For the past five years, Queen Anne residents didn’t have to travel far to get a taste of South Africa.

But the days of ordering malva pudding or koeksister at Cederberg Tea House are over.

Owners Natasha Robson-Lovato and her mother, Cecile Robson, are headed back to Johannesburg in the coming months, with their business — the city’s lone South African tea house — making way for a new Japanese cafe and market, Koku, set to open later this month at 1417 Queen Anne Ave. N..

“We’ve been wanting to do it for a few years now,” Robson-Lovato said of her looming move.

While the concept is different than what customers have come to expect, the new cafe will carry over all the same tea and coffee drinks — including the ever-popular rooibos espresso — and owner Kurt Schewe says he also wants to maintain the casual vibe that people had come to expect at Cederberg.

“It’s certainly will be a very different concept for food, and culture-wise, but I’m really trying to keep the status quo as much as possible,” he said.

A recent transplant from Washington, D.C., Schewe brings with him experience in the restaurant industry in New York, and most recently worked as the deli department head for an independently-owned grocery store in the nation’s capital, Glen’s Garden Market. It’s a background he hopes will help him in his new venture.

“I feel like I have a pretty good head start with what I learned,” he said.

The name “Koku,” comes from the Japanese concept of kokumi (“rich flavor”). That’s an idea he’s now trying to center his menu around.

“What I’m trying to accomplish with the menu is to get those rich flavors, and incorporate them in a balanced manner,” he said.

But instead of South African fare, the offerings will take on a decidedly Japanese flair. Rice bowls will be among the additions, with various meats and tofu alongside fermented and roasted vegetables, and sandwiches.

He’s also attempting to recreate on a much smaller scale what he learned in D.C., with a market area complete with retail fridge, selling Japanese speciality products and some items produced in-house. Of particular interest to Schewe is fermented products, like shio koji, a rice dressing, and amazake, a sweetened drink that can serve as a substitute for honey and sugar. 

When looking for a space for his cafe, Schewe wanted to find and convert an existing business, noting that the cost of starting from scratch would be prohibitively expensive.

“This space is just the perfect space for what I want to do right now,” he said. “It really worked out.”

Meanwhile, Robson-Lovato said she’ll miss the impact her business made, especially on expats.

“I will miss making people, especially Africans, South Africans who come in, just seeing their faces, and seeing how happy they are to find something that they miss so deeply, right here in Seattle,” she said. 

And after bringing a taste of Africa to Seattle, Robson-Lovato will now be bringing the foods of the American South to her home land via a mobile bake shop, “Sweet Tea and Chickadee,” in a way mirroring the role Cederberg played locally.

“I’m a baker at heart, I love baking, and so to be able to take those bake treats back, and it’s going to be a fun challenge for me, because I’ve gotten so used to making the South African food and I’m good at it now, and I just make it, and I don’t even think about it,” she said. “They’re the same recipes over and over, so as a baker you don’t really necessarily feel challenged, but now its a whole new set of recipes I have to create and things I have to come up with and practice, so I’m excited.”

Schewe hopes to have Koku open by June 19, after some minor renovations — “for the most part, [we’re] not really changing too much,” he said — with an official grand opening to come shortly thereafter. At the start, he’ll keep the same hours as Cederberg — 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. — but is hoping to open earlier in the coming months. 

To comment on this story, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.


Work has already begun on updating the interior of the former Cederberg Tea House (pictured above) before it reopens as Koku later this month. Photo by Joe Veyera