Think clinking red wine glasses, light jazz instrumentals playing in the background and waiters and waitresses serving creatively presented food, worthy of social media snaps. As someone who enjoys this kind of lifestyle and appreciates the hard work put in by entrepreneurs behind these establishments, I’ve always been curious about what it really takes to successfully run a restaurant business. One woman who is serving up healthy delicacies and killing it, is the Founder of Green Lounge, located in Durban, Onicca Moloi.
As an activist, chef, nutritional therapist, and former MEC for the department of sports, arts and culture in Limpopo, Onicca took her courage from many years of political and community activism. It is not surprising that she led a government portfolio that deals specifically with creativity and the betterment of young people’s lives. Onicca is creative at heart, and she loves working with young people, particularly women with the goal of making their lives better.
She has made her mark in politics and is now writing her story in hospitality. Here’s how our conversation went…
Q. You have always been a creative person at heart, from being a qualified chef, writing a cookbook, and running an events company while attending to your duties as an MEC. Was there an influence and connection between your creativity and political position?
I think what got me into this field is the fact that I am passionate about youth development and as a person who has always been an activist, I’ve always been about seeing young people using their gift to empower themselves into bettering their lives to contribute to society. I’ve always believed that sport, as Mandela would say, can be an equalizer. Sport can create jobs, contribute to the economy and deal with several social ills that we have in our communities. That is why when this opportunity was presented to me, I accepted it with both hands because I understood the role that I had to play as an MEC.
I was a researcher for the ANC and the legislature from 2003 to 2014 and I was responsible for portfolios of sports, arts, and culture. So, I’ve been in this field for almost 15 years. When this position came, I had already worked with this portfolio for such a long time, and I understood its role and impact not only in social cohesion but in the growth of the economy. So, it was not really about my creativity as a businessperson, but it was more about my passion in terms of the development of young people of South Africa.
Q. Moving from a government position of influence to being your own employer must have a huge adjustment. Can you describe your state of mind after resigning as MEC, and when it dawned on you that you are your own woman now?
As you know, I resigned. It was unprecedented. for somebody to resign from the position that is deemed to be known glamorous, and in all honesty there’s nothing glamorous about being an MEC. It’s about hard work, sacrificing family time, always making sure that you do more with less and making sure that you change the lives of people. So, the uncertainty was there – you ask yourself whether it was the right decision or not. The uncertainty also creeps in when you start asking yourself questions on whether the work that was started was going to continue without you. I’ve already made up my mind that I needed a new path and a path that would make me grow not only as a politician, but as Onicca as a whole.
Q. What was the reason behind locating your restaurant in Durban?
I was led by the Spirit. I had not been to Durban nor established a business there. This is my first restaurant and for a young woman who originates from Limpopo having to pass Joburg and go to Durban was something that did not make sense to a lot of people including to my own family, because my kids were like ‘’hau mommy, Durban?’’ But for me it was something that God said to me vividly and that’s something that was tangible in the Spirit.
I believe that economically, Durban is the best destination in terms of tourism and the people there love beautiful things, Green Lounge offers that. I believe that Durban has got various demographics of people, both black and white, as well as various classes – which then aligns with the establishment. Durban is the greenest city in the world, so I feel like there’s a connection there.
Q. You developed a well-researched Covid19 recovery programme that is based on nutrition, mindfulness, indigenous knowledge, and fitness. Tell us more about this, and how people can access it.
Everything that we need for healing, God has provided. After the whole world was taken by storm by the pandemic, I had to sit down and figure out what I could do as an individual with the gift of healing that God has given me. I then started to look for ways our grandmothers used to deal with various flues, and I went around and interviewed various people, even within the conventional medicine space to ask what we can do to deal with this. I know a lot about indigenous ways of healing colds and flues so for me it was just a combination of a whole range of things.
Q. You have married being a nutritional therapist and wellness coach beautifully with being a chef. Green Lounge’s menu looks exquisite and healthy. Take us through the process of deciding on such a menu.
As a person who loves food and fine dining, as well as clean healthy eating, I believe that it was a great journey for me, having to say what I would personally love to eat when I get to a restaurant and the kind of things that I would love to see on the menu. I’ve researched various restaurants and their offerings across the world. I had to make sure that it was not just about me but about catering to various people and their pallets. I finally met with the head chef for Green Lounge who was also equally passionate but not very keen about healthy eating.
