Tag Archives: The Franschhoek Month

Hotel Review: Santé Hotel and Wellness Centre still a sleeping beauty, not awake yet!

Santé means health in French.  While it may be built in the Tuscan style, Santé is anything but healthy, and has a long way to go to reach the level it once had when it opened six or so years ago.   It is badly maintained and managed, and should not have opened so early, a mere two months ago, before achieving its 5-star grading it once had.

Let me start at the beginning.  Santé was the dream of Eduard du Plessis and his then partner in a design agency KSDP Pentagraph.  They sold their agency to the largest London-based design agency, and it was the money they made that led to the development of the “160 hectare working wine estate”, consisting of a 10-bedroom Manor House, 39 Spa Suites (different buildings with suites in each), and privately-owned homes, which were to be rented out to give the owners rental income.  Southern Sun was awarded the contract to run the hotel at that time, and it was professionally run, and its Walter Battiss collection, the private property of Du Plessis, lent it class and modernity.  It had an outstanding Spa, which Conde Nast voted as one of the Top 3 in the world in 2006.

Du Plessis and his partners sold Santé to Fidentia, whose Arthur Brown is facing fraud charges.  When he was arrested, the Hotel was closed down, as there was no money for its upkeep.  In the past two years numerous rumours circulated as to hotel groups buying the property, said to be valued at around R300 – R400 million.   I had stayed at Santé in both the Southern Sun and the Fidentia eras, the former a good, the latter a bad, experience.

In May this year, after a two year silence, the first media reports announced the re-opening of the Hotel and Spa on 1 June, it having been leased by Carlos Vilela from the liquidators for a 10 year period, with the option to buy it during this period, according to a media report.  It was a Cape Timesfeature on Santé, as well as a glowing review in the August edition of The Franschhoek Month, that made me pick up the phone and make a booking.   I wanted to stay after the Women’s Day long weekend, thinking the hotel would be full over the weekend, but the reverse was true.  A large contingent of police persons was to take over the hotel for a conference this week, and therefore I chose to spoil myself for the weekend. (After my stay, a staff member confirmed that the police party had cancelled).

I did the reservation with Ilse Bock, who quoted R 1500 per room, but R1000 for single occupancy.  She nagged me to book, but I received nothing from her.  In frustration I spoke to Janet Samuel, the Deputy GM, who had an attitude which should have served as a warning.   She told me that the server was down, which was not allowing e-mails to go through. They resorted to faxing the reservation details and credit card authorisation form (plus a string of most off-putting terms and conditions), barely legible because the type size was so small.   Lo and behold, a second warning I should have heeded, was that the rate was confirmed as R 1500, but Ilse quickly changed it, saying she had quoted me an incorrect rate but that she would honour it.

I asked Ilse what star grading the hotel has, and Ilse could not answer initially, but then said 5-stars.   She sounded so hesitant about this, that I asked her to ask the General Manager to call me.  Despite the GM Kristien De Kinder being off-duty, she did call, and confirmed that they are not 5-star graded yet.  She told me that she would not accept a lesser grading, and that they are working on achieving the 5-star requirements.  In the same breath, without asking her, she shared with me how difficult it is to manage staff, and told me that she had “fired” (her words) 20 staff in the previous week.  This should have been the strongest warning of all, but I was optimistic that the staff remaining would be efficient in running the Hotel and Spa.

I was chased by Spa Manager Anja Liebenberg to make the Spa bookings, as she said they book up very quickly, especially over weekends.  I understood later why she was pressurising me to book, as she was off for the first two days of my stay, and wanted to make the bookings personally, on request of her GM.  Second, I discovered that they have many treament rooms but only six therapists, which means that they cannot take many clients.  I checked with Anja whether I would be eligible for the 25 % Spa treatment discount, which Ilse had sent with all the documentation (8 pages of Spa prices alone) – she was shocked, saying it was only 10 % off, but if I had been sent this offer (an opening special for June), she would honour it!

The dreadful dirt-road to the hotel, off the R45 from Klapmuts to Franschhoek, is still as bad as ever, and no grader has been sent there recently to scrape the road.   When I came to what I thought were the gates of the estate, there was no branding for the Hotel – just a brown tourism sign and the name of a farm on the walls.  It took the security person five minutes to get up to move the cones, without checking who I was from the board he had in his hand – a worrying introduction to the hotel security!  I was greeted by name by receptionist Michelle, and I asked her how she knew who I was – it transpired that I was the only guest staying in the hotel on the first night.   I was assisted with my luggage, had a room with a view onto the Paarl mountains and a dam, and on the surface nothing had changed, the original furniture still being in place.  Towels are new.   Michelle sweetly helped me get the internet going, always a concern, and it worked perfectly.  I asked her which TV channels they have, and she told me 11!   She could not tell me which they were, and they were not in the room book (they are SABC 1,2, 3, e-tv, M-Net, two SuperSport channels, Movie Magic1 and CNN).  After dinner I discovered that SABC3, which had the only decent movie, had no volume, and it took 45 minutes for the staff on duty to fix this.

Much later that evening I discovered that there were no drinks in the room bar fridge, the bath towels were not bath sheets, which one would expect for a 5 star-to-be hotel.  There were no spare rolls of toilet paper.  The glass shelf in the shower tilts, so the products tend to slide off it when it gets wet.  I froze that evening, discovering that there was only a thin artificial duvet on the bed, and no blankets in the cupboards – I was told that the CEO does not want to allow down duvet inners (a cost issue?) .   I could not get the underfloor heating to work, even though the setting was at 30 C.  In the end I had to switch on the airconditioner, to be able to sleep.  I had to call Reception to check how to switch off all the room lights, in a central control panel hidden behind the bedside table, but too far from the bed to switch them off!

