It is nearing a year since Mzansi went into hard lockdown on 27 March 2020, and Ausi Wa die Chips (chip lady), Refiloe Nthoroane (27) can testify to how much the Covid-19 pandemic changed our lives in both big and small ways.
A year ago, she had just begun seeing her Kasi food business, Foodspot 100, flourish in her place of birth, Qwaqwa.
Then pres. Cyril Ramaphosa, announced a nationwide hard lockdown with a set of regulations that nearly decimated the culinary industry.
Foodspot 100 was operated from a rented kitchen space at the Sta Bomba creative Café and carwash on Mampoi road.
“I had started operating there just a few months before the lockdown and business was picking up, I was building a clientele, letting people know that I was there.” she says.
While it may be working to survive, the Kasi economy was hobbled by Covid-19 regulations, says Nthoroane.
With the streets of Qwaqwa now emptied by the lockdown, she was robbed her of customers. More disaster set to befall her.
“I had to start from scratch, I could no longer afford to operate my business there and was robbed of my kitchen equipment because the streets were empty,” she recalls.
‘Love what you are doing and never stop improving your skills.’
A light at the end of the tunnel presented itself in September when she managed to secure a deal with a local BP filling station to supply meals for their pantry. The life changing deal may have only been short term, but it gave her something more valuable – hope.
“I started from scratch, but luckily after about a month I got the deal with BP. I was working from home and would deliver meals to the garage.
“It opened my mind to the fact that there are possibilities out there, I was in business with these guys, and I am just this small business. I still had to find my feet in the business space, and I managed to secure a partnership with such a huge establishment,” she says.
‘I would pretend to host my own cooking shows.’
Her short stint with BP has now prompted Nthoroane to pursue her studies in food and beverage operations from the University of Johannesburg, where she is currently enrolled as a first year student.
Nthoroane’s food business however is on hold as she dedicates her time towards her studies.
“After I complete my qualification, I will be a qualified chef and will have the knowledge I need to run a business.”
Family of foodies
Nthoroane was born and raised in Qwaqwa to a family of food lovers with both parents often whipping up exciting meals. Her father, Molefi, wowed the table occasionally, but her mother, Ntsoaki was the true kitchen icon in her home.
“I grew up in that kind of environment where food was loved, that is how I absorbed all this love for food. I do not remember at any point not enjoying a meal with my family,” she says.
There was never a dull moment when trying out new recipes with her mother. “We used to take our time to make sure it came out right, but were never too hard on ourselves if it did not come out perfectly. Cooking is about having fun.”
However, she admits she never had any intentions of venturing into the food business.
“When I was in the kitchen as a young girl, I would pretend I was hosting and presenting my own cooking show, but I never had intentions to pursue it as a career.”
Nthoroane first saw her food business passions come to life in her Bloemfontein flat in 2016. Occasionally she would host a food showcase, charging her foodie friends R160 to indulge in a variety of food platters and cocktails.
‘Improve your knowledge for the benefit of your own business.’
“I fell into it because of the love I have for food. I figured if I enjoy it, I might as well make money from it,” she explains.
Knowledge is power
Nthoroane is currently studying full-time to diversify her knowledge of food business. A dedicated culinary student, Nthoroane believes that in the same way you get an education to secure a dream job at a corporation, educating yourself to pour knowledge into your own business is ten times more fulfilling.
“I figured why not study to improve your knowledge for the benefit of your own business. You always study to be hired by other people, but you never really pour this knowledge into your own business.
“I have not given up completely on it, but I have decided to put my own business on hold and go to school. You know, the same way you would study to be hired in a corporate job? I never studied business management, I never did economics, I did not have much knowledge and decided to put my business on hold to study food and beverage operations at the University of Johannesburg.”
Her advice to her fellow chefs in training and home cooks is simple, “Love what you are doing and never stop improving your skills.”
A self-confessed carnivore, Nthoroane reminds foodies that the kitchen is your proverbial oyster, so experiment! “I love to try new things and don’t enjoy eating the same thing. I will use a recipe I have tried once but probably also add something here and there. I enjoy being experimental in the kitchen,” she says.