The Burger Fair roadhouse in Cape Town’s northern suburb of Bellville has been there for more than 45 years, serving up nostalgia to its long-time loyal customers and boasting cult status among the zef music crowd, especially after being featured in rapper Jack Parow’s Cooler as Ekke video in 2009.
Then, for the first time in its history it closed. Owner Barno Carstens said the two-month Covid-19 hard lockdowns of levels 5 and 4 was the worst experience ever for the venture.
No cars filled the large, parking area. Its grills and fryers, which usually sizzle from 9am to 1am the next morning, were silent. The waiters in blue jeans and white T-shirts no longer darted across the parking lot taking orders and delivering burgers.
“It was very tough,” says Carstens. “I didn’t have any income. We also couldn’t afford to pay staff, so I had to apply to the Covid-19 relief fund. Luckily I got help from my father, otherwise I would also have not been able to pay rent.”
Burger Fair is now open. Under level 3 regulations restaurants and takeaways can serve seated customers, albeit with a limited number of patrons (who should be wearing face masks except when they’re eating).
Carstens believes his roadhouse has an edge over restaurants. Because customers sit in their cars, his roadhouse is a physically-distanced dining experience.
He also keeps a close eye on safety standards. Kitchen staff and waiters wear masks and have their temperatures taken twice a day. Diners find something comforting about seeing from their cars the staff behind large glass windows in the kitchen.
“Some people don’t want to go through the motion of getting dressed to go dining. Some are happy to just sit in their car,” Carstens says as he oversees burgers being grilled and milkshakes spun.
There are only a couple of other roadhouses in the Cape Town area, but Burger Fair is the oldest. “I bought this establishment from my uncle in 1995, but it’s probably been around for more than 20 years before that. He owned two other Burger Fair branches — in Parow and Goodwood — but they all closed down with the Bellville branch the only one left.”
About 50 cars can park and wait to be served at the roadhouse. Carstens thinks Burger Fair may close within five to 10 years, given that space is at a premium in a crowded city like Cape Town where every available piece of land is needed for housing.
“You need a lot of space in a business like this for the cars to park. And there’s not much of that going around,” he says.
Customer’s tastes appear to have changed over the years. Carstens says many now prefer American fast-food chains — such as McDonald’s or Burger King — to local takeaways. Whether this is because brand names are more visible and advertise or the food tastes better, he diplomatically doesn’t answer.
“But,” he adds, “We have our loyal customers.”
The family has run a business built on repeat customers and regulars. Carstens says a lot of people come because of nostalgia. Besides fresh coats of paint over the years, the look of Burger Fair has not changed in 40 years. Its biggest seller is the memories it evokes of times gone by.
“A lot of people come regularly. But we also have people coming because they remember sitting here with their old girlfriends of years ago. Because we’ve been around so long, we have people who have a lot of memories here,” he says.
Lockdown has changed people’s routines. “We used to be open until about one in the morning. But since lockdown, more people come during the day,” Carstens says. “I don’t know if they think the virus can only get you at night. But people’s habits have shifted. It’s like there was a complete swap. Night time on weekends was our busiest time, now most of our customers come during the day.”
The easing of Covid-19 lockdowns and of people’s concerns about getting the disease may turn things around for Carstens, who is hopeful he can rebuild Burger Fair’s glory days. Business is picking up and many people now may prefer to enjoy a burger and a milkshake in the safety of their car than in a restaurant.