The next morning I rushed to breakfast to meet the 11h00 deadline (not how I like to spend my precious time off). I stepped into the Breakfast Room, only to find the tables laid but no buffet table laid out at all!  I was told by the waitress that they don’t do it when they have so few guests.   The Restaurant Manager Sofia reiterated this, and I told her that I did not find this acceptable, and she laid out a tiny set of bowls with cereals, fruit and yoghurt, on the corner of the buffet table furthest away from me.   There was miscommunication between the waitress and Sofia, as I had ordered two slices of toast with my eggs, and the waitress only brought one slice.  I was told that I had only ordered one slice, and therefore I did not receive another!  I had to beg for a second slice.   I had to ask Sofia to not serve me any further food, as she smelt so strongly of smoking when she brought the eggs.  Kristien the GM came to chat and asked if all was in order, but when I told her of my experiences since my arrival, she looked at me as if it was completely normal that I should have experienced all these problems.  She seemed particularly sensitive about my reaction to their restaurant winelist (see my review tomorrow of Sommelier Restaurant), which she had received from her staff.   I must commend her presence at the hotel on each weekend day – a first for a GM in any hotel I have ever visited!

The Housekeeping Manager Anja had come to chat at dinner on the first night, even though she had nothing to do with the restaurant, and gave me some valuable background.  She herself runs a guest house in Wellington, while the GM Kristien runs her 5-bedroom guest house Perle-du-Cap in Paarl alongside her GM job at Sante.  It transpired that the new CEO Carlos Vilela runs a restaurant called Asia in Paarl, and closed down another two weeks ago, called Perola Restaurant (could be first signs of cashflow problems, in conjunction with the staff firing, especially as some of the more forthcoming staff told me that the fired staff  – with one exception who is working out a month – left with immediate effect, due to cost cutting).  Anja met Carlos at the latter restaurant, and this led to her appointment, and seemed the route of the GM’s appointment too – these two managers were not mentioned in media reports covering the opening function on 1 June (at which Western Cape MEC for Finance, Economic Development and Tourism Alan Winde spoke and over-optimistically praised the hotel for helping to boost the economy of the Western Cape, creating “150 employment opportunities”).   Most staff working in the Hotel come from Paarl, not known as being the centre of service excellence.  Both Anja and Kristien are Belgian and friends.  Anja was willing to please, and she organised extra blankets (very thin summer throws) but brought to the room by equally heavy smoking-smelling housekeeping staff, and got electric blankets from the Spa when I asked her if this was possible.   The bar fridge was stocked the following day, but was not switched on, so no drinks were cold.    After this I was ready to settle in and enjoy myself, after the bad start, or so I thought.  An enjoyable facial by a most friendly and obliging Charlene confirmed that all was on track, except that an error had been made for a massage booking for the following day, but was quickly fixed.   I was surprised that the GM and her Managers wear “civvies”, a most unusual dress code for a 5-star-to-be hotel.

In a paid-for advertorial in a Wellness supplement in the Cape Times of 30 July the hotel writes: “We are not here to re-invent the wheel, but to bring Santé back to life and provide our guests with the ultimate in service excellence and bestow upon them the luxury spa experience that one would expect from an establishment as ours”.  It goes on to state:  “All staff was hand-chosen and appointed for their distinctive customer-service ethics (sic) and their outstanding achievements in their professional fields.  Our mission is to offer you a place where you forget all your worries and trust us as professionals of beauty, rejuvenation, wellness, relaxation, tranquillity and peace to bring you back to life”.   It concludes with Vilela being quoted: “We are aiming high to exceed previous standards and guest expectations.  Every member of my team has the same vision and is committed to making this a reality”!  Promises I discovered that they are nowhere near achieving.

I was woken by the “Niagra Falls” outside my room on the second (rainy) day of my stay – the hotel building does not appear to have gutters, and all the rainwater came down in one section outside my room.   I saw some buckets in the passage to the Breakfast room too, to catch water from the leaks inside the hotel. The occupancy of the hotel had improved to full house in the Manor House, and so a Breakfast Buffet was set up in the Restaurant, and not in the breakfast room.  I was not told this, so once again I saw the bare buffet table, and sat waiting for service, but there was none!  When I went looking for staff, I was told that the breakfast was served in the restaurant.   Most dishes were three-quarter empty, and there was no fresh fruit at all.  There was no one to ask for some for about 15 minutes.  When I saw Sofia and asked her about the fruit, she said that they were busy cutting it, and stated that she had been checking the mini-bars in the rooms, explaining aggressively that she cannot be expected to be in the restaurant all the time, and that breakfast finishes at 11h00.  She had a list she was ticking off in terms of hotel guests who had come for breakfast, and she would have seen that three further rooms’ guests had not yet come for breakfast, arriving even later than I did.   Kristien the GM came to greet and chat to guests at a table close by, and ignored me completely, not a good sign.

I went to the Spa, to enjoy the facilities, or so I had hoped.  The first step was to sign an indemnity, requested by Anja the Spa Manager.   I went upstairs, and was shocked to see that most of the lovely innovative original features of the Spa were not working – the Experiential showers were in near-darkness, riddled with wet used towels lying on the floor, and the lovely fragrances of the showers of days gone by – e.g. rainforest, mint – have gone, and the water was ice cold, not attractive on a cold and wet winter’s day.   The Laconium door was open, and its light on, but it was not working – there was no sign on the door to tell one that it was out of order!   An open door intrigued me, but I soon discovered that it was the geyser room, and not a treatment room, so I retreated out of that quickly!   All that was left to enjoy then was the pool, but it had two babies and very loud foreigners dominating it, whom the Spa Manager was unable to get to leave, as children under 16 are not allowed in the Spa section of the property at all.  Some downlighters in the pool area do not work.   I wanted to shower after being in the pool, but all the showers in the Ladies cloakroom had no hot water.  I was now close to having had enough.  The Spa Manager Anja apologised, saying that it was a day in which everything was going wrong (it was only lunchtime then).   There was no notification on the cloakroom to warn one of the lack of hot water.

I saw Kristien the GM in Reception, and reported the Spa cold water problem to her – once again, she had the “I know all about it, and we are working on it” air about her, and then lashed out at me, in close distance of hotel guests who heard her, about how I had done nothing but complain since I had arrived.  I reminded her of all the problems I had experienced, and she did the “my staff are perfect” routine, adding insult to injury by asking why I had not left if I was not happy.  I told her it was because the hotel had taken a 50 % deposit, and would be taking the balance on my departure.  The way she said it, it sounded as if she would absolve me from the second 50 % payment, and this made me decide to leave, given everything that I had experienced.  When I went to the Reception, the Duty Manager Mannie asked me to sit down to pay – the second 50 % of the accommodation cost being on the bill, even though I was leaving one day early, at the “invitation” of the GM.  I “invited” Mannie to ask Mr Vilela, the hotel CEO, who once worked at Sun City, the only background that I could find about him on Google, to call me to discuss the bill.  I am still waiting for him to call, and to react to my review, which I sent to him for comment, offering to post his reply with it.

