It’s the finer things in life, like Durban summers and neo soul, that bring a smile to Vusi Kunene’s face, but nothing brings him as much joy as sushi and a good bottle of white wine. But life hasn’t always been a breeze for the 30-year-old entrepreneur.
Kunene grew up in the small town of Topfontein, in the province of Mpumalanga, but always wanted more from life. At the age of 15, he dropped out of high school and set his sights on making it big in Johannesburg.
But life in the City of Gold was tough.
“I started doing all these odd jobs. I used to be a car guard, I’ve done construction and I’ve taken pictures at some stage in my life,” he says.
But it was working as a waiter in the hospitality industry that introduced him to the mouth-watering opportunities of food. Six years of eyeing the cooking process from afar, Kunene decided to put on the white hat and try his hand as a chef. He had ambitions to travel around the world and learn how to prepare different cuisines. It was, however, in Cape Town where he fell in love with sushi.
“If you look at the chefs behind the counter, you’ll see they are very passionate. The communication between the chef, his knife and whatever he’s doing is amazing. For them it’s not even work, it’s a lifestyle,” says Kunene.
His biggest challenge was the language barrier between him and the Japanese and Chinese chefs. So he learned everything he could about the process, history and culture through books.
After two years in Cape Town, Kunene moved back to Johannesburg where he began to work on his dream of opening his own sushi bar.
“Being a black man and saying you’re going to do sushi, people look at it and think it’s impossible. But what they were missing was [the vision to see] the opportunity in
Kunene started small: two cutting boards, two knives and around $360. He called it The Mobile Sushi Bar.
“This showed me that an idea can be put into action with the minimum capital that you have, you don’t need a lot of money and a big sponsor,” he says.
Business quickly picked up and The Mobile Sushi Bar was making money from markets, home functions, corporate functions and food festivals.
While catering at The Africa Bike Week event, Kunene had a conversation with a customer that sparked the new name for
“Jokingly, he asked ‘which part of Japan are you from?’ and I said ‘No, we’re not the Japanese, we’re the Blackanese.’”
The name became a running joke throughout the event. It was edgy, fresh and perfectly represented the company.
Kunene decided it was time to open a sushi restaurant and the only certainty was that it would be called The Blackanese.
He found the perfect spot in the middle of the Maboneng Precinct – an urban neighborhood in downtown Johannesburg surrounded by art galleries, shops and studios.
The Blackanese opened their doors in April 2013. The first month drew in large crowds and it was clear that they were the popular new kids on the block. Kunene’s face was appearing on television shows, magazines and adverts.
But the honeymoon phase was short lived.
“Two months in and business just went dead… We were lucky to have two clients in a week.”
Uncertain of the future, Kunene fought on. He had seen too many businesses shut down during hard times, but he believed that things would soon turn around. They did.
A few months later, The Blackanese was soon back on its feet and doing better than ever. In June, the restaurant began renovations and reopened their doors in September.
Kunene sees big plans for the future of The Blackanese, including opening up a pop-up store in Japan.
Whenever inspiration is lacking and Kunene needs a little pat on the shoulder, he never has to go far. He literally walks a few steps to his apartment building, where he lives on the top floor. The view from his window says it all. Spray-painted on the face-bricked building across from him, in bold black words, it reads ‘I Love Your Work’. Surely a message from the universe.