SA on a plate: ‘It’s about time Kruger got rid of terrible restaurants’

2017-09-23 12:01 - Selene Brophy
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Cape Town - A legal battle to improve the food and beverage offering in South Africa’s flagship national park, Kruger is coming to a head - but does this apparent tourism experience failure hold an opportunity to finally showcase SA cuisine at its best?

Expectations are high when it comes to the likes of Kruger, with substandard food offerings leaving a bitter taste and spreading far and wide thanks to social media word of mouth.

Many visitors agree service excellence and authentic South African cuisine often come at a high price at various private lodge offerings dotted around the greater Kruger region.

But for day-visitors to the park the offerings have been paltry in comparison, and in some cases downright “terrible”.

On Thursday, 21 September South African National Parks (SANParks) confirmed it would be pulling the plug on three Ringgold outlets operating in Kruger's Letaba, Satara and Olifants rest camps.

In March 2017, Famous Brands’ terminated Ringgold’s operating Mugg and Bean franchise agreements ordering it to pull all branding and association within in 10 days after “extensive measures to correct and remedy the breach of contract were ignored”.   

SANParks, regretting the overall breakdown in service delivery has had to manage ongoing disputes and wage strikes, ultimately putting pop-up restaurants in place to offer guests an acceptable food and beverage alternative.

SEE: Kruger camps see restaurant shake-up due to ‘poor service’ 

However the legal dispute between Ringgold and SANParks is ongoing as Ringgold is challenging the validity of the award.   

But what does the forward plan look like for the iconic Kruger?

Following Thursday’s announcement that SANparks would cut power to the outlets as Ringgold has also not been paying its utility bills, many regular visitors to Kruger said finally years of complaints have been recognised and that the decision “was about time”, calling the offering “terrible”, “greasy” and “downright shocking”.

SANParks spokesperson for Kruger National Park Rey Thakhuli told Traveller24, “We run a reputable organisation and cannot afford mediocrity. We are really looking to protect the interest of our customers.”

When asked about the offerings of the pop-ups Thakhuli says, “They offer a traditional South African food and braai menu."

Thakhuli could not confirm an average cost per head but says, “They are affordable and not expensive at all.”

Questions continue to be asked about whether restaurant chains are the best choice when it comes to one of South Africa’s most popular heritage tourism offerings.

The likes of Mugg and Bean and Wimpy are undoubtedly safe choices, yet South Africa has an epic food scene - with a number of globally recognised chefs.

SEE: Food for Thought: Why is Africa not the best foodie destination on the globe?

Reuben Riffel and Luke Dale Roberts easily spring to mind - and if the likes of Gordon Ramsay can strategically work on an affordable kids range with one of SA’s biggest supermarket offerings - it raises the stakes as to whether an affordable, yet authentic way to plate SA’s unique tastes could be put in place in the park.

When asked whether SANParks would look at forming associations with those who are successfully offering SA Heritage on a plate, Thakhuli says SANParks has presented an extensive long-term plan for investment opportunities across its parks. 

“It would be up to those who are able to put forward the plan and follow the necessary procedures,” says Thakhuli.

In April this year SANParks announced a total of 54 new eco-tourism investment opportunities for 10 of SA's National Parks, including Kruger. The new public–private partnerships (PPPs) include opportunities to implement and run activities, restaurants and retail, accommodation as well as lodge concessions.  

You can view all the development opportunities in the 10 outlined National Parks here

“We are obligated to serve our customers and protect their needs and will continue to do so,” he says.

But as the school holiday period looms - for now the pop-ups will have to do as the legal challenge with Ringgold continues - with no clear deadline in place.

SEE: Taste SA's delicious heritage in 5 authentic dishes

Here’s what some of those in the SANParks Kruger group had to say about the closure:

‘About time!’

Gen Hanekom says, “Good to know that customer complaints were noted and acted upon.”

Sally Morgan, “It terrifies me that we will go back to the ULTRA disgusting and expensive food (if one can call it that) we were being served before Famous Brands went in.”

 Costs of food is also a big issue as Jeff Newman says, “R76 for pie n half dozen chips, excellent breakfast at Tindlovu Mopani though”  

Diane du Toit found the news of the closure “very good” saying, “Services was shocking when we visited in August. The only place with good service and friendly staff were at Afsaal,” she says.