The Santé website is full of exaggerations and dishonesty: it describes the 10 Manor House rooms as “gorgeous suites”.  They have a massive bed (although 5 of them have two double beds, which cannot be made up as king beds, as they are stand-alone, annoying Larry and Heather Katz, one of the couples staying there).  It quotes UK Elle as it being “One of the Top 16 Spa’s on Earth” – yes, about 4 years ago, with working, state-of-the-art facilities at that time!  It provides the menu for Cadeaux, a restaurant meant to be in the Spa section, but the restaurant has not been in operation since the hotel opened!  The Sommelier restaurant is mentioned, but there is no menu for it!  Chef Neil Rogers is mentioned as being in charge of “both” restaurants, but he was one of the 20 staff to be fired!  (I heard that a chef from Grootbos is starting in September).  The food photographs on the website are nothing like the food that was served at Sommelier.  The “Terms and Conditions” state that children are welcomed in the Spa Suites only, but two children were in the Manor House, and were not kept quiet by their parents or the hotel staff.  The hotel brochures are more than two years old, reflecting the paintings on the walls at that time, and not what has replaced them now, and also refer to its “5-stars”, an absolute no-no!  The room folder had the “Happy Anniversary” card to Mr & Mrs Nothnagel still in it!

What can I praise? The location and its view, but far more attractive in summer – my room was in shade all day, making it cold and dark.  The “captiveness” of it, as the gravel road is so bad that one is not encouraged to leave the property to take a drive to Paarl, Franschhoek or Stellenbosch.   The Sunday Times and Weekend Argus being available.   The wonderful therapist Charlene, who did the facial.   The use of the innovative grape-based TheraVine product range in the Spa (but not carried through into the hotel rooms, where the Rooibos range is stocked).

I was most relieved to leave the Santé “zoo” after enduring two days of stress whilst staying there, the exact opposite to what I had come for!   The Hotel’s marketing is dishonest and its website misleading and out of date.  Santé is still a “sleeping beauty” and has not yet woken up to the real world of accommodation hospitality and Spa excellence it so proudly boasts about!

POSTSCRIPT 10/5: I was informed today that Santé has a new CEO, being Hans Heuer, who took over from 1 April. This has been confirmed in an article in the Indaba newsletter, which states that “Santé Hotel, Resort and Spa is under new management and ownership”.  I will look for more information on Mr Heuer’s background.  Carlos Vilela and his wife Sharon have left.  The receptionist told me that Kristien, and both Anjas left some time ago, and that all the managers working there in August last year have left.   The new Resident Manager is Leanne Myburgh, the Resident Manager is Basil Trompeter, and the new Spa Manager is Friena Beukes. 

POSTSCRIPT 10/8:  Hans Heuer, the new Santé CEO, read and left a comment with his cell number on this blogpost.  I called him and we agreed to meet for coffee.  I was keen to meet at Santé, to see how things have changed since my stay exactly a year ago.  We made an appointment to meet yesterday at 2 pm, on my way back from Franschhoek to Cape Town.  When I arrived at the security gate to Santé, and I told the ‘lady’ called Smit that I was seeing Mr Heuer, she let me past her traffic cones.  Two staff members stood outside in the sun when I walked to the reception, and both greeted me, but none asked how they could assist.  Mannie stood in Reception, and recognised me from my last visit, but called me ‘Mrs Ulmenstein’, getting both my surname and marital status wrong.  He seemed surprised when I told him about my appointment with Mr Heuer, saying that he was in Cape Town.  He called Mr Heuer, who said that something had come up!  Mr Heuer sent me an sms to apologise for standing me up fifteen minutes later, meaning that he had my cell number, and could therefore have called to cancel our appointment.  I did not respond to the sms, but Tweeted about being stood up.  This led to a number of less than complimentary Tweets about Santé, one of the Tweeters being a tour operator who had stayed at Santé the week before.  When we left the property, the security ‘lady’ did not remove the traffic cones, which meant that we had to stop at the gate and hoot for her to do so.  I asked whether she had not seen us driving the 200 meters to the gate.  She glared at me, and then burst forth in an uncalled-for attack, saying ‘You people with money think that you can be rude to us’!  What a send-off!  This morning Mr Heuer called, with quite an aggressive tone, saying that I should know that things come up in the last minute in the hospitality industry (no, I don’t know this!), and saying that he had sms’d me – I reminded that it was half an hour after our appointment time!  He then became personal, saying that he had done research on me, and that I am just out to write negative things.  Yet Mr Heuer had admitted in a previous conversation that things at Santé had been disastrous under the previous management, and that is why he had taken over the running of the hotel and spa!  I could not help but think that Santé is a stand-up comedy, and will never make it back to its original glory!

Santé Winelands Hotel & Wellness Centre, on R45, between Klapmuts and Franschhoek.  tel (021) 875-8100  www.santewellness.co.za

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

Restaurant Review: Chez d’Or is a Carstens compromise!

I decided to try the new Chez d’Or restaurant on the main road in Franschhoek for lunch, after the 60th birthday concert on Sunday of well-known potter David Walters in the NG Church, diagonally across the road.  I had read in the local rag ‘The Franschhoek Month’ that six-time Eat Out Top 10 chef Richard Carstens had opened the restaurant, which led me to believe that he was the new owner of the restaurant.   It was a massive disappointment and let-down.

