Community grocer has the goods to satisfy foodies’ needs
Olive Branch Deli co-owner Omeros Demetriou (Ommy) does not only sell eggs, he tells customers which are best for baking or boiling. His sister, Hélène, uses an antique copper spoon to dispense nonirradiated spices and powders from their apothecary.
Hidden down a passage in the Lifestyle On Kloof centre in Cape Town, the deli is easy to miss while striding into Woolworths. It has an abundance of the Cape’s finest produce bursting from antique cabinets that line the passage into the 1920s-style general store — a treasure trove that holds more than 15,000 products.
The shop is alive with the thrum of eager foodies stocking up on Farmer Angus cuts, house-produced olive oil and its famous feta, while swaying to the jazz tunes playing.
In 2014, with the family watchmaking business on the decline, Omeros’s father turned to his heritage to supplement their income, selling a small range of products from his home country of Cyprus to help cover the bills. He then discovered a locally produced feta cheese during a visit to the winelands.
"In a tiny fridge under the counter, he slowly introduced this to our clients by offering a sample of the cheese upon completion of the watch or clock repair work. His tagline soon became ‘have you tried my amazing feta?’," says Omeros.
Soon Greek coffee, Cypriot halloumi, baklava, hummus, Greek yogurt, olive oil, seeds and legumes filled the shelves of the tiny store under the escalators of the Kloof Street centre. Where glossy watch posters once hung, an A4-size sign, Olive Branch Deli was proudly displayed. Business boomed but it was several months before the deli was allocated its own space and a few more before the family found its stride.
"Initial sales of the cheeses and olive oil provided us with some cash flow to expand our range of Greek and Cypriot products," says Omeros.
"A few months into our new venture, however, it dawned on us that although we had products which people really enjoyed, we didn’t have a concept or identity of our own to guide the decisions we made going forward."
It was then that the concept of the community grocer was born. The idea was to create a space where local farmers and producers could sell their products in the heart of the CBD — daily instead of just once or twice a week at markets.
"As we didn’t have a brand of our own, we decided to place the focus on our suppliers who already had a substantial following and through their exposure at the markets had a loyal customer base," says Omeros.
"As we visited more and more farmers’ markets around the Western Cape, we discovered an amazing portfolio of high-quality artisan ingredients and products to complement. In many cases, they outshone the range of imported products we started out with.
There are loaves of sweet potato bread and stone-milled flour ground. In the dispensary are several fermented products including kombucha and kefir
"Equally rewarding in establishing relationships with our growing family of producers has been knowing that somewhere between farm and plate, a chain of events, with many twists and turns, had to take place for them to get to where they are today."
Omeros attributes the slow shift in the business’s evolution to its conscious consumers and producers who increasingly value "long-term sustainability and traceability over short term profits and convenience".
An encounter with Hélène, the driving force behind the store’s culture, is enough to assure customers of its sincerity. She frequently invites them to inhale a bag of coffee that "smells like freshly roasted popcorn" or take a whiff of dried basil that would make a great cup of tea.
The siblings have built a loyal following of customers who became friends, and friends who became suppliers.
The doughnuts they present on Fridays sell extremely fast and so do most of their prepared meals that fly off the shelves every week day. There’s also plenty for weekend visitors.
Beneath the gilded signs that proclaim the "Spice Apothecary" and "Biscuit Cabinet" hessian bags dot the wooden floors. There are loaves of sweet potato bread and stone-milled flour ground. In the dispensary are several fermented products including kombucha and kefir.
On the alchemist shelves are jars of Artemis Healing Cream that can be used to treat myriad of ailments. Customers bring their own jars to be refilled at the seed counter, where there are heirloom seeds, legumes and pulses. Customers unsure what to do with sumac or weird-looking dried crackling should visit the Athenaeum section to consult the recipe books and novels that cover a wide range of topics from indigenous foraging to fermenting at home.
The siblings are always on hand to provide suggestions — they experiment with all their products in hopes of inspiring chefs and mixologists.
Omeros enthuses over his sugar-free chilli sauces, beans and breads, but he shines when discussing olive oil. His research, conducted while typing out his father’s age-old recipe for home-cured olives, showed that SA’s quality olive products were struggling to compete against cheap imports.
A few years later, after a stint in the industry and writing articles for the Olive Oil Times, Omeros is a veritable fountain of knowledge on the topic — a back wall of the deli is populated with oils from more than 100 producers in SA and abroad.
The Omeros siblings are always delighted to share their passion for community, sustainability and culinary creativity over a Cortado at the counter.