Robert Mashau says, “I think it's time for SANPARKS to listen to their clients or else we must boycott all these fast food outlets in the park and stay outside the park.....    

Geoffrey Michael van Lear hopes “a competent supplier is installed sooner than later. This has gone on long enough to the detriment of all concerned. Well done SAPARKS. At last!!"

SEE: Foodie Travel: How SA's unique eating habits compare to the rest of the world

‘Workers bot’

Eloise Saayman says,”Hoogtyd....patetiese diens!!! Werkers bot en onbeskof en kos was nooit op standaard nie!!”

Lettie Rogers found the service was the worst at Satara, “We had the most disgusting meal...the service was bad and very slow...people were getting their own menus...had to get up to get their own salt. The staff was unfriendly...bad for Kruger :( "

“Well done Mugg & Bean. You can change the name but if your staff is the problem it will continue happening. “

’Have to choose expensive private camps’

Thierry Stephan says, "That's one of the reasons why,  as a foreigner, I have choose to go to much more expensive private camps, the food was so poor .... Sorry, but when you pay for a service, it should be done properly.”

While some like Barry Hyman Bass are happy to “purchase food at a supermarket and make their own meals, keeping “pad kos in a cooler” saying he will “rarely eat what they dish up at Mugg and Bean or the other greasy spoons”

“I walked out after waiting twenty minutes, A waitperson asked me what I wanted with no menu offered,” says Bass.

Others like Mark Roxburgh says, “Unfortunately not all of us want to continue with the mundane daily chores whilst on vacation, and relish the opportunity of having someone prepare our meal.”  

Other guests like Daymon Pnematicatos felt the whole saga was simply a #FirstWorldProblems mem, saying, “Imagine the starving people all over the world reading this! Paying for a service is one thing. Calling food vile and disgusting because it’s cold or greasy is another.” 

However according to Bass,  “The only starving people I seen at KNP are those who refuse to eat what's dished up and walk out to buy canned bully beef and pilchards at the shop. I have done this on a few occasions in the past.”  

‘Restaurant facilities failing, why chain groups?’

Robert Mashau felt SANPARKS was "failing when it comes to restaurant facilities".

“They use to run their restaurants themselves and it was very nice. They should get rid of the fast food outlets finish and klaar..."

Etienne Fouche says the "restaurants should have been closed long ago, calling it terrible service”

Ben Viljoen says, “Sometimes you are simply passing through the area and want to get a quick Kruger fix for a night or two and don't want to bother with cooler bags, ice, wood, keeping food fresh and edible etc. etc, so in that case a nice restaurant is really helpful and nice to have.”

Zelda Wood Franchise says, “Restaurants don't belong in the KNP.......bring back the old style restaurants complete with venison pies.”

But according to public participation, many voted for the incorporation of the well-known restaurant chains.

Cathrine Sinsen Watz says, “They did a survey when they received a lot of complaints about the old restaurants. Most preferred to eat at well-known franchise places, so that's why they are there.”

Ann Pryce-Williams says, “Food not great in the camps. Skukuza Baron Grill was awful ...huge meal but awful. Tshokwane snacks are dreadful. The toasted sandwiches used to be great. Trying to be too fancy now & not working you can see lots of people leaving their cold horrible food.”

Duncan Wallace Seems strange, ”I’ve been to Kruger over many years & I thought mug& bean was a big improvement to the old restaurants, although I do agree, having chain restaurants in a national park does seem wrong for some reason.”  

Unphased and just loving the Kruger experience

Regulars to Kruger, Andre Brand Neethling says he does not go to the Kruger to eat out, “I Braai and Braai and Braai. Does not bother me at all!”

 Dale Rimkus also added that he stayed at Satara earlier in September and “ate every morning and evening at the restaurant”. 

“Our group had no complaints. In fact, we thought the M&B had been ousted and replaced already.”

Steven Zurel, “What happened to the good old fashioned restaurants and braaing with your family/guests? Now it's all Wimpy (go figure) and Mugg & Bean. Pathetic.”

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