To know Jason and Melanie is to love them! Bubbly, interesting and always up for a chat, the Ballito couple started their restaurant-owning journey 10 years ago and have won awards and the hearts and loyalties of both their patrons and staff along the way.
It could be just a toasted cheese sandwich. Or, if it’s made with beautiful, home-baked bread and filled with locally-sourced, excellent quality cheeses … it could be a glorious toasted cheese sandwich!”
Jason Powell is passionate about food. More than that though, he is passionate about educating others about good food. “It doesn’t have to be complicated or intimidating. It just has to be made properly with the best possible ingredients,” says the 41-year old father of two.
Jason and his wife, Melanie Reeder-Powell, are the owners and founders of Food Fundi at Sugar Rush Park, which opened during lockdown last year. They also own the Ocean Basket in Ballito, which they opened four years ago.
Born in the Lowveld, Jason has always been a foodie at heart. After completing a Bcom degree, he set about pursuing his dream of becoming a chef. Jason trained at Prue Leith culinary school in Pretoria, before heading off to start his work experience in high-end lodges around southern Africa. One of his first placements was at a five-star lodge on a secluded island off of Mozambique called Vamizi. Jason’s highlight, while working as the head chef at this exclusive lodge, was being able to cook for the late Nelson Mandela and Graca Machel, who stayed at the lodge for two weeks.
There were also massive challenges though, as the island was extremely remote and even water had to be brought in on dhows. “It was a great learning curve. I had to make everything from scratch, I had to forage and figure things out. If I wanted bread, I baked it, if I wanted veggies, I had to grow them.”
After that Jason got a job as the head chef at a top hunting and fishing lodge situated on a fjord on the west coast of Norway. When Jason returned to South Africa for a wedding in 2007 he met the woman who would one day become his wife.
Originally from Umtata, Melanie is a qualified and highly experienced magazine journalist and published author. When they met, Mel was living in Johannesburg, working as the beauty editor at a top national magazine. “I loved the lifestyle I was leading in Johannesburg and I loved my job, but I had started to feel like I needed something different.”
Melanie studied English Literature at Rhodes university and did a post-graduate degree in Publishing at Wits. After working on some of the biggest magazine titles in the country, she was commissioned by Penguin Random House SA to the write the biography of a fascinating KZN-based sangoma named Elliot Ndlovu, called A Sangoma’s Story.
Jason and Mel got married in 2009 and decided to move to Nelspruit the following year. “We wanted a fresh start and had heard that there may be catering opportunities in the Lowveld.”
They opened their first Food Fundi – a coffee shop and deli – with just four tables in April 2011. It didn’t take long for the cafe and the catering side of the business to grow.
“People loved our recipes and our approach to food. We make everything, from the bread to the brownies and the chutneys and relishes, from scratch – and we still use most of those original recipes today,” says Jason.
The business grew steadily and after a few years, it had transformed into a 140-seater restaurant. They opened a second cafe at the private hospital, where they were also doing the catering for all the staff and patients. Jason and Mel lived in Nelspruit for seven years, during which time they had their two children, Georgina and Samuel.
When an opportunity presented itself – in the form of opening a new Ocean Basket franchise in Ballito in 2017 – Mel and Jason decided to give it a go. At the time, they were struggling with both children being constantly ill and in and out of hospital. Their doctor, who wasn’t able to diagnose the kids, suggested they simply try moving to a different area.
“We really liked the Ocean Basket franchise and the family-owned business’ ethos resonated with us. It’s an authentic brand and one we knew we could get on board with,” says Jason. While they have faced massive challenges (like massive damage from a raging storm in 2019 and lockdown in 2020), their Ocean Basket branch has done exceptionally well and is now considered one of the restaurant chain’s flagship stores.
During lockdown, the Sugar Rush Park shareholders asked Mel and Jason to take over the restaurant. “We were keen for another opportunity and it just made sense. People want to spend time in an outdoor, healthy, fresh-air environment.” They decided to open another Food Fundi.
Having revived their timeless, tried and tested (and loved) recipes, the couple have successfully run the restaurant for just over a year – and it continues to grow from strength to strength.
Almost everything is made from scratch. “What I can’t make, I will source as locally as possible,” says Jason. The deli side of the business is also growing and Jason has his own smoker on site, where he smokes olives and even cauliflower! He makes atchar and pestos and they sell ready-to-go picnic boxes, filled with beautiful cheeses, parma ham and homemade relishes!
Investing in their staff is one of Mel and Jason’s top priorities and they have spent a lot of time working hard to fine-tune the service and systems in place at the restaurant. “We believe in serving simple, tasty food. We make sure we get the basics right and don’t overcomplicate things.”
Details: Food Fundi Cafe, Sugar Rush Park, 087 460 0302, www.foodfundi.co.za
Text: Leah Shone | Photographs: Chris Allan Photo