‘Bad times fit’ – Ocean Basket’s recipe to tackle overseas markets – CEO Grace Harding

Written on 11/08/2022
Linda van Tilburg

Ocean Basket has been fishing in other waters since 2008 and when everybody battened down the hatches and pulled in the lines during the Covid-19 pandemic, the advice of the company’s founder was: it’s time to think about growing. The seafood restaurant, loved by South Africans, has just opened its second branch in London – a notoriously difficult market for restaurateurs. Ocean Basket CEO Grace Harding gave Linda van Tilburg the recipe for success in overseas markets, told her how Saffers in the UK are coming from far to eat at their favourite seafood restaurant, and how they are battling to find staff in London after Brexit. – Linda van Tilburg

When other companies retreat, think of growing 

A lot of the planning for the UK happened during COVID. When COVID hit us in April 2020, we met with our founder and we said, ‘Oh, what are we going to do to survive? And he said, ‘No, now you’ve got to think about growing.’ That was the best piece of advice. It kept our minds off all of the COVID drama for a while. So, we opened our first restaurant in the UK in February of this year and Kingston has been open for nearly two weeks now. Kingston-on-Thames. But it took a long time to plan. Even though we only really got stuck in, in earnest, in May 2020, we’ve been getting the infrastructure ready for many years before that. 

Having the support of South African expats

Well, we’re very lucky to have incredible support from the Saffers. They are definitely missing home. We’ve had people driving more than 3 hours to come and eat at Bromley. Some people were sleeping over, but now that Kingston is open, we’re starting to see some of the Saffers come to Kingston, which means that it’s a bit closer for them. But Bromley is a lovely people restaurant. It’s only got 95 seats. We’ve had a wedding reception there already upstairs. Bromley is a very different environment to Kingston. It’s a much smaller area; we’re on the corner, it’s very local. Kingston- upon-Thames it’s just got a bit more, vava-voom. It’s got a younger crowd and I think it’s a more flourishing area. I haven’t gotten to grips with all the zones yet, but it’s definitely a different zone from Bromley. But Bromley is a great restaurant and it is our first child, so it has a special place in our heart. 

You can’t run a UK business with a South African brain and as ‘a bad times fit’

Opening in the UK is very different. Dubai, Mauritius, some of the other countries we were in, I mean we were even in Kazakhstan, which is a very unusual place to serve seafood. It is very different coming to the UK. The UK is proper, proper First World. The dynamics are very different. We have also entered the UK at a time where the British people are dealing with interest rate hikes and they are hysterical. I must say we do giggle a little bit when we hear about that. 

This brand definitely seems to be a sort of “bad times” fit. The brand started in ‘95 when the interest rates were 23% and the white people thought they had to run away. I’m humbled that you say success. We’ve only been in the UK for about eight months. I think we need to just carry on knuckling down. We are still battling with our infrastructure, we are living and learning every day. But if you had to say to me, why have many South African brands not made it? I think there’s a couple of things. Number one, you need to be very humble and be able to say, I know I’m entering the big world and I better be sharp and I better ask for help. I think sometimes perhaps people don’t want to ask for help. The worst thing is to say, well, look how successful I am in South Africa, look how successful I am in Dubai, I can make it in London. Ocean Basket is a 28-year-old brand and we’ve only arrived now in London. So, you’ve got to be humble and then you’ve got to do your homework. The restaurant industry or fraternity have not always been the most scientific bunch of people. It’s very much the guy who started his first restaurant and he’s done so well, and now he’s going to the UK, or to America or Australia. It’s a very different world. This is proper, proper first world and you cannot run the UK business with your South African brain. That is the one thing I’ve learnt in just eight months. When I speak to you again in eight months’ time, I hope I will have learnt much more.

Finding help to build the business in the UK 

I was very lucky to meet some great people in the UK. There’s one particular chap, Derick Martin, who I met in 2019 and he’s been in the restaurant industry, bakery industry, catering. Catering is huge in the UK. People have contracts to feed all the schoolchildren and things like that. I met him and he’s been an incredible support and a guide, and he still is helping us with strategic support now and then just through getting into the community. So, the restaurant community is very friendly in the UK. I think the competition is different here. There are 250,000 restaurants and there are about 10,000 in South Africa. So, I think they co-operate much better here. They’ve been very welcoming. Anne Elliot, all sorts of different associations have welcomed me, Casual Dining people and every time I pick up the phone and say, ‘Can you help me? Nando’s has been so helpful, Trudi van Niekerk from Nando’s. So, I reach out and people help. It’s great.

Can Ocean Basket break the British habit of deep-frying fish and just about everything else, including Mars bars? 

This ocean basket is not a fish restaurant. So, the first thing is the positioning is seafood and if we look at the food coming out of kitchens, it’s over 85% the platters. During the week, we are definitely seeing the older people who are coming for their cod and chips. Some of them are trying hake. Are they going to eat more grilled food? Who knows? But perhaps; they’re eating the platters and the whole fish that isn’t fried. I think fish and chips equals fried; seafood equals let me try something different because seafood in the UK is either very, very fancy and those beautiful layers of cold seafood and crab sticks and this is something new for them. So, they are enjoying the platters and most of the stuff on the platter is grilled. 

Brexit has caused havoc in the availability of restaurant staff in the UK

Brexit has just caused absolute havoc. If you had to say, what’s the biggest challenge? Number one is going to be labour, number two is going to be labour and number three is going to be labour. It’s really difficult. Our staff complement is so reliant on students, which is good and not good. You still want to build a team; you want people to have a succession plan and many of these students are studying sociology or whatever. But I also think that is an opportunity to position the restaurant industry as a career of choice and worldwide it isn’t. That’s a really huge obsession. Like they used to say in America, join the army and travel to interesting places. We need to do that with the restaurant industry. The restaurant industry needs its place in the sunshine and people need to know it can be a really dynamic career. So, labour is a huge issue and I don’t understand Brexit, but it definitely has affected all of us.

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