My Story | How I went from being a Free State farm girl to running a restaurant in New York

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Kaia Wine Bar is a South African restaurant and bar located in New York's Upper East Side. (PHOTO: supplied)
Kaia Wine Bar is a South African restaurant and bar located in New York's Upper East Side. (PHOTO: supplied)

She went off to the Big Apple with hope in her heart and stars in her eyes but when her big dream of becoming an actor didn’t materialise, Suzaan Hauptfleish of the Free State had to make a plan. So she opened a restaurant in New York City’s Upper East Side – and its uniquely South African flavour has made it a hit with Americans and travellers from abroad.

“When I finished school I studied drama at the University of Stellenbosch. I wanted to explore the world but it seemed too easy to just go to London as many young South Africans were doing. So I applied for film studies in New York and got accepted.

I bought my plane ticket on 11 September 2001. Later that morning the World Trade Centre was attacked.

At the time America’s Delta airline had just started flying to South Africa and two of the airline’s pilots were in the restaurant where I worked. They sat watching the small old-fashioned TV set with us as those events unfolded in America.

I received a call from my mom on the restaurant’s landline. “There is no way I will allow you to get onto that plane,” she said.

restaurant, South Africa, New York, travel
Suzaan and her partner, Billy, who is also the chef at Kaia Wine Bar. (PHOTO: supplied)

But I wouldn’t give up on my plan. On 10 December 2001 I landed in New York, wearing flipflops in the middle of the American winter.

I found a place shared with 30 others in a house run by Quakers. It was like a hostel with everyone having their own bedroom but sharing the living area, kitchen and bathroom. 

In between auditions and working in restaurants I started cooking for the people living in the house with me. This was how I afforded my rent at first.

I’d always loved cooking. We were poor and the Free State experienced severe drought. In lean years my mom would support the family by catering for weddings. On the farm where I grew up Sunday lunch was also a big thing and I helped my mom with it.

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I didn’t want to cook for a living. But over time my acting dream disappeared I got a part-time job at a restaurant.

At some point I decided I’m working too hard for other people, which led to my decision to open my own restaurant. 

In the beginning I did everything by myself – I had just $80 in savings. Many people said I was crazy to think I could start a restaurant with such a pittance.

It wasn’t an easy process and we had many issues at the start. Weeks before I planned to open I realised that the building contractor I’d already paid in full had done shoddy work. I had to fire him. I was running out of money.

I couldn’t even fully pay the electrician, who worked independently from the building contractor. 

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I decided there and then that I would drop everything and the next day give the building back to the person I’d rented it from. 

But the electrician came up with a plan. His uncle offered to finish the building as long as we stayed within a cost of $60 000. All he asked was that I should started paying him back eight months after opening the restaurant.

That was the kick I needed. 

We opened in February 2010 and 11 years later Kaia is still a going concern. We serve food with a South African influence. Bobotie, gatsby and good South African wines. Everything isn’t strictly South African because it can be expensive and difficult  to import the right ingredients. 

Wine I sell mostly by the glass because I want my clients to be exposed to the widest possible variety of wines from South Africa.

restaurant, South Africa, New York, travel
The bar offers a selection of South African wines. (PHOTO: supplied)

In 2020 my mother also moved to New York and since then we’ve been serving rusks and koeksisters too. Like a real South African tannie, she also plays mom to the staff here, and others staying close to the restaurant. 

I no longer take care of the cooking – that now falls to our chef, Billy. Billy is also the love of my life and is as devoted to SA food as I am.

Occasionally other South Africans pop in at our restaurant in New York. It’s nice to be able to give them a taste of home. After all, it's the restaurant’s name, derived from the isiZulu word “ikhaya” meaning home. 

These days I also make sure that I offer a good selection of wine by female winemakers. Often I’m still reminded of the pressure I felt as a young South African woman before I took the bold step of moving here, and I would like to support other women as much as possible. 

The wines we serve at Kaia have led to the liquor shop across the street from us now importing much more wine from South Africa, and I’m proud to have made a contribution in this way.

Kaia isn’t a cat with just nine lives – we have probably already been through 109 lives. In New York it really is as Alicia Keys says in her song Empire State of Mind: “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”

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