How SA restaurateur beat the Covid blues (or managed to byt vas) while others failed – Neleen Strauss

On the banks of the Thames river in London there is a well-known restaurant among the business sector of the area called High Timber. The owner and manager is Neleen Strauss, originally from Bloemfontein who have managed to survive the lockdowns in London despite a growing list of restaurants that closed down. It included giants like the Café de Paris that achieved notoriety for staying open at the start of World War II and the Angus steakhouse in in the West End. Gutsy and with a Freedom of the City of London award under her arm, Neleen is ready to set off as London re-opens, hopefully permanently. She told BizNews about sad Christmases and says work ‘from home does not work for her’ and how it is not always good for the economy when Boris Johnson opens his mouth. – Linda van Tilburg

How do you spot a South African restaurant in London?

It’s my fantastic accent, I guess… We have got African art; we’ve got a rhino and the rhino has one of Faf de Klerk’s ‘onderbroekies’ on her bum with a South African flag…. It was given to us [by Faf] in 2020. We had a massive rugby function here and he was here and he was very sweet and everyone wanted his undies.

Surviving the Covid lockdown blues

At the moment, we’re very quiet because work from home doesn’t work for us. We’re in the square mile in the centre of London, and when Boris decided everyone’s working from home, all our bookings were cancelled; we went very, very quiet. But luckily, they changed whatever the Covid rules are and work from home is no longer happening. So, our bookings are coming in fast and furious from next week, which makes us very happy. It’s going to make my bank manager happy as well.

My landlord was super kind. We’ve been here for 13 years now, and he didn’t charge us rent when we were closed. He also charges us a percentage; I’m only paying full rent from now on. Our customers, who are the best customers in the world, bought a lot of wine during lockdown, obviously, at discounted prices.  our suppliers looked after us; everyone looked after us. There were literally our managing agents that did not look after us. They put our service charge up from £5000 to £15000. I’m still fighting it, so I’ve got the help of a lawyer, but they were the only bad people in the whole COVID tale. So, I’m very lucky.

November was a fantastic month. It was really a good month; Christmas was very sad. We’ve had two sad Christmases in a row, which is not good for any restaurant business because you cover your January losses with your profits from Christmas. But I think it’s looking up. I’m very, very positive. I’ve got a fully stocked kitchen for the first time in two years, not fully staffed front of house team yet, but I’m working on that. And I’m very positive. I think it’s going to go very well later on in 2022.

The tourists still have not returned to London, but the scavengers have

I walk past St Paul’s Cathedral twice a day; that’s how I tell. There’s not a lot of tourists here. The bit of the lockdown that I really enjoyed was I would jog from our job from my flat to High Timber;  it’s not that far. I stand at the river and look at the view and all the seagulls were gone, because they do not belong here. But they were geese, low flying geese and lots of white swans, black swans. There were two otters and a seal. I mean, the nature just took over in the Square Mile in London. There were all these things I’ve never seen before. It was fantastic. I liked that… We have seagulls back because they are scavengers, because they can scavage again.

No repeat of the £90 000 bill she gave Boris Johnson during the 2012 Olympics (or It’s not always good for the economy when Boris opens his mouth)

The lockdown was not Boris’s fault. I don’t blame this government or any world government massively for how they’ve handled the pandemic. I have no hindsight, but the Olympics, when Boris’ voice was on all the underground tube stations telling people not to come into London; they’re going to get trampled. Stay away from London. I don’t think there was a work from home ethic then yet, but he literally told everyone to stay the hell out of London. So, London became a ghost town. On a Thursday night at 11 o’clock, you could get any black pub in the history of the world, sent from this side or sent from that, which is unheard of. So, it’s not always that good for the economy when he opens his mouth. That’s my opinion.

[He did not pay up], but it made news headlines. I had a few accounting firms that sent out internal emails, but basically, they said, ‘Go and eat at Neleen, because otherwise she wouldn’t stop moaning.’ So, I was lucky. As I said, I have good customers.

From Bloemfontein to London with backing from friends

Sometimes I think it’s stupidity. I was sent here by Browns of Rivonia to open up Viva Bacchus, which is another restaurant which is still going, and I wanted my own place. The landlord showed me this venue a lot of times. We had to build it, so it was a building site and the beautiful view was covered with scaffolding. And every time I came to look at it, it was snowing outside. It was those horrible, empty London winter days and I didn’t want the place. But every time I walked away, the rain came out and on the fourth time I took the scaffolding off and it was a beautiful, crystal-clear blue-sky London Day. And I thought to myself, ‘What did I not see before?’ Yeah, I want this place. So yeah, that is how I got High. Timber. The Jordan family, Gary and Kathy [from Jordan wines] decided they want to be my business partners about a year before this, so send them videos of the place and they said, That looks fantastic. I don’t want them as business partners because they are really good friends.

Making history as one of 106 women offered the Freedom of London City

I think they gave it to me that I can stop moaning. The best right it gives to you; if I get drunk and disorderly, they have to put me in a cab and take me back home.

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