We had to combine both our skills with me being a nutritionist and getting a chef who has been working in five-star restaurants in the US. It was a good combination for the times when I am being overly sensitive about the health aspect of things.
Q. You have had the honour of cooking for former President Jacob Zuma. Tell us about that experience, and can you share other names of prestigious people you have cooked for?
Yes, we cooked for President Jacob Zuma in 2009 when he came to Limpopo for the National Women’s Day. We also cooked for him again when he came to meet the traditional leaders in Limpopo. It was nerve wrecking in all honesty because there’s a different protocol about that. There was the defense and inspectors who came in to scout the place where we would be working from. There was a lot of protocol. They had to know where you procure the food, how you cook, how you transport the products and how you set up the temperature of the food. Even though it was very nerve wracking, it was a great experience.
We’ve also cooked for President Cyril Ramaphosa and various Ministers – probably half of the cabinet has been fed by us, including various celebrities as well.
Q. There is still a lack of black chefs owning and running top establishments, let alone women in these positions. You are one of the few who have made the dream of owning an establishment possible. How has this industry welcomed you?
I’ve always been in the food industry. I’ve been a chef for 20 years; I first started a catering company in 2003 so this is not a new industry for me. What I just did was to venture into an outlet in which for me was both an opportunity and a challenge. The upside is that we intend to franchise and expand Green Lounge to other cities across the continent. What’s challenging about running the restaurant is that it is not like running a catering business.
Q. What do you think needs to be done to ensure that black women are able to enter the industry as chefs, and also own their establishments?
I was actually very sad when we were interviewing people. Not a lot of women came forth to be interviewed as chefs. I’ve also realized that in many of the restaurants, there’s a higher number of male chefs. I believe that we need to have more women in the industry who will be able to be bold enough. Women are lagging in terms of leading in the hospitality industry. We need to encourage women to take up space because the future is female.
There are numerous barriers, I mean the issue of funding was a challenge for me. The business was almost self-funded. The biggest challenge is always the issue of access to funding more than anything.
Q. What are the ingredients for excellence at Green Lounge?
The ingredient for excellence is that I teach my staff exceptionalism. I have gone to tons of restaurants, and this is what I’ve always been teaching. I used to tell my staff that many people start catering because it’s a business that does not have a lot of challenges. So what kept us in the industry for such a long time is because of what I call exceptionalism and being able to be different in your offering, in your approach and paying close attention to detail.
Q. Your foundation, Thalita Koum Girls Network improves the lives of young girls from disadvantaged areas and helps needy learners enrol at institutions of higher learning. How are the learners that you have helped, performing academically at their institutions of higher learning?
Thalita Koum means young girl rise up. It is a great initiative. Most of the girls have already graduated and I am trying to mentor them to start their own businesses. We are very happy because we were able to help young girls brighten their future.
Q. You have three children. As a woman who has worked in many fields, what career path do you foresee your children pursuing?
I have very beautiful children , and I’ve got other children as well that I’m raising, and I honestly just expect and believe in God for a brighter future for my children. I’m training them to be independent, responsible, daring, and exceptional. My first born is 23, completing an LLB qualification, my second born is a professional dancer at 17 years old and the youngest is 13 years old, he wants to be a scientist. He is one of those kids that will tell you things that you’ve never heard about. He’ll tell you about philosophers and all these exciting things.
I will not want to decide what they must be but all that I want is to be there supporting and rooting for them in all that they do.
Q. It is women’s month, and you recently hosted an event at Green Lounge for women. Tell us about that, and also share your wise words for a girl with dreams reading this.
We hosted a beautiful event at Green Lounge, we were fully booked on the day. An artist also performed, and it was generally about celebrating women, who they are, and their contribution in society. My message to women is to put in the work in everything we do. Nothing is going to be served to us on a silver platter but as we do that, let us trust God.
Just as she has made her mark in politics, Onicca is working hard to make sure her name is cemented in the hospitality industry. What makes her story livelier is that she is pulling up other women along the way. A pure example of ‘the table is big enough for all of us.’ We hope she takes along more women through her journey in the hospitality industry.