Previously low key Cafe Rouge, which was set back in Bijoux Square, making it hard to see, the new restaurant has been brought forward and expanded in this Square, in the space in which the optometrist was previously located.   Owner Jason de Jongh has re-invented the restaurant completely, with the larger space, more upmarket interior design, changing the restaurant name to bring it in line with his guest house name (Val d’Or), and bringing Carstens in on a three-month consultancy contract only (not mentioned in the article).   Carstens is the South African ueber-chef, who indulges in foams, is a good trainer of staff, and is good at helping set up new restaurants, but has had little staying-power (except at Lynton Hall, where he worked for five years).  Jason explained that he wanted to create a Bistro-style restaurant, with Carstens’ input, but without the type of cuisine Carstens has become known for, so as to not create a huge difference in the quality of the food served after Carstens leaves the restaurant in September.   Carstens is quoted in the article as saying about the restaurant: “Its a classic yet contemporary bistro with Asian influences”.  The red and white tablecloths with white overlays create the Bistro look.  The cutlery is neatly wrapped inside the serviette, probably a Carstens’ touch.

The problem with the restaurant and Carstens’ connection was immediately evident when the hardboard menu started with a list of sandwiches!  These are served between 11h00 – 17h00, and are quite expensive, in ranging from R 45 for an aubergine, mushroom, pepper, coriander pesto and gruyere sandwich, to R58 for a ribeye and aioli or smoked salmon sandwich, and a beef burger.  A further problem was that Carstens explained some of the menu items but not all – the Carstens touch shows when he described the Soup of the Day (the waitress just called it a Butternut Soup).   Carstens described it as a Butternut Soup served with almonds and snoek, changing its nature completely, snoek not being to everyone’s taste.  The spiced tomato, coconut, lime and chilli sorbet soup sounded delicious too.  The wholewheat bread did not look home-baked, and in fact seemed to show its age with first signs of mould, so we did not eat it.  The butter was untidily cut and presented.   Other starter choices are spiced calamari (R58), duck liver pate (R52), smoked rainbow trout (R65), chicken spring roll (R47), and a mushroom and artichoke salad (R45). 

The Pork belly (R85) was served on a tiny portion of mash with butternut, the black eggplant puree looking unattractive in the brown (with green oily bits) mustard sauce.  Overall, the plate of food looked unattractive, and the pork had an odd taste.  My son’s Ribeye steak(R98) was ordered medium rare, but was prepared more to the medium side. It was tender, but the chip portion was tiny, so the waitress brought more, without extra charge.   The spinach was tender and tasty.  The Tempura linefish (R80) was kingklip.  Other main courses are Duck leg (R85), Asian braised lamb shank (R98), and Beetroot and aubergine curry (R70).

The winelist is on the reverse side of the menu, and will not feature on the Diner’s Club Winelist of the Year awards list.  It is simply divided into “Methode Cap Classique Sparkling”, White Wine, Rose Wine, Red Wine and Dessert Wine/Port and is commendably Proudly-Franschhoek in its wine selection, with the exception of the Landskroon and Quinta Do Sul Vintage Reserve ports.  Each wine is described in brief, but no vintages are listed.  The wine-by-the glass prices are so low (R18 for Porcupine Ridge Viognier/Grenache, Haut Espoir Sauvignon Blanc R20, Eikehof Cabernet Sauvignon R18) that one wonders how young they are, and whether they are drinkable.  The Haute Cabriere Pinot Noir is the most expensive wine on the list, at R250, but most wines are under R200, making the wine choice affordable.

We skipped the starter to leave space for Carstens’ signature dessert, which is not on the menu – frozen dark chocolate mousse served with saffron ice cream on biscuit crumbs, with mint sauce.   The dessert sounded better than the real thing, which were four unequally cut blocks of frozen chocolate mousse.  The saffron ice cream and mint sauce were delicious.   Other options are an interesting sounding Gin and lemon tart (R40); Poached banana ice cream (R38); Vanilla creme (R38); Chocolate tart, cardamom ice cream with pear (R50); and a Cheese board (R65).

We left Chez d’Or bitterly disappointed, in having expected Richard Carstens’ quality but getting a most unsatisfactory meal, even though he was in the kitchen!   Anyone who would think of coming to eat at the restaurant, on the basis of Carstens’ association with it until September, should not eat here.   I felt cheated, as I could not sense Carstens’ hand here at all.

Carstens is rumoured to be taking over the Tokara restaurant when his consultancy contract at Chez d’Or comes to an end in September, but Tokara is denying this.

Chez d’Or, Bijoux Square, 60 Huguenot Road, Franschhoek.  Tel (021) 876-4197. www.chezdor.co.za  (The website is disappointing, with only a Home page, giving contact details and a restaurant interior shot, no menu or winelist).  Monday – Sunday.  Lunch and Dinner.

POSTCRIPT 30/7: It has been confirmed that Richard Carstens will be the Executive Chef of Tokara Restaurant, in conjunction with Jardine’s Wilhelm Kuehn, from October.

POSTSCRIPT 1/8: I have been informed by Wilhelm Kuehn, the new operator of the Tokara restaurant, that Richard Carstens has left Chez d’Or.  The Chez d’Or staff confirm that he left on Wednesday, the day of our review, and that he left ahead of the end of his contract.    We were clearly told by the owner that he would be at the restaurant until September.

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

Make a draai at Fyndraai!

A sunny winter’s day was a perfect inspiration for a first lunch at Fyndraai, the South African-style restaurant at Solms-Delta wine estate.    Whilst it opened eight months ago already, this newest addition to the Franschhoek restaurant scene has been very low key about its presence, preferring to let word of mouth spread the word, says the charming Manager Annalize.   It clearly has worked, Stephen Flesch, Chairman of Slow Food Cape Town, being spotted at the restaurant, entertaining American clients at one of the tables.

 

Housed in the building which also contains the winetasting room and the informal slave museum, it was renovated for the restaurant opening.  First built in 1740 as a wine cellar, then a fruit packing store, then staff accommodation, and now an interesting restaurant building, its history is reflected through the inside glass floor, revealing the excavated foundations of the original building.  For those fearing heights, even at 30 cm above the foundation, it is scary to walk on.  Annalize jokingly said it gets easier to walk on the glass panels after a glass of wine!

 

One must park around the side of the building, and the first impression of the broom and mop drying in the sun is quickly forgotten when one receives the friendly welcome from Annalize, previously with French Connection.

 

One can sit at tables on the terrace overlooking the lawn and the vineyard, or on the large lawn, or inside.   They have a lovely bouquet of fresh flowers, and blue place mats, to match the corporate blue of the branding of the restaurant.

