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Swan Café turns one

Swan Café turns one

24 July 2019

It's been a year since Jessica Rushmere opened the doors to Swan Café, Cape Town's first French crêperie. We stopped by to find out how many crêpes they've folded since then – over a cup of her favourite beverage, of course.

"We were putting the finishing touches in place and taking the paper off the windows to shoot the shop for our website," says Jessica Rushmere, owner of Swan Café, thinking back to the Sunday before their opening. "People started walking in, going, "Wow!" And it's no wonder – Swan certainly has that je ne sais quoi.

By then, Swan had already been an intense three-year project. The construction aspects were particularly stressful, Jessica explains. But the reaction of the very first over-eager prospective customers brought back her sense of excitement. "I love to make people feel good. Customers leave with a smile, because their experience here is great." 

What she describes as an "amazing journey" began with a vision of bringing a little piece of Paris to Cape Town, complete with seating on the pavement, and customers queuing to get in. "When you create anything, you have to have an end in mind." And sure enough, customers do queue up at weekends. But Jessica was also prepared for failure. "I didn't know if it was going to work. I took a risk – but I believed in it. I was obsessed. I'm still obsessed!"

Why a crêperie?

"I'm French," she says, though the explanation is unnecessary – even after over 20 years in South Africa, her accent is unmistakable. "Since there are no crêperies here, I decided to open one." But because she's from the east of France, while crêpes originate in Brittany, she went there to earn her master crêpe maker diploma. 

Position, position, position

Apart from visits to Home Affairs, Jessica had never ventured to the popular East City, which falls in Precinct 4 of the CCID's footprint. But when construction on her Sea Point apartment dragged on, she and her two children moved into an apartment on the corner of Buitenkant and Barrack streets. The building just opposite was undergoing renovations. One day she had a flash of inspiration and decided, “I want my crêperie to be here!'" She'd instinctively chosen an artistic haven and tourist hot spot.

Jessica teamed up with Haldane Martin. She thought through every detail, from the design, branding, and menu – "even to the 'Bonjour!' at the door". "I wanted to get everything right. We haven't changed a thing since day one because I worked so hard beforehand to fulfil my vision. It hasn't been an overnight story," she says.

Looking around the café, there's so much to take in. The swan is a distinct motif. "I'm obsessed with swans. They look so elegant, gliding on the river. But underneath, they're paddling furiously." Two floor-to-ceiling murals depict the mythological figures of Leda and the Swan, while several gilded birdcages hang from the ceiling. And a birdcage is not just a birdcage! "It symbolises the idea that you can step out of your cage, do what you want, and be who you are."

Le temps de manger

"If you go to any crêperie in France, you'll get a telephone book of a menu. But I wanted to keep it simple," says Jessica. The menu offers "Sexy Salads", "Savoury Galettes" and "Sweet Crêpes", typifying the French approach of eating wholesome foods, while also indulging their taste for treats. At Swan, we get fresh produce daily. And we do everything – the salted caramel, the lemon curd – from scratch." The paper-thin crêpes and gluten-free buckwheat galettes are made on the imported cast-iron hot plates called biligs.

Un pot de thé

A quick scan of the flipside of the menu shows the usual selection of coffees – but tea takes pride of place. She'd always wanted to create her own teas, so she collaborated with the tea master at Nigiro, in Claremont. "What we have at Swan, you cannot find anywhere else." She reels off a list of her special blends: Teint De Pêche, Christmas in July, Paris Je T'aime, Royal Rouge, and orders the French Kiss. The description reads, "Rooibos scented with jasmine and marigold and delicately laced with vanilla and caramel to create a sweet floral tea steeped in nostalgia." Once it has infused, we take in the nose. And the first sip lives up to the promise of its aroma: delightful, soothing.

Loving local

In her twenties, Jessica travelled the world, modelling, which brought her to Cape Town. "I loved it! People were so friendly. I came back every season." Jessica says Capetonians are supportive and love new things, so "they come to check out what you're doing". So is her customer base tourists or locals? "We have locals who come every day, people who meet for French classes, office workers from Woolies and Truworths nearby – and many tourists too.

Planning ahead

"We're currently waiting for our liquor licence." But despite the red tape, she says it is much more difficult to open a business in France. And once that liquor licence arrives, they'll be presenting an exciting wine tasting menu. À votre santé to that!

IMAGES: Micky Hoyle

Tags: Swan Café East City Haldane Martin Cape Town crêperie