A review, by Kat Kai Kol-Kes
At the dusk of 2015, Gaborone residents were treated to an early Christmas as a trio of aspirant fools took on the challenge of joining the hospitality rat-race in Botswana’s capital city.This newbie goes by the ultra-cool name of the “Main Deck”. I call them fools with reference to the Alexander Pope adage: ‘Fools rush in where angels fear to tread’ and that is exactly what Sean Wentzel, Harris Pullen, and Michael Ellitson have decided to do by ganging up and taking on the mammoth task of introducing a new spot to an already saturated market, in a central location which comes with its own robust reputation.
Speaking with Sean Wentzel, senior venue manager, gave me some insight to the origins of the operation, the creation of the signature aesthetic, the key clientele, and the vision going forward. It was a gently warm Saturday afternoon as we walked the proverbial plank on the third week of the Main Deck’s ship setting sail.
Finding the venue is tough enough for those who’ve never had to navigate the Spar building’s eastern side to get to what used to be then prime Afro-politan location: ‘Café Khwest’, but this adds to the magnitude of the pay-off when you finally set foot on the resonant wooden planks which line the floor of the venue. While your footsteps create the soundtrack to your discovery, you are greeted by tree tops; met with smooth ‘90s RnB music; and – once you get past the pleasant distraction of the flickering pizza oven – your breath is taken by the expansive stretch which keeps within the naming theme of a deck.
The idea of translating a seaside concept to the concrete heart of a city where corporates and street vendors share the turf and pedestrians wander about dazed by the plethora of offerings would seem absurd to most, but not only does the translation work well, but the corrugated iron sheeting on the walls, the wooden crate lamp ‘shades’, and the printed stretched canvas archival imagery – of the Khama royal family, San dancers, Okavango Delta and iconic Baobab trees – gracing the walls makes this concept speak to the geographical context of the venue while maintaining a laissez-faire attitude.
“We wanted to do something that was less generic with decor and give people a place that makes it feel like they’re not in the city centre” says Wentzel, who came to me flustered following a very active Friday night at the venue. Considering the migratory tendencies of Gaborone night owls, not many well-organized venues’ reserves get completely depleted, yet, be it luck or a curse, the Main Deck was flooded by clients and prospective regulars who got the managerial team rethinking their stock policy.
On the topic of who the ideal client at the deck would be, I gave the example of Bull ‘n Bush – the city’s almost infallible recreational landmark – and Wentzel’s response came as multifaceted as the location’s history. “We’ve realised that there is a Main Mall crowd” says the hospitality novice, “and I’m talking about the 30-somethings who have a connection to the place and like the idea of not going to a regular, commercial place.”
He went on to add that they’re looking to attract “tourists who come to Gaborone to find out about Main Mall and that’s why we have some of our heritage on the walls,” but also that “business is growing in Main Mall and I think we’d like to attract those people too – but I’m not saying that students wouldn’t be welcome here.” Though one could accuse them of trying to dip into too many pools, I’d argue that it’s a smart enough strategy for young business people who have to navigate their cultural inheritance – “I won’t lie to you, Khwest has actually left a lot of good will behind,” remarks Wentzel in a moment of frankness.
As a former regular at ‘Café Khwest’ myself, I didn’t hesitate to accuse the Main Deck managerial team of madness when I first saw that the doors were open. Considering the fact that Khwest had escalated to household name status in a city where lifestyle is dependent on pay-day, ‘how could anyone be mad enough to take on such a legendary spot?’ I’d said. Wentzel admits that the decision to open the Main Deck was inspired by madness indeed, springing from a chance discovery of the derelict deck while he was checking on Spar’s compressors – which happen to be located on the building’s roof.
Yet much like all the greats before them who have themselves been accused of madness, the managerial trio seems to have found themselves a compassionate and forgiving batch of trial clients. When drinks take a bit too long to arrive, or if your beer’s luke warm, or your waiter can’t be assisted in taking your order because the staff has sprinklings of experienced and diligent staff who work with a ‘the show must go on’ attitude, patrons brush it off as beginners’ jitters. This, however, can’t become the norm and I was thankful that Wentzel shared this outlook, promising to use this learning period as just that, and ensuring that the Main Deck will follow in the footsteps of legends like Sanitas, and Bull ‘n Bush which never fail to reinvent themselves with crowd pleasing initiatives.
Whether it’s a breakfast you’re looking for at 8am, or an early afternoon beer which is only served starting at 12pm, or a great central place to read a book or hold a quick meeting, or better yet a deck to hang out with all the friends you haven’t seen in a long time, the Main Deck promises to give us disenchanted Gaborone residents and our visiting counterparts a place to feel on holiday come rain or shine. This definitely is a place which we hope stands the test of seasonal entertainment.