Earlier this year we had a chance to speak with South African twin sister Chef/Owners Pam and Wendy of Amawele's South African Kitchen. We learned about their journey into the food industry, how they work seamlessly together to run a successful business, and why they plan to never again visit New York. Their story is both authentic and inspiring tale of creativity, persistence, and a little bit of kismet sprinkled in.
Can you tell me a bit more about how Amawele’s came to be? What inspired you to kickstart the business?
What happened was, when we came to the states, we were both in different places. Pam was in Seattle and I was in New York. We reconnected and landed in San Francisco. When we arrived, we noticed then that there was no representation of South African cuisine. We’re so proud of our cuisine that we started to invite our friends to come over for Sunday lunch with us. It basically grew from there. Pam was the chef and everyone was like, “Oh my god! Your food is so delicious." Sunday lunch was sort of our way of introducing South African cuisine to our friends, family, and community. It started off as just a hobby, as something social. Sunday dinners were so normal in our own home that we wanted to share that tradition.
In 2010, Africa was hosting the World Cup, and it was also around our birthday weekend, so we decided to invite all of our American friends, our South African friends, all of our international friends to a party where we could introduce all of our friends to the cuisine. This was also a way for us to test out what catering for a large group might look like. From the reception of the guest at the party, in addition to the fact that there were no South African restaurants in our area, we were like… “We should go into the food industry. There’s a market for it...”
Sunday dinners were so normal in our own home that we wanted to share that tradition.
Before opening down at the Rincon Center, what we would do is get dressed up, go to the marina and sell homemade sausages with African chutney. We also went to Dolores Park to sell pies. It’s funny - during our first gig, we made a mistake. We put our grill on top of a hill and shortly thereafter it started a fire. We shut down because we didn’t want to get in trouble. We ended up asking the group next to us if we could use their grill to cook the food we were supposed to sell. Instead of selling it, we offered to just share the food with everyone.
It just so happened that one of the guys in the group, who was also a chef, worked for a software company. He enjoyed the food so much, he invited us to cater an event at his company and that became our first catering gig. We went from that catering gig, to eventually opening downtown in the financial district to now being in the industry for over seven years. We ended up closing the location because we were actually getting more catering business and we wanted to concentrate on that avenue.
What is it like running a business with your sister?
Frustrating. [both laugh]
No, it’s fun. The beauty about it, is that we can scream at each other but there is a lot of love because we both want to grow. There's not a personality clash because we know each other. We did have to learn how to compartmentalize and separate out our roles. Once we did that, and clarified our roles and began concentrating on what we were assigned to do, it helped us to figure out our rhythm. She [Pam] is the producer and what she produces is an amazing product. I [Wendy] realized I could just focus on the selling of the product. Once we finally had our roles clear, it was easier for us to identify who was responsible for what and who controlled what. That made our work less stressful.
We know that historically, the food industry is not always favorable to women chefs - especially Black Women chefs. How have you navigated this space for yourselves and what have you learned about yourselves in this regard over time?
I would say that we were lucky in a sense, in that we know how privileged we are as immigrant women. We found a niche in South African food and were able to execute that niche and break through that barrier, that demographic. We also came with a finance background from South Africa. When we came to America, we got into the childcare industry because we wanted a break. But, we were fortunate enough to have our background in business and finance that once we decided to pursue this, we could utilize that skillset. Additionally, our dad is an entrepreneur. He encouraged us to do this. He had connections and was even willing to invest. At that time, we were young, 19 years old and coming to the US. We were like, “nah!” [both laugh]
But back to your question, we also realized our privilege. Black immigrant women, who come from dominantly English speaking countries, who sound English, you can play into that role. On the phone, they don’t realize that you’re Black. I’m talking about before Amawales grew, at the time when we were raising money and trying to get loans, they assumed they were talking to English white women. We knew what we were doing; we realized that if you don’t use the little privileges that we have to our advantage, we would be left behind.
What advice would you give to up and coming chefs?
Listen! Always Listen. We’ve worked in a commercial kitchen with chefs from all backgrounds. Hispanic chefs, white chefs, Black chefs, etc and the one thing we know for sure is that if you want to grow and improve, you need to listen and take advice from the more seasoned folks around you. If you don’t listen to advice, you're not going to grow. And age doesn’t matter. It’s about how long you have been in the industry. Concentrate on their success and mimic what they did to be successful. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Just think about how you can improve the wheel. And that’s what we did. We were scared, for sure. There was no data to inform us about how successful opening a South African business would be. We had to take a chance, learn from existing chefs, and also use common sense. If you don’t exercise common sense, you will fail. Not everything in this business is by the book. You have to make decisions that make sense for the business. We had to let things go from our menu because it took too long to make or just had a low return on investment for the production costs.
