It all started with our father in the family watchmaking business. With the demand for watchmaking services on the decline, our father decided to introduce some products from his home country of Cyprus to help cover the bills. The first product he introduced was a locally-produced feta cheese he discovered during a visit to the local winelands. In a tiny fridge under the counter, he slowly introduced this to our clients by offering a sample of the cheese upon completion of the watch or clock repair work they originally came in for. His tagline soon became, "Have you tried my amazing feta?". It didn't take long before customers were returning to the store for the sole purpose of buying this "amazing feta" and, with the watchmaking side of the business still struggling, our father looked to introduce other food products. Greek Coffee, Cypriot Halloumi, Baklava, Hummus, Greek Yogurt, Olive Oil, even legumes and seeds- seemingly overnight more and more of the shelves in the tiny watch-shop were filled with all kinds of Mediterranean treats. Where glossy watch posters once hung, our father printed an A4 sign with the words Olive Branch Deli proudly displayed.
Although we affectionately referred to this part of the business as the "secret deli", internally we were struggling with the idea of selling food items in a watchmaking business we had spent years building from scratch. We were completely embarrassed to be perfectly honest. Our insecurities reached a tipping point when our father decided to place a table outside the store on weekends with the full array of Mediterranean products on display for all to see. My mother, Artemis, and sister, Helene -a film and media graduate from UCT who was then on a gap year - had also been roped into selling our Mediterranean fare on the weekends. Soon, one table became two, and two tables became four, buckling from the weight of everything from imported Greek Olive Oil to platters of Dolmades, Tzatziki & Pickled Octopus. Despite our embarrassment, we could no longer deny that our father's plan was working. The "secret deli" was generating more income than our primary watchmaking services. This tradition carried on for several weeks until we were asked to stop putting out the tables after a complaint was received. They were completely right, things were getting out of hand. With this major source of revenue gone, we requested a meeting with our landlord with a proposal for a dedicated space to sell the deli products. Although the proposal was well received, it would be several months before a space became available in our building. When a small store hidden behind the travel agency and with only a narrow alleyway as a shopfront freed up, my sister and I jumped on the opportunity to revive the Olive Branch Deli.
When we made the transition from informal table-top selling to having our own space, our scope was limited to the products we had been exposed to during our time at the watch-shop. Despite the small size of our new space, and after hauling all the products between the two stores which were on the same floor, we quickly realised that it was going to take some time to fill the shelves in the Olive Branch Deli's new home. Inquisitive passers-by would peek in only to find some attractive antique cabinets but not many products to buy. Our initial growth and momentum was provided for by our "regulars" from the watch-shop who, upon visiting the store for their weekly feta-fix, were told to "go to the kids" at their new space. Initial sales of the cheeses and olive oil provided us with some cash-flow to expand our range of Greek and Cypriot products. A few months into our new venture however, it dawned on us that although we had products which people really enjoyed, we didn't really have a concept or identity of our own to guide the decisions we made going forward.
It was at this time that we came up with the Community Grocer concept upon visiting some of the local farmer's markets in Cape Town. As the markets tend to operate on only one or two days a week, our idea was to create a space where our local producers and farmers could sell their products and grow their brands on a daily basis in the heart of the Cape Town CBD. As we didn't have a brand of our own, we decided to place the focus on our suppliers who already had a substantial following and through their exposure at the markets had a loyal customer base. Our growth from this point was slow but organic. As we visited more and more farmers markets around the Western Cape, we discovered an amazing portfolio of high-quality artisan ingredients and products to compliment, and in many cases, outshine the range of imported products we started out with. Equally rewarding in establishing relationships with our growing family of producers has been knowing that somewhere between farm and plate, a chain of events much like the one above, but with many more twists and turns, had to take place in order for them to get to where they are today. These are the stories which line our shelves at the Olive Branch Deli in Cape Town.
We can accrue a great majority of our initial growth to our regular base of customers who didn't only support us by sharing our story through word-of-mouth but, thanks to their various travel and work experiences, have shared with us a wealth of knowledge which has included recommendations for various products and suppliers who we work with today. Like the farmers markets from which we drew our initial inspiration, our transition from a traditional Delicatessen to a Community Grocer has mirrored a shifting emphasis among conscious consumers and producers towards an alternative food system where long-term considerations for sustainability and traceability take precedence over short-term profits and convenience respectfully. Helene's contribution to our growth at the Olive Branch Deli has been to cultivate a culture of uncompromising humanity and consciousness within our business decisions. These principles have manifested themselves in everything from the way we manage our internal waste, institutionalising recycling mechanisms with our suppliers, setting minimum standards when procuring new suppliers and her dedication to expanding our product knowledge and communicating this with our consumers.