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Epsom Thai Restaurant – From virtual kitchen to full on dining experience

Before the pandemic, Mamane was consulting as an environmental scientist – her business was gaining momentum with a team of six specialists employed to support the growth.   And suddenly the world came to a screeching halt.   You guessed right – the journey of becoming a restauranteur began at the height of COVID for Epsom Thai owner, Mamane Moeketsane

As did the rest of the world, she and her family surrendered to being grounded.   Weeks in, Mamane and her family had had enough of trying out new recipes and endless binging of Netflix – it’d become clear that things were not about to get back to ‘normal’.  With her consulting business not classified as a primary service, she started contemplating other income generating options, “Also, it was important that we diversify in terms of investments.” She adds.

Restrained by lockdown, ideas were limited to only primary services, and she’d noticed that she and her family had been ordering food via delivery apps at least three times a week.  This observation set her on a path of research that led to a discovery of a virtual kitchen called Jozi Cloud Kitchen – which offered a rental of a fully kitted commercial kitchen at a reasonable rate and all that was needed was a brand, seasoned chefs and working capital.

As to why Thai – her response was simple, “I love Thai food, but I’ve always felt that we could do with more – maybe an improved taste but I wasn’t sure how.”  With that, Mamane continued her exploration and when she found a chef who shared her vision, she read it as a sign to proceed and fully commit to the business of managing a virtual restaurant also known as a dark kitchen.

Mamane was pleasantly surprised by the growth, “In our first month in April 2020, we had 100 orders.  By the fourth month we were delivering 1000 orders – all through UberEats, Mr D and Bolt Food apps – it was incredible!”

She ran the virtual kitchen for two years until she couldn’t ignore the many customers’ cry for a fuller experience that was beyond ordering via a tablet or smartphone – with enquiries such as, ‘I’d like to book a table of 10 for a birthday’.

In December 2022, Epsom Thai Fusion opened its doors for its customer base to have a dining experience that is elegant and classy in terms of décor with an upmarket level of hospitality.  The best way to describe their food is memorable and tantalising with beautiful surprises of contrasting flavours.  Mamane labels her niche as ‘Thai Fusion’ – a cuisine that originates from authentic Thai flavours yet adjusted to suit a Southern African palette.

It is no surprise that, in just four months of operating, the restaurant caught the attention of the famous Restaurant Week competition – where 51 restaurants were sampled competing to be titled the best in Johannesburg.  Even though Epsom Thai wasn’t rated the best out of all participating restaurants – this new kid on the block scored a point below the winner, Marble restaurant in Rosebank.

On how running a brick-and-mortar business is compared to a virtual kitchen, Mamane admits that it wouldn’t be easy without her supportive husband who, luckily, as much as he’s an executive – makes time to pick up their first son from school, and she adds, “Which was something I looked forward to everyday because the virtual kitchen allowed for that.”

From a financial standpoint, she’s clear that even though the restaurant is holding its own, it would have been impossible to sustain it without the help of her supportive husband.

Mamane is not afraid to admit that the demands of a physical restaurant are incomparable to that of a dark kitchen.  With the former, as an owner, you are accountable for everything – from look and feel, capex, employee behaviour and making sure each customer gets a memorable experience consistently.

“Even though it gets overwhelming, the reaction and satisfaction from our customers when they take that first spoon of that red Thai curry or any other meal – it makes up for all the challenges.  The sense of accomplishment doesn’t compare.” She reflects. “Another blessing we don’t take for granted is having regular customers – from families, individuals and group of friends who have made us a part of their weekly routine and culture – it’s so heartwarming.”

She lights up with excitement when asked about choosing one item for Lifestyle and Tech readers.  She blushes and confesses, “I could never choose one!  There’s three.”  And she goes on to list them – salivating as she describes each one.

  • Top on the list is the Tom Yum Prawn Soup – medium chilli.
  • Second is the Red Curry with steamed rice, “keep your starch plain to allow the curry to shine.” She advices.
  • The third one is a tie between egg Fried rice (Khao Phad) and a good old Phad Thai.

Mamane, a proud Motswana – while still involved in her environmental consultancy – is determined to take on the challenge of expanding the Thai Fusion brand across Gauteng and beyond in the next five years.  Even though she stumbled upon this newfound passion due to circumstances – she loves that it offers both a challenge and a deep sense of satisfaction.

On whether she has any concerns about the competition from other popular Thai restaurants – she smiles, “The market is big enough for everyone – so no, not really.” And she concurs with the words of socialite and businesswoman, Kim Kardashian that ‘They can steal the recipe, but the sauce won’t taste the same.’

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Ndumi Hadebe is the author of Handle Black Tax Like – Setting Boundaries, Improving Relationships and Achieving freedom. 

With more than a decade of corporate experience and another as an entrepreneur, she lives her passion through her coaching business, Kwande Consulting – where she and a team of specialist- coaches support corporate teams and executives with coaching programs that are geared towards bridging efficiency and productivity gaps. 

She’s also a facilitator and speaker on topics such as Boundaries = Self-Love, Boundaries for Productivity, Boundaries for Goals and Handling Black Tax Like a Pro. www.ndumihadebe.co.za