 

The chef is Shaun Schoeman, previously of Mont Rochelle, and the menu looks surprisingly good and the three roll varieties served are warm and delicious.   At the Oesfees earlier this year food was prepared in bulk, and the writer was fearing that one would be served more of this at Fyndraai.  But one need not have feared – the quality at the restaurant is miles above that which was served at the Oesfees.

 

Given the money and planning that has gone in setting up the restaurant, the low quality of the menu presentation on a clipboard was disappointing, and showed some handling by other guests.  The menu contains an interesting selection of South African starters, mains and desserts, reflecting the country’s Malay and other origins..   The starter list included musselpotjie, vegetable samoesas, “gebakte pampoen flan”, spicy beef frikkadelle, and “smoor snoek and prawn sambals”.  The chef allowed a tasting portion of the frikkadelle, served with his own tomato and onion chutney – it was wonderful.  

 

The main course choice is catch of the day, “grilled Toontjiesrivier quail”, Fyndraai vegetable risotto, traditional bobotie, lamb neck, and roasted leg of lamb, in the price range of R 79 – R 90.   As a special one can also order a lamb fillet or a venison ragout.  The latter dish had the best-ever mash but the ragout was disappointing in that the springbok pieces were too large to eat with a fork only, and were rather tough.   A complimentary glass of white wine is served with the meal, which follows a glass of Solms-Delta Karri, a “honey fermented beverage” made in the historical way, which is served as a welcome drink.

 

For dessert the choice is a chocolate banana tart, “boeber pudding”, malva pudding and vanilla soufflé pancake.  The latter was delicious.

 

Each item on the menu has a Solms-Delta wine recommendation to suit the dish.   No other Franschhoek wines are served in the restaurant.

 

Should one wish to enjoy a picnic instead, one can do so by sitting at the tables on the lawn or at the Dwars River bank, enjoying the basket of vegetables, biltong and nuts, “patatslaai”, cheeses, chicken tandoori, smoked Franschhoek trout, Cape breads, apple tart, fruit salad and a bottle of water, at R 120 per head. 

 

Little could beat the country feeling with a tractor working in the nearby vineyards, birds twittering and local music such as the African Jazz Pioneers creating a peaceful ambience.   In summer the wine estate is planning to do live music on Saturday afternoons.

 

The total cost for a main and a dessert, as well as a cappuccino, with the complimentary glass of Karri and glass of wine was R 151 for one person.

 

Overall, Fyndraai is worth a return visit.   The service of Annelize was outstanding, while her colleagues need a little help in being smarter when it comes to receiving the payment.  

 

Fyndraai is open from Wednesdays to Sundays, from 12h00 – 16h00.   Call tel 021 874 3937.

 

Whale Cottage Portfolio www.whalecottage.com

Franschhoek winemakers resilient to credit crunch

The Franschhoek Month asked the Vignerons of Franschhoek what effect the recession is having on their wine sales.

The majority of the estates that replied stated that their wine sales have increased relative to the same period a year ago.

Dieter Sellmeyer of Lynx Wines writes as follows: Non-cellar door wine sales locally come mainly from restaurants and from mail campaigns and neither of these have suffered – in fact restaurant business is up, which may partly have to do with the evolution of the brand. We have never done a lot through retail outlets as the competition there is massive and yes, cut-throat.”

Haute Espoir, Rickety Bridge Winery, La Motte, Stony Brook Vineyards, Graham Beck Wines and Vrede & Lust also all report increased wine sales, and it would not appear that the visitors to the Franschhoek wine estates are trading down in their wine purchases, as was claimed in a recent article in the Cape Times.Dana Buys from Vrede & Lust describes how he has enhanced wine sales at his estate: Our sales are significantly up over last year. I think it is due to our wines improving and a strong focus on direct wine sales. Direct sales are important with more customers buying to drink at home versus while eating out. Our wines are priced well relative to the quality. We have significantly upgraded our cellar door team and they have done a great job building the new wine club and getting our European eStore sales humming”

Graham Beck Wines’ Etienne Heyns attributes their sales success to his cellar door staff: “Our staff makes a point of providing our visitors with extra hospitality and superb attention during such times when relatively fewer visits occur. In addition, we reward our visitors with an array of extra special offers on our wines. We value their custom and want them to leave our estate with an indelible impression – and a boot full of superb wines.” Werner Els of La Petite Ferme attributes their sales’ success to focusing on greater distribution in South Africa’s major cities.Vrede & Lust says that there are fewer tourists around this season. “To counteract the tough economy we work on ensuring that our pricing is correct for the climate and we understand that better cash-flow is often more important than higher profit margins – i.e. we are realistic about the laws of supply and demand! Most of all, we work hard to ensure that the customers who visit the farm have a fantastic experience here” says Dana Buys. Rickety Bridge Winery says that it offers a good quality product. “We put a lot of emphasis on giving guests an experience though good service and a good quality “product” in both our restaurant and with our wines. I believe we offer something for everybody – whether they are serious connoisseurs or just looking for a relaxing day in the winelands” says Jackie Rabe.When visitors come to the farm we sell them an experience – wine sales follow automatically and price hardly comes into it. Being small only I, as passionate owner/winemaker, or my equally passionate Assistant Winemaker, do the cellar tours and wine tasting” says Sellmeyer. “We have a few very loyal small tour operators. Their clientele is usually upmarket and interested in wine and more often than not they have wine sent back home. The tour operators know we offer cellar tours and tastings in German, and for that sector this is an immediate winner”.Haute Espoir exports its wines to Germany, New Zealand, Ireland, Sweden, Malaysia, Belgium and Singapore; Lynx sells to Denmark, Holland, Germany and the USA, but the USA sales “have almost vanished. Europe, on the other hand, has soaked up what the US didn’t take. Our Danish distributor reports the best season ever, and our wines are right up there – the result of joint marketing efforts with our distributor. Holland and Germany are not very different. In addition we have very recently received two significant orders from UK and Switzerland for the first time. With a bit of nurturing these will develop into repeat business.”

Rickety Bridge exports to the UK and the USA; Vrede & Lust exports to Canada and Europe; Stony Brook focuses its exports on Europe; La Petite Ferme exports to the UK, Netherlands, Germany, Ireland and America; Graham Beck sells its products in 40 countries, but Sweden and the USA are its two most important foreign markets; and La Motte exports to Europe, Africa and the Far East.

