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Good cooking under the gum trees

GumTreez restaurant in White River celebrates a decade in business this year. We speak to Tracey Austin about what it takes to run a successful establishment in this tough industry.

Greg and Tracey opened GumTreez’s doors in 2009, it being their first foray into owning a restaurant. A firm community favourite and the very definition of a “local pub”, the business is more a home away from home for the clientele, staff and owners. Tracey laughs that while they once had a bar at home, spending so much time at the restaurant has meant that the GumTreez pub has now become her and Greg’s bar, with all the knick-knacks following suit. From the big brass bell to signed t-shirts and an Underberg wire tree that Tracey made herself, the warm, familiar space is inviting.

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Since their opening Greg and Tracey have welcomed generations of customers through their doors. A memorial wall across the bar speaks to the Austin’s family-orientated nature, where regulars become like relatives over the years and earn a special place on the wall once they have passed. “It’s just fitting to have their photos there on the wall.

 

“Their family will never forget them and we won’t either. And when the family does pop in, they are reminded of the special place that their loved ones have in our hearts as well,” Tracey explains. With a clientele ranging from 18 years of age to 90, GumTreez succeeds where many other restaurants have failed, in that they are able to cater to sport lovers cheering on their favourite team, families and sophisticated diners.

 

The outside deck offers seating overlooking a play area for children and has a more relaxed atmosphere, while a secluded dining room inside offers starched white tablecloths and a quieter setting for a more elegant dinner. This area also doubles up as a venue for private functions, ranging from team building to birthday parties. With no additional venue fee charged, it has become a favourite get-together space in the community.

 

Both inside and outside areas offer the same extensive menu: another feat which GumTreez has succeed in, while most eateries would rather focus on a few specialities. “Our menu is too big and I often consider removing some items, but there’s not much I can take off. Everybody has their favourite and I can’t tell a customer that comes in weekly for her favourite dish that it is no longer on the menu.”

 

After ten years in the business, GumTreez has built up a client base of both local and international guests. “If they keep coming back, its certainly for the food,” says Tracey, speaking to what has kept the business going for so long. “It’s not easy to make money in the food industry and costs, from ingredients to rent to wages, have risen drastically. How have we survived? By being here all the time! I believe in paying attention to your customers and providing them with good food and good service. We make hearty homemade food on the premises – we don’t buy anything pre-made. Everything is made from scratch.”

Tracey notes that a talent and palate to create good food is tantamount to success in the restaurant trade. For her, it is an inherited talent, having grown up in a family of cooks. “Between my Afrikaans ouma and my very English grandmother, I learned a lot. There has also been a fair amount of bush cooking with my dad when he had a safari operation, and my years as a waitress from high school through to university. Everything at GumTreez has been based on my journey through food.”

 

But a love for people and an understanding heart for staff matters has also been part of GumTreez’s foundation. “Your staff are your family. You need to be vigilant for any problems and help them where you can. Many restaurants struggle because they have not bought into the concept of looking after staff. Support the staff that have supported you for so long; if they are sick, look after them. It’s pertinent not to lose staff on purpose. But it does make a difference that we have staff that are happy to have jobs.

 

“It is a whole synergy that forms when the staff are happy, the waiters and kitchen staff get on well, and the waiters get to know the customers. I can be quite hard on them to keep everything on standard, but we all have a laugh and at the end of the day. We are family.” As much as what GumTreez is a local favourite, Tracey also believes in supporting her community and has hosted many a fund raiser for causes close to her heart. Supporting local vendors and suppliers also forms part of her business philosophy.

 

Tracey laments that the restaurant trade is tough and keeping everything going through the economy’s dips is a challenge. “We have so many overheads and staff to look after. We employ 35 people, excluding the waiters. Our chef has been here for about nine years and many of the staff have been here since the beginning. One lady started laying bricks when we were renovating and then gravitated to the kitchen when we opened. She still works here and now her son works here too. This is a family, and that is why the business is a success.”

 

Text: LINDI BOTHA. Photographer: MATTHYS FERREIRA

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