The Kruger Park’s New Restaurants

The deck at Lower Sabie, upon which their restaurant is situated.

The deck at Lower Sabie, upon which their restaurant is situated.

This has been a fairly controversial week in the life of the Kruger National Park. On Wednesday the 30th of October, South African National Parks (SANParks) announced the successful bidders for the provision of restaurant and retail services at various national parks under its management. To be fair, something needed to be done about the restaurants in the Kruger National Park. I don’t think anyone will disagree with that. But plenty of people are in disagreement with SANParks about their new restaurant choices.

I prefer to braai (barbecue) and prepare most of my own meals in the Kruger, so I don’t generally make too much use of the restaurant facilities, apart from the odd toasted sandwich, and a meal at the Selati Station Grill House one night in 2011 when it was pouring with rain and I had no chance of getting a fire started! But even I had a few complaints. Not from the Selati Station Grill House, though – it was brilliant, but from the “Wooden Banana” take-away/simple meal-type restaurants. They are certainly overpriced, their service is fairly poor in my experience and cleanliness never seems to be too high on their list of priorities. I had a pretty good breakfast at Tshokwane in September this year, but I have to say that I chose to turn a blind eye to the dirty state that the kitchen was in.

The list goes on, I suppose. I’ll never forget the first time we arrived in the Kruger Park after the decision was first made to outsource restaurant operations. It happened somewhere around 2001, I think. I would’ve been about 13 or 14 years old, and I can just remember thinking “what kind of name is ‘Wooden Banana’ for a restaurant?”. Back then I got the distinct impression that nobody had bothered to put too much thought into it, and those initial cracks began to show within a few years. I’m sure the Compass Group, who operates the “Wooden Bananas” throughout the park, made big promises back then. I wouldn’t know – I probably wasn’t old enough to be aware of these things. But if such promises were made, it wouldn’t appear as though anyone followed through on them.

But for SANParks and the Kruger National Park, it made a great deal of financial sense. Fortunately, SANParks is run by a group of people who, for the most part, really seem to care for the Kruger Park, and who seem to be sensitive to the opinions of those of us who love it so much. So when it became clear that enough was enough, and that the outsourced restaurants just weren’t cutting it, SANParks stepped in.

They started off by asking 5464 of us about our opinions, needs and preferences, and also about the main issues driving the numerous complaints received regarding the restaurants. Based on the results of this, SANParks knew a change was in order, and they engaged on the new restaurant tenders in March 2013.

To cut out as much of the beating-around-the-bush as possible, here are the changes that SANParks will be making:

·         Lower Sabie, Olifants and Letaba camps will be getting Mugg and Bean restaurants, which will be fully operational from March 2014;

·         Pretoriuskop and Satara rest camps will have Wimpy restaurants – also expected to be operational by March 2014;

·         Skukuza’s Selati Station Grill House will be replaced by Ciao! and should start operations in December 2013; and

·         Skukuza’s main camp restaurant and take away will be run by Cattle Baron and Bistro. Operations here will only start in May 2014 due to extensive refurbishment – which is good news.

Rest assured, SANParks have done their homework on this. But the moment the announcement came, I knew it would be met with some fierce opposition from the public – and fierce opposition was there indeed. If you’re part of the SANParks and SANParks Kruger National Park groups on Facebook, you’ll know that people were not happy.

Initially, I have to say that I was unhappy too. I mean, long-gone are the days when you knew that the restaurant was ready to serve dinner when you heard the distant sound of African drums being beaten. I’ll never forget that – I actually get a bit excited just reminiscing on this. My dad used to carry me to the restaurant on his shoulders every evening so that I could see the drums being played. But as great as the memories are, the reality is a thing of the past.

I think that what all of us have to accept is that the good old days aren’t coming back. This does not, of course, mean that restaurant facilities will be bad in the Park – just that they’ll be different. To be different means that there needs to be change, and change can be very good. Embracing change is something we should all try to do.

The point I’m getting at is that although the drums that signalled dinner time are nothing more than a memory, as are the brilliant meals that were served back then, I’m not ready to drive into Satara and see one of those massive red and white signs that you see outside petrol stations along highways advertising the presence of a Wimpy. I’m not ready to see red and white umbrellas outside the restaurant, covered in Wimpy branding. Fortunately, this won’t be the case. Like I’ve said, most of the people who run the Kruger Park love it like we do, and it’s been agreed that Wimpy’s colours will be altered to look more like this (photo c/o SANParks):

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Seeing as the colour scheme looks like it will be more at home in the bush, I felt a bit better about things. I wasn’t the only person with concerns, though, and some people actually became properly nasty, aggressive and abusive on the social networks. The major concerns that seemed to surface, though, were the following:

1. What research was done to inform the decision to solicit Branded Restaurants?

2. There will be more road kill due to speeding delivery trucks.

3. There will be more litter produced by the takeaways.

Lesego Nko of SANParks has addressed these concerns really well, and I’d really encourage you to have a look at her official statement here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/kruger.sanparks/permalink/10151684980431456/

But to summarise, this is what SANParks says. First of all, and to my delight – SANParks is excited that their new restaurant partners are happy to tone down the signage and interior décor in order to be more aligned with the sense of place of each restaurant.