The visitor profile of visitors to the wine estates appears to be varied. Graham Beck Wines estimates that more of their visitors are foreigners than South Africans, in line with 65 % of its wine production being exported. La Petite Ferme receives mainly European visitors, Vrede & Lust is visited by locals, British visitors and Americans; Rickety Bridge Winery says 40 % of its visitors are South African, and the balance are from the UK, USA and France; Lynx sells to visitors from the UK, Germany, USA, Sweden and Holland, as well as South Africans from Gauteng. Some wineries appeal more to older wine lovers, others to younger visitors. “Swallows” are an important part of the winetasting mix at La Motte, says Werner Briederhann, probably due to their exposure to the wines at the monthly La Motte concerts.

When asked how the Vignerons can assist in attracting tourists to Franschhoek, Haute Espoir’s Rob Armstrong said :’“Strive to enhance the experience visitors to our valley have in every aspect, to make this the most attractive destination in South Africa.” Jacky of Rickety Bridge Winery suggested that: “I think it is important to create as much a positive feeling about what you do, get the name out there, get people talking about what you have to offer, make sure your staff are positive and send that message through to customers. Don’t ride on your laurels and expect business to come to you, do as much as you can to drive business to you. Evaluate what you offer and see whether you are really offering guests the best you can, in terms of price, quality and service. If not, how can you expect people to come back. I think in these tough times consumers become sharper, will shop around for good value and will not support places that are taking advantage. I also think that business will have to work harder and smarter to achieve the same business they did in more liquid times.”

Buys says that ‘great customer experience and value’ are key. “We compete with many other destinations in South Africa and elsewhere, and the overall value proposition must be very competitive.”

“We just try to do great value for money wines and give friendly, personal attention to visitors who come to the farm.  We believe in word of mouth advertising and our customers have been very loyal, even when times are tough” says Stony Brook Vineyards. For Els of La Petite Ferme it’s a change of focus to the South African market, while Graham Beck Wines’ Heyns says its “service, service, service!”

Sellmeyer is ‘proudly-Franschhoek’, and makes an important point in this regard: The best way is to send out the message of what a great place Franschhoek is, and all that it has to offer. To do this the most important thing is to remain upbeat, particularly in communications to the media and in newsletters. Visitors don’t like to go to a place that is depressed and down. But the Vignerons won’t be able to attract visitors on their own – they’re only one element of the Franschhoek experience. It’s a joint effort between all players, and just like I only recommend restaurants in the Valley, I would expect the converse to be the case. When I hear about guesthouses only recommending wineries on the other side of the mountain I ask myself ‘why?’- it’s like shooting yourself in the foot. It’s great if tourists go back and tell friends how much the Cape Winelands have to offer, but it would be better still if they told their friends how much Franschhoek has to offer.”

This article was written by Chris von Ulmenstein and was first published in the July 2009 issue of The Franschhoek Month.

Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com

Franschhoek has an affair!

The Franschhoek Wine Valley Tourism Association is to be congratulated in preparing a programme of events for winter, with the title of “Franschhoek Affair”, promising “eclectic experiences in the month of June”, to attract feet into town and ‘bums into beds’!   

 

On Fridays potter David Walters will teach glass slumping and raku firing; Judy Sendzul of the Salmon Bar will take interested person for fly fishing followed by lunch at her restaurant; bread making will be taught at Bread & Wine; Izak Rust will do a guided walk on interesting trees in Franschhoek; Siegfried Schaefer and Rob Armstrong will lead a fynbos and photography excursion; Danielle Craddock is running a “Feel Great Fitness Boot Camps”; a wine tasting walking tour incorporates Mont Rochelle, Chamonix and Dieu Donne; Niel Jonker will lead  “Painting the Landscape in-situ” sessions;  Geddon Ruddick will take cyclists on a Mountain Bike ride; and Bouillabaisse will spoilt participants with specials on their warm lunches and dinners. 

 

More details are available from and bookings can be made at the Tourism Bureau tel 021 876-2861.

 

This article was written by Chris von Ulmenstein, and was first published in the June 2009 issue of The Franschhoek Month.

Topsi is tops!

At the ‘Tribute to Topsi’ held on 18 May at the Barnyard Theatre in the Willowbridge Centre 500 foodie and Topsi lovers gathered together to “honour a doyenne and living legend of South African food and a wonderful human being”, and to collect funds for a knee replacement operation for her.  

 

A jointly organised event by John Jackson of African Banquet Collections and the Chaine des Rotisseurs, in conjunction with the Franschhoek Lion’s Club, the evening had a strong Franschhoek presence, with many local residents attending the fabulous evening.  The food was prepared and donated by leading restaurants including Le Quartier Francais, Bruce Robertson’s new The Quarter, Cellars Hohenhort, La Colombe and many more. Delectable wines were donated.  Neil Els of Boschendal was the master of ceremonies and auctioneer.

 

A line-up of excellent performers, including Rocco de Villiers, Coenie de Villiers, Daniele Pascale, Elzabe Zietsman, boy group BRAVO and Nataniel entertained the appreciative crowd utilizing a very “gay-pink Liberace piano”, and dedicated their talent to Topsi.  Nataniel brought the house down with his stories about his 30-year friendship with Topsi, and when he presented her with a rosary (“instead of rosemary”)!

 

Topsi was praised by speakers for her generosity, having given her dog away to an American tourist who asked her for the dog, and she gave away a diamond brooch because a friend complimented her on it. Topsi answered that she was as close to heaven on earth as she could be, with all the tributes spoken and sung to her whiles she is still alive, and wished her Franschhoek friend Di Gage, who died recently, could have enjoyed such a feast of appreciation too.   Topsi was described as the “Madiba of cooking in South Africa”.

 

The who’s who of chefs attended the wonderful evening, and included Bruce Robertson, Pete Goffe-Wood, Bertus Basson, Camil Haas, Peter Veldsman, Marlene van der Westhuizen, Jenny Morris, Reuben Riffel, and Garth Stroebel.

 

This article was written by Chris von Ulmenstein, and was first published in the June 2009 issue of  The Franschhoek Month.

