Voodoo Lily – and is deeply appreciative of the loyalty that the community shows to local small businesses. “Our customers are delighted with the new range of quality and often-unusual products in their area, so even as lockdown levels end, we will continue with a hybrid of the Gourmet Grocer and the restaurant.”
Also launched by Hodes in March was The Dark Kitchen – the first in Johannesburg. The dark kitchen concept, also known as ghost or cloud kitchens, are delivery-only restaurants that provide at-home diners with restaurant-quality food prepared in an industrial kitchen.
Hodes believes that “in times of crisis, the worst thing you can do is nothing. Even if you’re not sure what success you will have, it’s worth going for it – with a positive mindset – no matter how tough it is to keep going. Things will get better. We were not sure about joining the retailing sector, but we have done it and we’re overwhelmed at the success of it.”
For more information on the Gourmet Grocer, visit www.facebook.com/voodoolilycafe