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Can you defy the gods of marketing and win?

Every now and then, you see a marketing marvel, a product or service so obviously out of place, so spectacularly wrong, that you can only look on in amazement. Haute cuisine in Boksburg? That’s a bit like selling Dior in Delmas, or hosting a talk on Wittgenstein in the Kakamas town hall.

Take the restaurant where I had lunch last weekend. A friend of mine thought it would be nice to take my sponsored car out for a drive and booked lunch at a surprise venue. After programming the GPS to take us past squatter camps, mine dumps and rusting mine houses, it turned out to be a Parkhurst-style restaurant in the most unlikely of settings: a parking lot in an industrial strip in Boksburg. Perhaps you’ve heard of Gray. I hadn’t, so I encountered it without any preconceived ideas. In the same building as the first black-owned Harley Davidson dealership in South Africa, it’s a project of the euphoniously and rather eclectically named Philippe Wagenfuhrer, a chef whose previous venture won multiple awards.

The food was mostly excellent quality (though the quail was too dry) and not bad value at R195 for a four-course set menu. But with the rather obscure, pretentious name (sooo hipster), the tasteful décor and the tiny portions of fusion cuisine, I found the entire experience an exercise in cognitive dissonance. The parking lot bears the black circles of doughnuts past; this is 3-litre Ford 2-litre Coke 1-litre Brandy country still (they keep their Cortinas going on that side of the highway). There’s a panel beater in the complex, which is shiny and new and utterly soulless. It’s as if Gray was beamed up from Rosebank or Melrose Arch and plonked in the most unpromising corner of the world they could think of.

I’d give them the benefit of the doubt if the place had been busy, but there were only four tables of diners, and Sunday should be the one day of the week when a restaurant attracts the set-menu lunch crowd. Who knows what market a place like this attracts in an area where there is no foodie culture and the locals queue around the corner to get into the Wimpy at the East Rand Mall down the road. Will the northern suburbs residents who became fans of the chef at his previous restaurant really brave the roadworks on the N12 to drive out to such a depressing spot in what feels like the middle of nowhere? Perhaps the Harley buyers keep it going.

My friend, who knows a thing or two about marketing, was deeply irritated by the mismatch of offering to local population. He was much happier in the Silverado Pub and Grill down the road where we headed to experience the real Boksburg. There, patrons tucked into specials like 1kg of queen prawns for R79 and pap and gravy with ribs and a free Castle Lager for R49. Later we drove to Yaldwijn Road and parked next to the new runway at OR Tambo, a five-minute drive away, where we stood under the landing lights and watched the planes come in to land. As my fellow diner observed on the way home, the reason we’d come all this way turned out to be the least enjoyable experience of the afternoon.

Maybe Gray will defy the laws of marketing. As one reviewer observed, “there’s a lot of money in Ekurhuleni, and fans of [the chef] won’t mind the drive”. It’s entirely possible that I am wrong, that there is a market for this kind of offering here, and that the chef has the kind of fans who will — literally — follow him to the ends of the earth. (In which case, it would have been nice if the chef had come around to talk to the diners — but there was no sign of him.)

Later, I looked at the website. On the home page, they explain the name: “Where there is neither black nor white, simply the infinite delights encapsulated by shades of grey. Charcoals, silver, dove grey and metallic … light and dark … each with a personality, a sense of style and taste all of its own.” Ja boet … I don’t know about that, hey.

In many ways, Gray is appealingly counterintuitive. But is this a case of good marketing, a relevant offering that fulfils a need? In that parking lot scarred with burned rubber, I just don’t buy it. “Move,” my friend said, pondering what he would do if he were in their position. “I’d tell them to move.”