Franschhoek restaurants acknowledge service deficiencies

Last month The Franschhoek Month asked guest house owners and managers to provide feedback about the service levels of the restaurants in Franschhoek.   The outcome was that there are many good aspects about the service offered by the local restaurants, but criticisms were raised about the quality of service experienced by some accommodation establishments and their guests.  Guest houses fed back that they receive little acknowledgement for the business that they send to the restaurants.

 

We asked all the restaurants in the village to answer to the compliments and complaints that the guest houses raised, and the full article was sent to them.   In fact, 6 weeks ago every restaurant was asked to supply information to the topic, and a paltry three restaurants responded.   Two weeks ago they were requested to respond again, and follow up calls were made to many restaurants.   Calls were not all returned, and responses ranged from “we are so busy”, “if we had 5 minutes to spare, we would spend it on other priorities” and “we are so busy preparing for Topsi’s function”.   Once again, only three restaurants replied.

 

Can the restaurants be serious?   Can they have that little interest about a topic that should be of concern to every tourism player in our Valley?   We are known as the Gourmet Capital of the country – it is not only the food quality, but the service quality too that makes a restaurant outstanding.  

 

We salute those restaurants that did take the time and trouble to provide input to this article.  They reflect a care and interest in their customers which the silent ones do not appear to.

 

One of the newest restaurants is the Italian Allora.  Philip Aplas, the locally based owner, and co-owner of three other Allora restaurants in Johannesburg, is refreshing in his relationship building, and understated way in which he is building his business in Franschhoek.    He says:”We are grateful for every guest sent to us. We are having a dinner on the 4th of May to thank the guest houses that supported us during the season.    We are launching our Allora Miles program, to thank the guest houses that send business to us.”   The reward program will award miles for reservations made, and this will qualify the holders of the Allora cards to receive gift vouchers, and a variety of other prizes, depending on the number of miles they have ‘clocked’ up in referring business to Allora.

 

Haute Cabriere has been outstanding at recognizing the value of the relationship between itself and the accommodation establishments in the Valley, and hosts the establishments just before the start of the new summer season.   “Certainly from our point of view we appreciate the synergy between the many Franschhoek restaurants and the numerous accommodation establishments in the Franschhoek Valley. It is undoubtedly one of our main focuses when gearing up for a new season, to make sure that we take the time to thank these establishments for their support and brief them on any changes or developments planned for the upcoming season. On any given day during season I would say that the restaurant is 90% booked up with guests that have been booked into the restaurant by their local hotels or guest houses and we are certainly appreciative of this fact” says Haute Cabriere’s Nicky Gordon.

 

Gordon would like to see a reciprocal communication relationship between her restaurant and accommodation establishments:  “I do feel though that restaurants should be kept informed, by the guest houses, on a regular basis, about feedback from their guests. It is most beneficial to us to hear what comments are being received (both good but especially negative if any) so that we get an opportunity to rectify or improve on certain areas. It is certainly no help to any restaurant for a guest houses owner to just to stop sending business without phoning to follow up and hearing the other side of the story.”

 

Burgundy has an agreement with some guesthouses and referrals are done between them on a regular basis.  They receive feedback from the establishments as to how the customers enjoyed their meal at the restaurant.

 

“We do not rely heavily on Guest Houses booking at Rickety Bridge Restaurant as we are only open during the day. Our walk in trade has been really good and I think that if we were to open at night, our marketing efforts would definitely have to be more accommodation based” says Cindy Miller, of the company that manages Rickety Bridge, a popular wine estate, wedding venue and restaurant just outside the village.

 

“What I can say about the relationship between restaurant and accommodation is that when we launched a Tapas menu at the beginning of the season and invited 20 guest houses over two days (15 – 20 per day) to experience our Tapas– only 3 arrived”, added Miller.

 

Guest houses and self-catering establishments send their guests to the Salmon Bar for “great coffee, excellent breakfast – freshly baked artisan breads are a big part of this, lunch all day and dinner from Wednesdays to Saturdays.  We are seen as a breakfast and lunch venue of choice, and have more competition at night. We are relatively new (1 year) and are still building relationships” says Judy Sendzil, the owner of the Salmon Bar.   The Salmon Bar invites guest house owners who send clients to them for dinner, to thank them for the business received.

 

Aplas understands how vital service is, and staff training is an important foundation of his Allora restaurants.   “When we train staff at Allora, we always stress that the three most dangerous factors in the restaurant industry are complacency, arrogance, and fatigue.  All need to be managed carefully.   As the newcomers to the village, we are doing all we can to improve our service and quality levels at all times, and hope people will continue to take notice.”

 

Rickety Bridge has seen huge staff movement in Franschhoek.  I think many of the points raised by the (accommodation) establishments are valid.  I have found a vast difference in the caliber of staff in Franschhoek compared to my staff in town – it has taken us ages to build a team at Rickety Bridge and we had to “import” some waiters from Cape Town and house them on the Estate!   During this time our service suffered (as did some of our guests) and it was a very painful birth from a staffing point of view. “

 

What I have personally found is that good waiters do the rounds – I have seen good front of house staff move around from one good restaurant to another in the time that I have been involved in Franschhoek and since I do not believe in poaching waiters and waitresses, we have endured the long road and trained from scratch” added Miller.

 

Gordon also talks about the challenges of staff recruiting and training:  “With regards to standards of service, this is always a huge commitment and task for any restaurant owner. We all employ largely local staff and the time and challenge spent training is often underestimated. Most of the staff have never eaten in restaurants themselves and have never heard of some of the menu items on offer that they are expected to sell to foreign and local tourists.”

 

“At Haute Cabriere we offer a tasting for staff before each new menu comes out and also focus on pronunciation of the dishes and a general test on the menu before it is launched. This is an ongoing and arduous task. The fact that for most of the front line staff, English is at best a 2nd language provides even more challenges in this regard, especially when they are faced with foreigners with different accents and sometimes limited English.  These are all issues restaurants in the bigger cities do not often have to contend with as there are thousands of university students seeking part time and casual work and they are spoilt for choice! “

 

Restaurant owners and managers are also customers of the other restaurants, and shared their views about the service levels they have experienced in the local restaurants.   One restaurant owner wrote:  ‘Many of the staff of the restaurants that I have dined at have an attitude that is rather poor considering that they are in the service industry.   Most restaurants are manager run and it shows.   The general attitude is that they will be full with or without you. Service levels certainly aren’t up to scratch at the moment.’

