“None of us had the faintest clue about how to run a coffee shop or restaurant; we just muddled along and learnt on the job,” confesses Sanmarie Swanepoel (the mother) of Oskars Café and Bakery. “Actually, all we knew about food was that we loved it,” adds Lizanne Olivier (the daughter), with a laugh.
And what about Oskar? Well, it turns out Oskar was more of an inspiration than an actual person, but like some of the other apparently random ideas of this creative family, it was definitely a winner. A mother of four, Sanmarie had always cherished the dream of owning her own guesthouse and coffee shop, so when she and her pharmacist husband decided to retire to Hermanus from Bronkhorstspruit, she saw her chance. The guesthouse came first, but as soon as it was well and truly established, she felt it was time to fulfil the second part of her dream.
When she heard of a vacant shop in the Quarters Hotel near Lemm’s Corner in Harbour Road, she decided to take the plunge, with the part-time assistance of her daughters, Lizanne and Ilana, who were both living in Cape Town. The venue was tiny; good enough, though, to test the waters and learn the necessary skills. But now, what to call it? They tossed various possibilities around, but none seemed right. Well, said Lizanne eventually, I’ve always thought if I had a baby boy, I would call him Oskar. And that, they all agreed, sounded just right – so Oskars it became.
That it was the perfect choice was confirmed when they heard that local writer and teacher, Oskar Prozesky had developed the Hermanus Photographic Museum just round the corner, and even more so when they learnt that the owner of the small clothing boutique which had preceded them in the premises had had a cat which she brought to work each day. Its name, of course… Oskar.
All this happened 11 years ago and in that time, Oskars has had four reincarnations – the second, on the opposite side of Harbour Road; then in the Village Square where the old Mugg and Bean had been – each shop a bit bigger than the one before – and finally, opposite Woolworths in Station Square, this time reversing the trend, to smaller is better. In the meantime, Lizanne had married and she and her husband had moved to Hermanus, while Ilana had remained in Cape Town, deciding to devote herself full-time to her career as an art designer.
In 2014 Lizanne formerly joined Sanmarie as a partner and they have jointly run the business ever since. “Luckily,” laughs Sanmarie, “we get on very well, apart from the occasional mother-daughter spat, but truth to tell, we complement each other.” When they sold the business in the Village Square in 2017, which had become just too big to handle comfortably, they decided enough was enough; it was time to shake off this responsibility. Lizanne had two small children by then and Sanmarie and her husband wanted more time to travel.
But as fate would have it, they suddenly heard that the small shop opposite Woolworths was available. Mother and daughter looked at each. “Okay, let’s go for it, but just for three years,” they agreed. They were taking a chance, of course; the previous two restaurants there had failed. However, once again, they proved to have a winning formula. Their three-year deadline has passed and they have no desire to opt out. Lizanne is unequivocal: “I just love my job. Every morning when I wake up and get ready for work, I’m excited. There are always new challenges, new opportunities.”
Sanmarie concurs. “I’ve been lucky to have travelled all over, especially in Europe and the Far East, as well as having done the Camino, twice, and one thing I’ve realised: often it’s not the museums or the churches or tourist traps that you really remember. It’s sitting in a small pavement café or restaurant together with locals, it’s the quality of the food you eat there, the conversations you may have, that’s what stays with you.
“In those small, individualised eateries, the owners are involved in every aspect of the business, and apart from excellent service delivery, they act as unofficial PROs for their countries’ tourism industry. That’s what Lizanne and I try to do at Oskars. We both like people and we want to create an environment where both locals and visitors can relax and have such a good food experience that they will want to come back.
“We are a team of 10, some of whom have been with us from the very beginning and they all understand that this is our philosophy. We use only the freshest, most wholesome locally-grown ingredients and we listen to our customers’ needs.” The delicious, creative lunch-time salads they prepare each day are a good example of this approach, as are their mouth-watering cakes and pastries and the delicious soups available in the winter months.
From the beginning, they did their own baking, both of breads and pastries, but as time went by, this aspect of the business grew by leaps and bounds, with many of the other top restaurants and coffee shops in the greater Hermanus area sourcing their breads from them.
“As you can imagine, during lockdown this aspect of the business, which accounts for a major proportion of our sales, absolutely crashed,” says Lizanne, “and it’s only now slowly starting to build up again. Of course, like everybody else, the period when we had to suspend all our activities was very difficult, but since first deliveries and then takeaways were permitted, we’ve re-imagined our offering, and our range of ready-cooked, take-away meals is proving to be increasingly popular, all still freshly prepared with the same beautiful ingredients.”
So no need for any of Oskars’ regulars to fear that Sanmarie and Lizanne are going to do a duck anytime soon. They’re planning to survive the pandemic, and have all kinds of new ideas bubbling under, until the right moment presents itself. When High Street eventually becomes a cobbled walkway they plan to be right there in the forefront, reaping the rewards.