You were featured on Food Network’s Series :: Chopped, can you tell us about that experience and how you found yourselves there?
It was an experience. We were on the twin themed show. We guess there’s not a lot of twin chefs out there [both laugh]. So yeah, they basically needed fillers to highlight some of the other chefs on the show. So we went out there. We didn’t really know what was going on. That 30 minutes is what it is. You don’t see the ingredients before opening the boxes. Once that camera starts rolling and your 30 minutes starts, there's just so much that goes on in your mind. And that was basically what the entire show was. We said that we would never go to New York ever again. It wasn’t a fun experience, but it was great for the exposure. We were just two years in at the time, and so we just jumped on the opportunity. We didn’t walk in there to win, but we did go in to gain the exposure. We didn’t follow the norm. We went to showcase South African food. We did our own thing and had the mindset that people are going to know who we are!
What keeps you motivated? Especially in this time of COVID-19 and all the health related precautions and challenges with regulations…
Obviously catering is literally at a standstill right now. We started focusing our business online and have been exploring mass production. We partnered with Good Eggs, an online grocery company to sell our products that we produce and manufacture. We also discovered and began partnering with Shef to produce and deliver meals on a weekly basis. We've got about 11 items that folks can choose from on there. We’ve been fortunate that we have those kinds of programs available to continue ensuring we can get our food out to the community. We’re also building out our own online subscription store that allows you to purchase boxed meals. We also have our hot sauce, our teas, our flatbread, and our drinks that people can purchase online.
We’re working to get our drinks into Costco and Wholefoods. It’s a process, but that is another thing we are working on. We grew up drinking this drink made from the rooibos root. There are a lot of health benefits to the drink. It’s known for having the highest antioxidants and is one of the healthiest roots out there. It’s great for everyone, but really great for people with health problems like diabetes, high blood pressure, and hypertension. Everyone focuses on ginseng, but rooibos is one of the healthiest. It is naturally decaf - has no caffeine but is a natural energy booster. It also helps with the PH-levels in our body, and fights the development of cancer cells.
Clearly you all put a lot of love and thought into your ingredient choices…
Yes, with everything we make, we think about the health benefits of the dish. For example, we use a lot of turmeric. A lot of the spices we use help with inflammation in your body. We do a lot of research on how different ingredients interact in the body. We also identified that milk contains a lot of mucus. So what we did was, we looked at our recipes and we eliminated any dairy. So, you won’t find dairy in our menu. The minute that we find out something negative about an ingredient, we make changes. We are constantly editing ourselves. Food is life. What we consume, is important. We have to be aware, as chefs, as food producers, as food scientists. We need to know how ingredients react with other ingredients and with the body.
Food is life. What we consume, is important. We have to be aware, as chefs, as food producers, as food scientists. We need to know how ingredients react with other ingredients and with the body.
Chef Choice: Your Top Picks: What is the ONE thing a new (or returning) customer should purchase/order from your business to get a good sense of who you are as a company?
Check out Shef.com, you can mix and match and create your own meal. Folks can also visit our website for the experience. Ordering from Amaweles.com does take a little bit longer to get your order, but with Shef.com, food is delivered on a weekly basis so it’s faster. To get the drink - the refreshing rooibos drink - you can order from Good Eggs. If folks are looking for our drinks, our flatbreads, or our savory pies, check out Good Eggs. Go to Shef.com for the meals.
In terms of our specific favorites - we are currently in love with our Peri Peri + lemon, herb, and sesame chicken which pairs well with our Safari Rice and Vegetarian Cape Malay Rice. New customers should definitely start there!
Anything else you'd like us to share with the Black Food Tour community?
Yes - when COVID ends, we’re hoping to go back into the restaurant side but we want to open up as a franchise. With the franchise opportunity, we want to make sure that we’re able to give other Black entrepreneurs a way to get into the business and build the community. It’s always good to jump on a franchise that’s new but that has a good reputation. We want it to definitely also have the health benefits we spoke about. We want to have franchises that open in the Black community and provides healthy alternatives to fast food restaurants. We want to offer healthy, tasty recipes that folks can take back into their home and incorporate into their lifestyle.
Learn more about Amaweles!
Website Link: https://amaweles.com/