By Zubeida Jaffer
The mood is sombre. No smiling faces. Cosy Corner and Sabria’s in Wynberg are open for business as usual, but the staff are constrained. The owner of the two establishments passed away this week on Wednesday 8 February, 2023.
Yousri Hartley was 57 years old and died after a long battle with cancer.
Over 25 years, he, and his wife Tasneem drove the transformation of these businesses into vibrant eateries providing jobs for 37 people. “We know that death is inevitable. He was not just our boss. I feel like I have lost a member of my family,” said Joseph Opoku, a waiter who has worked at Sabrias for more than five years.
The Hartley family established Cosy Corner in 1973. It was one of the first Halaal eateries in Cape Town and the first in Wynberg. For most customers of colour barred from eating at restaurants that were for whites only at the time, this was a novel experience. The parents, who had left Johannesburg and settled in Cape Town in the early 70s, laid the foundation over many years. They were supportive of anti-apartheid activists like Ashley Forbes and others. His mother sent food to those detained at Pollsmoor Prison during the eighties. But it was Yousri who stepped up to the plate after the coming of democratic South Africa in 1994 and shaped the business into what it is today.
The original business was called Cosy Corner. The couple extended the premises and changed the one section into a sit-down restaurant naming it after their youngest daughter Sabria. Slowly they transformed the take-away branded as Cosy Corner into a modern facility that could match any international road-side diner.
Pumla Pika, from Philippi and the longest-serving staffer, has been with the business for almost 19 years. “I watched Cosy Corner change from a small, old place to this,” she said referring to the light-filled modern establishment. “He tried to place in on a high level,” she said. “He made it nice with big windows and a courtyard to invite people in,” she said. “It is so painful to lose him.”
She like other staff members described him as a good boss. “He would shout sometimes but always helped me in the end,” she said. “I don’t have a certificate, but I am a fully-trained chef and learnt to respect everyone.”
This was her first job after school and here she has stayed through her marriage and birth of three children.
Cosy Corner, on the corner of Ottery and Ross roads, has become known as the home of the Gatsby, a lengthy bread filled with chips, salad, chicken or steak drizzled with a selection of sauces. The masala steak and tandoori chicken is the favourite. The Gatsby is usually shared by several people. Those who have moved to other provinces, bring their children back to Cosy Corner for the experience. “We have families buying here for over 40 years, said Thembelani Lisa. “Couples have met here, some came for their first date and proposed and then years later they introduce their children to us.”
Thembelani from Nyanga started as a cashier 13 years ago. Now the supervisor and a Wynberg resident, he attended the funeral on the day Yousri died.
“When I saw the family so heartbroken, I thought he would have said why are you crying. He would be in tears himself to see them crying. He was so full of jokes. Despite his pain, he was so calm, and his voice sounded strong when I spoke to him on the telephone last week,” he said.
During the interview, the tears came rolling down his cheeks. He reached for a serviette marked with the Sabria’s signature moving it across his eyes and down his cheeks. Yousri had chosen him to demonstrate how to make a Gatsby at a city hotel and this memory provoked the tears. “It was on that day that I realised that he did trust me. He was hard on me but came to believe that I could do things right,” he said. “His death will affect everything. His mind was full of creative ideas. The business was never static.”
Phatiswa Agnes Phakathi from Khayelitsha joined Cosy Corner in 2005, 18 years ago. She was a general worker, a cleaner and then trained as a chef. She recalled how Yousri used to come into the kitchen and tell jokes and rap. “He liked to dance, sing and he did not like us to be cross, she said lifting the lower edge of her black apron and wiping away her tears.
“My heart is broken like he was my brother or my father,” she said.
As Thembelani calmed down he said that he would like to see Cosy Corner and Sabria’s live on. He was aware that Yousri had overcome his drug addiction and turned his life around.
“It was a beautiful thing to watch him live up to what he wanted to do. Every upgrade, every paint colour had his hand in it. From where we were to where we are now, it is completely different. It is sad that he is not with us. We would like to maintain his traditions here,” he said.
Yousri Hartley leave behind his wife, Tasneem and two daughters, Mishca and Sabria.
A note from the writer
I have lived in Wynberg for 63 years with short absences. Cosy Corner was part of my teenage years and has stayed with me into my adulthood. Yousri’s decision to transform the business has been of huge benefit to this community. I recall a time when it was all too much and he considered selling up. Fortunately, he invested the family earnings in providing our community and beyond (and customers now come from across the old apartheid divides) with a first-class facility enjoyed by thousands. This decision created a focal point in Ottery Road around which other businesses coalesced feeding off the vibrant customer base flocking to this corner. At night we can walk outside and enjoy the buzz. The selection has grown from Aneesa’s, the home of the vienna and chip parcel to Nabeela’s Fast Foods for Indian foods, to Izzy Burger, a high-quality burger offering, The Hook Up Lounge for Hookah smoking with mocktails and light meals, The Fish House and Pizzeria, The Sushi and Bismillah Food Bazaar and Everyday Akhni.
The businesses are fully shaped by their owners and illustrate the entrepreneurial spirit so urgently needed in our country. His commitment to reinvesting his family’s profits and in this way contributing to community upliftment will always be remembered.
May he rest in peace and may the Almighty ease his family’s pain.
Thursday 9 February 2023