A space to feel at home: Inside Café Manhattan, Cape Town’s oldest LGBTQ+ venue
“I want to make every customer feel comfortable and help them forget whatever challenges they might face outside.” says Mark Chirenje, store manager at Café Manhattan, Cape Town’s oldest LGBTQ+ venue. “When they are in Café Manhattan, they feel utterly at home”. Opened in 1994, Café Manhattan was a pioneer in South Africa’s nascent LGBTQ+ scene, and has become a stalwart of Cape Town’s De Waterkant neighbourhood. A beloved spot for locals and tourists alike, Café Manhattan is a home away from home – a safe space for customers from all walks of life. “It's a multifaceted group of people. We don't discriminate, we don't exclude anybody, transgender, gay, lesbian, heterosexual.” says operations manager Mo-Jo McDonald. “Everybody that comes into Café Manhattan is treated exactly the same.”
Cape Town has come a long way in allowing its LGBTQ+ residents to be who they are and creating spaces where they feel comfortable. Being one of the very few LGBTQ+ venues in Cape Town has not been without hardship, and Café Manhattan has had to navigate its fair share of challenges. “Being an LGBTQ+ community space singles you out,” says Mo-Jo. While great progress has been made towards the increased visibility and acceptance of marginalised communities, safe spaces, as Mo-Jo says, are a number one priority. “When I talk to my LGBTQ+ friends, it always comes down to the same thing,” he says. “We need safe spaces for the community. So, as a business owner, you have to take an active interest in protecting every single person, regardless of the size of the venue or the crowd that goes there. That's all the community is asking for.”
Attention to each and every individual has gained Café Manhattan a loyal fan base. “For me, there's no better way to gauge if a business is successful than returning customers,” says Mo-Jo. “We know the clientele by name.” The café's unique atmosphere has devoted customers not only in South Africa, but around the world. Reviews on Café Manhattan's Business Profile pay tribute to the open-doors policy they have cultivated over the years. “When I look at our stats on Google, I see a lot of new interest from places outside of the Western Cape,” says Mo-Jo. In one comment a customer attests to travelling 10,000 kilometres to visit the iconic institution and even during the challenging past year, Cafe Manhattan saw a 250% increase in discovery searches on their Business Profile on Google.
Being able to mark Café Manhattan’s Business Profile on Google as a safe space with an LGBTQ-friendly attribute is a natural evolution given the café’s ethos – welcoming all, treating everyone the same, but making sure that LGBTQ+ people know that the venue they have picked is a space they can feel comfortable in. “It allows potential customers to know we are an LGBTQ-friendly business easily when they come across our Business Profile,” says Mo-Jo. South Africa’s hospitality industry has been hit hard by COVID-19 lockdown measures. While there is renewed interest in going out, limitations on space and sanitary restrictions mean that the work of running a restaurant is even more complex. Having a Business Profile on Google has helped Café Manhattan quickly and efficiently communicate to customers the health and safety measures in place to protect them. Being a community-led LGBTQ+ space with a returning clientele means that reopening is of paramount importance. “People don’t just come here because it’s another space that’s open again,” says Mo-Jo, “but because they want to reconnect with their community in a safe space.” As a testament to Café Manhattan’s instrumental role in the community, the restaurant saw a 400% increase in phone call actions from its Business Profile on Google from June 2020 to June 2021.
“My proudest accomplishment is just bringing people back again and again,” says Mark. “Now and then, in between Google reviews, we'll find a message that just says ‘Oh my God, I hope you guys are good. I hope you're safe. Can't wait to see you again!’” adds Mo-Jo. “They are the ones that make us believe that we are doing something good.”