Thirteen years ago, along with two partners, Michael Townsend bought a defunct Cantina Tequila at Kalk Bay Harbour from the liquidators who had been appointed to handle the closure of the restaurant when the previous only deserted it and his staff.
“It was only supposed to be an investment,” confirms Michael, “and we were going to resell it as soon as we could.”
Michael rebranded the new eatery Harbour House Restaurant.
Even though he has no fear of business and regards it all as a big game, Michael was reluctant to play too visible a role in the new restaurant.
As things happened though, a new buyer could not be found and so Michael and his partners decided to take it on as a long-term project. As the months turned into years Michael fell in love with the restaurant and the business of running it.
“What an impressive factory and showroom to work in,” he says with a sweeping gesture of his hand. And he is quite right. There can be fewer more evocative positions to own a restaurant in the world. Perched on the rocks between the sea and an authentic working village harbour it is a beautiful setting on even the most ‘ordinary’ day. When the weather changes the pounding sea turns a meal into an adventure as waves crash against the windows or along the harbour wall to demonstrate the immense power of the ocean. There have been times when Mother Nature has proved exactly who is boss and smashed the windows in flooding the entire restaurant! Michael and his staff remain philosophical about these destructive interludes and simply clean up the mess and start again as soon as they possibly can.
Those ‘bad’ days are balanced by the magical times when diners can enjoy a meal to the accompaniment of whales breaching in a calm bay under sunny skies. There can’t be many fine dining restaurants in the world where this experience is possible.
But Harbour House has become much more than just a beautiful setting. Michael is determined to offer five-star food that attracts discerning overseas tourists and also runs on-going special offers to ensure local residents can also afford the experience of dining at Harbour House.
“If you try hard and produce a good product, the margins will take care of themselves.” Michael stresses, revealing that while he believes work must be fun, he is deadly serious about producing the best possible dining experience for his guests.
Michael is not a restaurateur by trade. He is an entrepreneur who made his money when he and his partners floated their import business on the JSE. When the opportunity came to buy Cantina Tequila, Michael sold all his shares and made a small fortune.
“I could’ve made even more if I’d hung onto the shares,” laughs Michael, “they went up over 10 times in value!!”
But Michael is sincere when he says it’s not all about the money. In the early days of the business, he and his partners structured a deal with Kalk Bay fishing families who had come on hard times due to inadequate fishing quotas and licenses. They created the Kalk Bay Waterfront Development Company (KBWDC) and granted it shares in the building to which the Harbour House pays rent. Ten per cent of the value of KBWDC was made available to the fishing families.
It didn’t stop there however. To protect his future Michael bought out his two partners and chose to increase the number of shares available to fishing families to 49 per cent of the property-owning company.
“They are such an intrinsic part of Kalk Bay history,” says Michael, “and it’s been a pleasure to build a relationship with them over the last decade. I didn’t give them away because then they’d have no value to the shareholders,” explains Michael. “So we valued the shares at R10 000 each and allowed them to pay back their loan from dividends. Eighty per cent of their dividends had to go towards their loan.”
Although worth more, they valued the company at R12 million and shareholders see an average annual return of R1,25 million divided amongst the 134 families who make up the shareholders.
“It’s all been done in the correct way and in the correct spirit,” Michael says with genuine humility, “and we have built a very good relationship with the community. We have empowered people, most of who are aging, and given them the opportunity to earn their own living when the fishing industry was in decline.”
Michael has not rested on his laurels though and has developed the harbour precinct to include five restaurants: Harbour House; Polanna; Live Bait; Lucky Fish and Sirocco, the al fresco restaurant at Kalk Bay station.
And it doesn’t stop there because the KBWDC has several more projects in the pipeline to add value for the shareholders. One of which is bidding for the lease of the Black Marlin Restaurant at Millers point and turning it into a strandloper-type venue where Khoisan people can demonstrate their culture and lifestyle, the menu will include some traditional Khoisan food and ingredients.
Michael has also bought the lease for a restaurant at the V&A Waterfont which will be opening in October in time for the new season.
Although reluctant to discuss it, Michael’s community caring doesn’t end there. He personally pays for the schooling of five children - three at private school and they are now working for me too!”
Michael also pays for the upkeep of gardens on municipal land in Kalk Bay, makes regular donations to the Night Shelter and assists various other projects in and around the village.
Even though he is successful he has an obvious drive to have fun and do more. Michael Townsend really does have his feet planted firmly on the ground. A softy at heart and fearless in business, Michael empowers those around him to reach their full potential. Easily mistaken for a casually dressed holiday tourist instead of being recognised as one of Cape Town’s leading entrepreneurs he prefers not to make a fuss and is extremely reluctant to step forward from the background role he prefers to play. Michael is the greatest example of what business people can achieve in our new South Africa where it is no longer about just enriching yourself but also necessary to create opportunities for those around you too