Mango Café and Catering, Suva, Fiji
Aunty B with Kalara Vusoniwailala
The 150 seat Mango Café has been in operation since 2007. The café is open weekdays for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and open for breakfast and lunch on weekends. Twice a week Mango Café offers a lovo (traditional Fijian feast) buffet. The café employs 22 full-time staff, 9 of whom are in the kitchen. They also employ seven casual staff.
Mango Café did not always offer local Fijian cuisine. For the first two years of operation, the café focussed on Western-influenced cuisine and lacked a clear point of difference in the Suva marketplace. Around that time, several other similar restaurants opened up and café Mango’s owner, Kalara, realised that there was an over-supply of establishments that focussed on Western café-style dishes.
Prior to re-branding the café, Kalara undertook an informal survey of restaurant patrons asking customers what they wanted. She also looked at other restaurants, and analysed their menus and price range. As a result, she identified a gap in the market for a restaurant that specialised in local cuisine, “We realigned ourselves to this key slogan, ‘Flavours of Fiji’. Local food in terms of Fijian and Indo-Fijian food with some Western favourites. Local cuisine is the main offer and star of our menu. They come here because they want fresh food and they know that’s what we serve” (Kalara Vusoniwailala). As a result of making the switch to a Fiji inspired cuisine, the increase in use of local products has been significant. Seventy percent of the food on offer at Mango Café is now from local suppliers. With their previously Western-oriented menu 80% of their food was imported. In the past, Kalara would use three cartons of frozen French fries a week and a carton of pasta in about the same amount of time. Now it takes up to four months to go through a carton of these imported products. Use of local produce such as rourou (taro leaves used for their popular dish of rourou soup) has increased from one bunch a day to up to three dozen bunches a day.
Despite the popularity of her their Fijian-focused food, there are challenges in sustaining a local supply chain. Purchasing is a challenge. Initially, Kalara purchased her products from a middleman. However, this was only suitable if the consumption was small. She now buys in bulk direct from four to five farmers and from the local Suva Market. Kalara believes that the supply line needs to continue to grow to ensure its sustainability, “Unless the demand is increased there is no need for the supply to increase. While this food revolution is continuing and developing, we need that to happen faster so the farmers can see [the opportunities]. Innovative farmers need to be supported and subsidised to grow rourou and other indigenous crops.” (Kalara Vusoniwailala). On appositive note, Kalara has found that with the increase in local products her profit margins have increased. Less meat is needed for the local menu and the predominant percentage on a plate is now vegetable heavy, which is cheaper than buying meat (even locally grown meat).
As Kalara developed the Flavours of Fiji at Mango Café, she found a need to focus on staff training, which now occurs once every two weeks. This training is grounded in local cultural values, “It’s all about the personality and the genuine sincere warmth. It extends to the food. You help each other the same as you do in the village but I’ve had to structure it” (Kalara Vusoniwailala). As a result, the staff better understand the values behind the Flavours of Fiji brand and have gained confidence in their ability to share it with customers. When asked about whether she was proud of the Fijian cuisine on offer, Aunty B., one of the chefs at Mango Café replied, “Yes because my name is there on the soup, Aunty B’s rourou. I’m proud of that. Everyone, when they look at the menu they say, Aunty B? Wow! That’s me! And sometimes they always come and say, “I want to see the lady that made it” so they say, Aunty B, someone wants to see you. They says Thank you, your rourou is nice or the daal soup, Aunty B’s daal soup. I’m proud” (Aunty B.).
Aunty B is typical of many Fijian women- she is a terrific natural cook. When asked about her training, she replies “I’m just a housewife and I love cooking from my heart. I’ve got a clean heart. When you cook you have to be happy and if the heart is clean that’s what makes for nice food. When you are angry or down and you touch the food the taste is not there. This is Fijian food. When the girls grow up they know it, taught by our grandfathers grandmothers”
When asked about the transition from a more Western cuisine to a decidedly local one, Aunty B says “The change is good. I learned the English food but the Fijian food is just automatic. Easy, the Fijian food is easy. The staff is mostly Fijian so it’s easy. They understand it. The English food, the Western food, only I know it. The taste is different. Never mind who cooked it. Here it’s real Fijian food like lovo, ota, that’s all from the village.”
Kalara sees what she is doing as a contribution to a food revolution that needs to continue to grow and gain more momentum, “It’s gotten me to know my food and to have faith in our own culture and our own produce. Before it wasn’t flash enough for me. Now, as we are doing it, the faith in our own culture is growing. It’s a revolution that is going right through Fiji and the Pacific. The food revolution has been led by the creative people going back to fresh produce and simple cuisine. That has influenced the thinking and production of the chefs and consumers” (Kalara Vusoniwailala).