 

Are guests and accommodation establishments too critical of the local restaurants?   The owners of Burgundy restaurants think that this may be the case: “We should keep in mind that each establishment has a character of its own. We cannot be everything to everybody.  We can only do our very best to give the customer a good experience. I have heard guests and guesthouses alike giving criticism and tearing apart top award winning restaurants in Franschhoek many times. I fail to understand this”.

 

“I’ve often read that the credit crunch will bring about a new order, where true service will be paramount. It is maybe time for us in the service industry to remind ourselves of the meaning of the word ‘service’, and thus what it means to serve another person.   Franschhoek in general is in need of an attitude adjustment towards its patrons. Tourists aren’t here because of Franschhoek businesses, Franschhoek businesses are here because of tourists.     A continued drop in standards will kill Franschhoek as a tourist destination, and will affect us all” says Aplas.

 

Burgundy‘s owners would like to make a difference, “but we keep to ourselves and conduct our business quietly, ridicule and backstabbing took care of that.    We are willing to work with anyone who reaches out to us. It is my personal opinion that this stunning little town still suffers of a “small town mentality” and that this will hamper its efforts to overcome the difficult times ahead.”

 

Gordon sees it differently:  We are very fortunate in Franschhoek to have a set up that is ultimately beneficial to both the restaurants and accommodation establishments. The food and wine reputation of the valley without doubt brings in hordes of tourists to the area and fills up both the accommodation establishments and as a result the many restaurants. A win win situation for us all!

 

“Is it not possible to create a tourism awareness campaign that is aimed at all residents across the spectrum, to educate and remind us all on how important tourism is (directly or indirectly) to each one of us?” a most relevant question asked by and challenge coming from Allora, which we will ask Jenny Prinsloo of the Franschhoek Wine Valley Tourism Association to address.

 

We need to safeguard our priceless marketing point of difference in Franschhoek in being the Gourmet Capital of the country, an attribute that is unique and unprecedented for such a small village.   We do not own this attribute for the sake of it, and will have to work very hard to have more restaurants on the Top Ten Eat Out restaurant list at the end of the year.  It is not the food quality alone that is rated – service quality, from the call being taken for the booking, the service efficiency in the restaurant in serving the food and beverages, to the speedy presentation of the bill, is also an important criterion. 

 

The poor response to this vital topic from the local restaurateurs is most worrying, and reflects a degree of arrogance from our local restaurants, the exact arrogance that Aplas warns us about, combined with the small town politics Burgundy’s owners write about and have been experienced by many, that can lead to our downfall in Franschhoek as far as our gourmet reputation and therefore tourism future goes.

 

This article was written by Chris von Ulmenstein and first appeared in The Franschhoek Month, May 2009.

Oesfees more ‘woes’ than ‘fees’

The second Solms Delta Franschhoek Oesfees on 4 April was a huge disappointment.  What started as a noble idea from a wine estate known for its creativity in marketing its wines, in celebrating the harvest with staff of wine farms from all of Franschhoek in 2008, this year’s Oesfees seemed to have broadened its net to attract Capetonians to attend in great numbers.  

 

For visitors arriving after dark, there was no lighting, and no indication of where one had to enter the grounds of the festival.   The place to collect plates and cutlery was also not visible.   There was no lighting in the food section at all, and the serviettes had run out by 19h00, two hours before the end of the festival, as had most of the food.    The staff manning the food section were very casual about this, saying that more food was coming – the food tent was a mere 5 meters away!    Then one had to find one’s way to the drinks’ section, quite a distance away, to find that one’s two drink ticket allocation bought 2 glasses of wine, or two plastic cups of tap water poured from a wine bottle!   The cost for this tap water, as well as hygiene considerations, created a strong concern.   Festival goers paid R 150 for 3 tiny pieces of sausages, 2 sweet potatoes, a spoon of rice and a ‘roosterbrood’, the 2 drinks of water from the tap or wine, and the music.  The website claims that a “hearty meal” would be served, which includes bobotie – none was to be seen!   An open pack of butter was next to the bread, for everyone to cut from – no finesse in putting it in a container.   Admirable was the fact that real plates and cutlery were available.  

   

Cleaning staff looked efficient, and walked past with filled bags, but kept wanting to remove the water cups.    Chairs were already piled up near the stage at 8 pm, and clearly the staff were wanting the festival to finish ahead of time.   Being really dark at 8.30 pm, it was extremely dangerous to walk on an unlit gravel road from the festival area to the cars. 

 

 

The music of course was the saving grace, and Karoo Kitaar Blues’  Hannes Coetzee charmed with his singing and unique guitar playing.  The most irritating  MC Tommy de Ruiter screeched into the microphone – working at a supermarket by day, he says he is a performer in his free time – he has a very long way to go!   

 

It felt as if the owners of Solms Delta had abdicated responsibility for the event, thereby losing control over it, which is a shame, as it is a great concept.    The publicity for the festival made it an event attracting attendees outside of Franschhoek.   Solms Delta will have to reconceptualise what it wants to achieve and what it wants to stand for – an event for the local farmworkers, of which many were drunk at the festival, or to put on a festival that is a much more sophisticated thanks to a good harvest completed.    

 

This was not a  “Franschhoek Oesfees” – it was a “Solms Delta Oesfees”!

 

The  reaction of the esteemed Professor Mark Solms, owner of Solms Delta, to the feedback is disappointing and it is difficult to understand exactly what he is trying to say:

“I am sorry you experienced the Oesfees like that. Your story makes me think of a commentary I submitted to The Franschhoek Month in response to a question about bad service in Franschhoek. Unfortunately my response was not published (I think I submitted it too late) but it seems particulrly (sic) apt in light of your story, so I will copy it to you:
 
“I can’t say I have ever had a really bad service experience in Franschhoek; but it probably takes two to produce one. In my experience Franschhoek establishments and their staff try very hard, within God-given limits (which not everyone is ready to accept). Really bad service experiences usually arise in much the same way as really unsuccessful attempts to kick the cat.” !