With regards to concerns about more road kill due to more delivery trucks, let’s first think about this quickly. There are already restaurants in the park that require deliveries. Regardless of the quality of their food, it’s always been in high demand, because of the “monopoly” that these restaurants essentially enjoy – as there is no alternative to buying a cooked meal in the Kruger. But, as I’ve said, they are a company called the Compass Group. If you heard that name outside of this context, would you even know who I was talking about? Probably not.

I must add that the Compass Group is a massive company, but they don’t have the sort of presence in South Africa that is required to lead to accountability on their part, and practically no corporate identity or public image that needs to be looked after. With no disrespect intended, if you read a headline in the newspaper that said something about the Compass Group, would you know who that is? I don’t really think so. In fact, I spent about 5 minutes on their website trying to work out who they are, and although they’re very quick to tell you how wonderful they are and how many people they employ, in 5 minutes, I couldn’t spot one name of a restaurant they operate or anything like that.

Now, Famous Brands, on the other hand are the franchisor for the majority of restaurants through the Mugg & Bean and Wimpy brands. Famous Brands is Africa’s leading quick service and casual dining restaurant franchisor. As of 2012, the company’s global footprint stood at 2,043 franchised stores spread across South Africa, 17 other African countries and the United Kingdom. The company also consists of manufacturing, logistics and food services divisions. What does this mean? Well quite simply, they are obviously good at what they do, and they have a massive reputation at stake, and I doubt that they are going to allow that to be compromised by a careless driver that runs over a couple of Impala or something. To add to that, SANParks had this to say: “Famous Brands will be re-designing the kitchen in order to provide a quality product. The re-design will in some cases lead to an increase in fridge, freezer and storage space and ultimately result in fewer deliveries happening”. This is logical, and I’m all-for this.

Then, moving onto the litter problem. Here’s how SANParks are tackling the issue: All of the new operators have to subscribe to multiple environmentally-friendly initiatives which could be far-reaching in terms of looking after the environment. Apart from adhering to rules relating to preferred pest control chemicals, prohibited chemical substances, subscribing to the pest management plan, recycling, optimal water use and limiting litter, all of their packaging has to be biodegradable. Currently, very little of the packaging on offer from the “Wooden Banana” is biodegradable as far as I know, and I think that this initiative alone will lead to a huge improvement in the pollution/litter issue.

So here’s how it stands. The choice has been made, and I have no doubt that contracts have been signed. This means that when you go to the Kruger Park, there are going to be Mugg and Bean, Wimpy, Ciao! and Cattle Baron restaurants. No amount of rude comments on SANParks’ Facebook page is going to change that. But, these operators are all going to tone-down their signage and branding so that it still feels like you’re enjoying a meal in the Kruger National Park, and not in Sandton City (which is one of the largest shopping malls in Africa).

As I said to someone who was pretty mad about all of this the other day, is it really such a bad thing that next time you sit down for some bacon & eggs in the Kruger Park, you’ll know that only the highest quality ingredients were used, the service was good, the facilities were clean, and all of this comes at the personal expense of nothing more than a possible “Wimpy” logo on your plate? I think I can live with that.

A few more things to consider are that if prices don’t come down as a result, at least you’ll be getting much better value for your money. Also, this time around, the environment really has been taken into consideration. Jobs will be created and under the reigns of Famous Brands, proper job training will happen too. You’ll certainly have a better overall meal experience, and at the same time, all of this will be creating revenue for the Game Reserve that we all love so much.

So here’s what I propose. Because the decision has been made, and is final, let’s rather stand behind SANParks and the Kruger National Park, and support them through these changes. Instead of flinging abuse at them on their Facebook & Twitter accounts, let’s rather try to constructively criticise them. After all, National Parks are OUR parks, as South Africans – and if you’re from countries elsewhere in the world, we love that you can enjoy our beautiful country too. So we do need to keep SANParks accountable, but from what I can tell, when suggestions that actually have value and substance to them are made on the Kruger Park’s Facebook page, Stephens and Lesego who admin the page really do act on these suggestions.

Let’s embrace this change. Next time you’re in the Kruger Park, come back to camp after your morning game drive and go and have a “lekker’ South African brunch at Wimpy with the family. Talk about what you spotted on your game drive. Discuss, as we all do, the things that you love so much about the Kruger Park. Enjoy a cup of coffee that I can guarantee will be a lot better than the stuff they’re currently serving. Embrace being able to share a good meal with the people you love the most, while sitting at a restaurant inside the greatest game reserve on the planet. And trust me, when you’re done, I think you’ll find that it really wasn’t so bad. Who knows, you may even find that you quite liked it.

If Wimpy and Mugg & Bean stick to the agreements they seem to have made with SANParks, and if they fulfil their promises (which I think they will), then our Kruger Park isn’t going to become a commercialised mall, as some people are saying. It’s going to be just the same as it always was. Except, you’ll probably get a better meal when you go to the restaurant.

Don’t forget that you can connect with me in the following ways:

Twitter: @ExploreKNP

Facebook: www.facebook.com/exploreknp

E-mail: exploreknp@gmail.com

Also, please feel free to leave a comment below. I’d love to hear how you feel about all of this.

Take care,

ExploreKNP.

 

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