Above: Amawele’s Refreshers brings an infusion of leaves from the Rooibos plant.
Wendy and Pamela Drew moved to the U.S. from Durban, South Africa, in 2005. Upon their arrival, the twin sisters noticed an overwhelming number of restaurants in San Francisco not drawing inspiration from as many countries as they hoped, including the rainbow nation itself.
“So we were looking for a catering company. It feels like nothing, no representation of South African food at all,” said Wendy.
San Francisco had been a food city for years. And after developing more restaurants per capita than any other city in one of the highest-consuming countries in the world, it was only becoming more and more food-obsessed.
By 2012, the city had 39.3 restaurants per 10,000 households. Yet it wasn’t until 2013 when Amawele’s became the first South African food establishment in San Francisco history.
Despite opening in the Financial District, the restaurant never charged customers extra for its cultural exclusivity. Instead, the Drews opted to provide an authentic and affordable no-frills South African culinary experience.
By proxy, the menu taps into English, Dutch, and Malaysian cuisines without cutting corners. The Cape Malay Rice is sweet, complementing savory courses like Peppered Steak and Mushroom Pie, as well as the Loaded Cottage Pie. Plus, the Durban-styled curry comes with chicken or beans, and it is topped with Bunny Chow Curry sauce.
“You know, this misconception that South African food is crocodile food is crazy. And this comes from people that travel to South Africa or travel to safari,” said Wendy.
“And then they come back to the U.S…not realizing that South Africa is not safari.”
Breaking the rules for marketing South Africa to the world requires debunking the mythical hype behind safaris. Just in 2018/19, the Department of Tourism in South Africa injected over $7 billion into its national economy. The department historically relies on sensationalized advertising featuring safari experiences to attract more tourists.
But this promotional tactic misses an opportunity to educate foreign markets on geography and ethnic groups across the country, including the Zulu. Hence why the Drews reflect on their own upbringing: No smoke and mirrors are needed since they always prided themselves on growing up in a multicultural environment.
“We’re just gonna need a full reach forward…when branding, you better have a story behind it,” said Wendy.
After closing its brick-and-mortar location last year, Amawele’s pivoted from its kitchen concept by evolving into a food subscription business in 2019. The new concept prioritizes catering and online ordering for consumers, which drastically reduced operating costs.
It even allows the business to avoid harsher consequences of owning a restaurant during the coronavirus pandemic. Because the Drews do not serve customers in-person anymore, they deal with fewer public safety hazards. They have more time to focus on cooking, meaning the sisters can make 300 servings for one single event or handcraft meal boxes for monthly plans.
Scalable recipes could also transform the local family-owned kitchen into an iconic brand with staying power. The Rooibos Refresher—Amawele’s first-ever packaged drink—is a naturally decaffeinated herbal brew made with a Rooibos plant, which is exclusive to South Africa.
The Rooibos Refresher’s distinct charm is difficult to replicate. And that opens up the floodgates for the Drews, who are eager to place Amawele’s products in retail stores.
“We need to get to a point where we can find Amawele’s in grocery stores,” said Wendy.
Until then, you can enjoy Amawele’s products in the comfort of your own home by subscribing here.