Within the past two weeks restaurant couple Camil and Ingrid Haas have closed down their well-known Bouillabaisse restaurant on the main road of Franschhoek, and have left Camil’s, their restaurant in the Cape Royale Luxury Hotel carrying Camil’s name.  While this is sad news for Camil’s followers, it is an useful case study of restaurant management.

Background: Ten years ago Camil and Ingrid came to South Africa (they have just celebrated this anniversary), and settled in the gourmet village of Franschhoek.   They set up a guest house in an old mission station on Akademie Street, and called it Klein Oliphantshoek, the latter part of the name once having been the name of the village.   Camil set up a kitchen in the guest house, and it became renowned for its excellent tasting menus, long before such had become fashionable.  Ingrid would pair and pour the wines, mainly from Franschhoek, and they had a perfect highly regarded business.

Lessons in restaurant management

1.  Do not over-extend yourself/Small is Beautiful

When the Haas’ opened Bouillabaisse on the main road about four years ago, it was meant to be a day-time Oyster and Champagne Bar, for the day-trippers coming to Franschhoek, and at night (mainly over weekends) Camil would be in the Klein Oliphantshoek kitchen.   Bouillabaisse took off, and it was decided to do dinners as well.   A great concept, but Camil had the misfortune that a number of his new chefs at Bouillabaisse walked out in the opening month (this is a Franschhoek affliction all players in the hospitality industry have to deal with in the village), it was rumoured at the time.   This meant that he had to spread himself thin, being at two locations at the same time.  End result: the dinners at Klein Oliphantshoek were closed down, and the guest house was sold about a year later.

2.   Be nice to patrons

The stress of the new Bouillabaisse venture seemed to have gotten to Ingrid Haas in particular, and she was very prescriptive to the locals and tourists that supported the tiny restaurant – one could not combine or mix and match between dishes off their tapas-style menu, one could not book outside tables, and the rules seemed quite heavy, as was her attitude.  In early days, on a Valentine’s Day, when we sat at a (seemingly) unreserved table outside – that was the rule – we were rudely sent away, saying the table was booked, without it having a Reserved sign on it.  I stayed away for a few months after that, but started going back, and went to the Green Point restaurants regularly thereafter.  I have progressed to hugs and kisses now!

3.  Choose a pronounceable name

Bouillabaisse is a fun name, and reflects Camil’s love for fish cooking.  But, for locals, and guest house staff having to make bookings for guests for dinner, it was a nightmare, meaning that staff chose not to mention that restaurant as one of the options to guests, because they could not pronounce its name.

4.  Be a big fish in a small pond

We are all tempted, present company included, to expand the business.   Not having learnt from the first problems in having two restaurants, the Haas couple opened up a Bouillabaisse in The Rockwell building in Green Point, a beautifully appointed restaurant with fishy decor, in January 2009.  Not satisfied with one restaurant only, they opened a restaurant for Ingrid, called Crepe Suzette, in a French Cafe style, next door to Bouillabaisse.   It was beautiful, unique, and affordable.  Franschhoek may have 25 restaurants, but Cape Town has hundreds, if not more.  It was a whole new ballpark to start operating in a city in which the Haas couple was reasonably unknown. (Matthew Gordon, by contrast, keeps opening new restaurants in Franschhoek, having interests in four establishments already, a different, very focused, approach to location choice).

5.   Location, location, location

The Rockwell is set off Somerset Road, opposite the new Cape Quarter as the crow flies, but the building has no branding on the outside, so it is not known nor visible to Capetonians.  The brainchild of the infamous Conrad Gallagher, the ground floor of The Rockwell was conceptualised by him as an indoor epicurean market, operating 7 days a week, of purveyors of organic foods and wines, which was an outstanding concept.  Bouillabaisse, Crepe Suzette and two other restaurants were to be part of the concept.  Gallagher ran away from Cape Town under a cloud of debt, no other food shop or restaurant opened, two decor shops did, but no one could see Bouillabaisse and Crepe Suzette hidden in The Rockwell.   At that time Somerset Road in Green Point was a nightmare area to be avoided, given the building work happening at the Cape Quarter.   The bite of the recession was worse than anyone had expected, and this affected business too.

6.   Branding is key

Suddenly it was announced last September that Bouillabaisse and Crepe Suzette had closed down in The Rockwell, and were re-opening elsewhere.  The new location was kept secret until two months later, when they opened in the Cape Royale Luxury Hotel on Main Road in Green Point, but…… as a newly named Camil’s and Ci Casa.  This meant they had to start branding all over again.   From a brand perspective, throwing away a respected brand name Bouillabaisse, while still operating with this brand name in Franschhoek, was not understandable.  Further, Camil Haas is not well-known as a chef in Cape Town, and opening under his own name was a big risk.   Camil’s menu was very different to that of Bouillabaisse, described in a review on this blog as not conventional.   The new location worked better, in that guests staying in the Cape Royale Luxury Hotel, as well as locals, were better able to see and support the new restaurants.  The decor of Camil’s was not to the liking of everyone.  Establishing three new brands, as well as the move of a known Franschhoek brand to Cape Town in the space of a year, would have challenged even the most experienced marketing expert. (In a desperate attempt to attract attention to Bouillabaisse in Franschhoek, the restaurant exterior was recently painted in a most shrill purple, quite unbefitting of the quality of the restaurant).

7.  Be careful about who you get into bed with!

I was surprised when I heard that the Haas couple had gone into a partnership with Jochen Buechel, previous owner of the Place on the Bay in Camps Bay and a property developer, not that I had heard anything untoward about him (although a Google search indicated a Noseweekexpose about a controversial development in Sea Point in 2006), but because I could not see the personalities jelling.   The Buechels had been regular clients of Bouillabaisse in Franschhoek, and are well connected in Cape Town, and the Camil’s opening function in November, co-ordinated by their PRO Dagmar Schumacher, saw dignitaries such as Helen Zille attend (my invitation, with those for other food writers, had been sent, but had got lost in the post, we were told!).   After writing the review after a visit soon after the opening of Camil’s, during which Ingrid had told me that she and Camil were running the operational side of the restaurant, and that the Buechels were doing the marketing, I received a call from Jochen Buechel, asking me to keep his involvement in the restaurant low key.  I did not alter my review.

“Hearing between the lines”, if there is such an expression, it would appear that the relationship between the Haas couple and the Buechels has broken down, and this may have led to Camil Haas’ departure from his restaurant.  The staff remain, and Buechel now is the full owner of the restaurant (or maybe was that anyway?).  Camil and Ingrid Haas are said to have returned to Franschhoek.

POSTSCRIPT 31/5:  Whilst having a cappuccino at Camil’s today, Jochen Buechel asked to speak to me on the phone, to let me know that the Sea Point development referred to in Noseweek is one of the most successful developments in Sea Point.   He was very frank in answering my questions about the reasons for the breakdown, and it appears that Camil was inflexible about his menu items – Camil liked the “differentness” of his menu items, while Buechel wanted a menu that would make patrons come to the restaurant once or twice a week, and not once or twice a month, as was the case.   Buechel regards Camil highly, and said that he is “a fantastic pianist but not able to conduct the orchestra”.    He also indicated that whatever money Bouillabaisse was making in Franschhoek in summer would be lost covering expenses in winter, probably a common curse of the hospitality industry.   Camil’s menu will change tomorrow, being simplified by the General Manager and Head Chef Werner, who has been at Bouillabaisse and Camil’s in Cape Town since the beginning.  It is likely that the creperie Ci Casa will be incorporated into the Camil’s menu, and that the Ci Casa restaurant name will be dropped.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com