Back in time to meals on wheels

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.”

Restaurant owner Barno Carsten at the Burger Fair Drive-in restaurant in Beliville, Cape Town. (David Harrison/M&G)

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. 

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Lester Kiewit
Lester Kiewit
Lester Kiewit is a Reporter, Journalist, and Broadcaster.

Related stories

Wheeling and dealing for a Covid-19 vaccine

A Covid-19 jab could cost hundreds of rands. Or not. It’s anyone’s guess. Could another pandemic almost a century ago hold clues for handling the coronavirus today?

Johannesburg cannot police its future

South Africa’s biggest city is ground zero for debates about the long-term effectiveness and constitutionality of militarised urban policing and how we imagine the post-Covid city

WSU suspends classes and exams to avoid the spread of Covid-19

The university says it has to take the precautionary measures because 26 students have tested positive on its East London campus

Entrepreneurs strike Covid gold

Some enterprising people found ways for their ventures to survive the strictest lockdown levels

Q&A Sessions: ‘My north star is the patient’

Rhulani Nhlaniki is Pfizer’s cluster lead for sub-Saharan Africa. As Pfizer starts phase III of the clinical trial of their Covid-19 vaccine candidate, he tells Malaikah Bophela that if it is successful, the company will ensure the vaccine will be available to everyone who needs it

No mention of Africa when it comes to US foreign policy

During pre-election debates in the United States, very little has been said on how they view one of the world’s largest markets — which, in turn, is determined to come into its own
Advertising

Subscribers only

Toxic power struggle hits public works

With infighting and allegations of corruption and poor planning, the department’s top management looks like a scene from ‘Survivor’

Free State branches gun for Ace

Parts of the provincial ANC will target their former premier, Magashule, and the Free State PEC in a rolling mass action campaign

More top stories

Why anti-corruption campaigns are bad for democracy

Such campaigns can draw attention to the widespread presence of the very behaviour they are trying to stamp out — and subconsciously encourage people to view it as appropriate

Tax, wage bill, debt, pandemic: Mboweni’s tightrope budget policy statement

The finance minister has to close the jaws of the hippo and he’s likely to do this by tightening the country’s belt, again.

SA justice delays extradition of paedophile to UK

Efforts to bring Lee Nigel Tucker to justice have spanned 16 years and his alleged victims have waited for 30 years

Former state security minister Bongo back in court

Bongo and his co-accused will appear in the Nelspruit magistrate’s court in Mpumalanga over charges of fraud, corruption and theft
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday