Panama Jacks here to stay, says manager

Liatt Pittaway at Panama Jacks in the Cape Town Harbour.

Liatt Pittaway, the manager of Panama Jacks, is determined the business will not give up its location without a fight.

While they have been asked to leave by the Ports Authority because they are not a port-related activity, the owners of Panama Jacks are still in the process of negotiating their stay at the Cape Town Harbour.

Panama Jacks, which has been at the harbour for the past 28 years, has been offered alternative accommodation at the recently renovated Cape Town cruise terminal.

However, said Ms Pittaway, they want to stay in the port, and are desperately looking for ways to challenge the port authorities to encourage mixed-use facilities in the harbour.

“We want to stay here. We had a meeting with them to extend our lease agreement to five years; we are currently on a year lease. But they said that they won’t renew it because once this lease expires we have to leave.”

She told the CapeTowner that while the family owns the building which houses Panama Jacks, they lease the land on which the building stands, from the Ports Authority. “And they charge us CBD rates for the plot,” she added.

Explaining the situation, spokesman for Transnet National Ports Authority, Coen Birkenstock, said Panama Jack’s lease had not been cancelled, but the restaurant had been offered the opportunity to relocate to an alternative site within the port. “Panama Jacks may elect to remain within its present location until its current lease expires on March 31 2018, or may agree to the proposed relocation.”

He said the proposed site, at the Cruise Terminal, had better infrastructure, greater public access and the opportunity to tap into business from the cruise tourism sector.

“Improved land and port asset utilisation is a key focus area of the Ports Authority’s strategic efforts to create integrated ports with enhanced port-city planning,” he said.

“The land presently occupied by Panama Jacks which is situated within an area that is zoned for port industrial use. This presents ongoing operational challenges for the port.

“The long-term strategy of the port is therefore to relocate recreational and leisure activities to within the vicinity of the Cape Town cruise Terminal Facility.”

But Ms Pittaway said that relocation would be detrimental for Panama Jacks, and that the present location contributed to their success.

She said she can’t understand why smaller issues, such as parking along the road and rezoning the space could not be sorted out. “I can’t understand why the port can’t have a mixed area for both port activities as well as businesses such as ours, especially considering the amount of business we do,” she said.

She said she believed Panama Jacks added lots of value to the tourism industry and was an asset to Cape Town. “We cater for locals and tourists. We contribute to the economy and the film industry hires us all the time because of our location.

“I feel like the other site won’t be enough. I feel like it will cripple us and we stand to lose everything. I don’t see why the ports authorities cannot be challenged.”

She said Panama Jacks started as a take-aways in the port in 1989, selling crayfish, fish and steaks. “My father named the place Panama Jacks, after the Panama Canal because he liked the name and the place.”

Thereafter, they opened a few tables and the restaurant clientele just grew rapidly.

“I think it was just by word-of mouth. We are one of Cape Town’s secrets, and people like coming here, so they spread the word. It took a long time for us to build our character base. The Ports Authority didn’t think this through, they didn’t think we will stand to lose everything.”

And over the years, many famous people have also passed through the restaurant, among them Patrick Swayze, Nicholas Cage, Naomi Campbell and Charlize Theron. She said they also feed captains and crew from the ships that dock at the port, as well as the people who work at the port.

Grant McCalgan, who has worked at Panama Jacks for the past three years, added: “People come back all the time. For the three years that I am working here, I see the same faces every season.

Mr Birkenstock said that upon termination of the existing lease, the land agreement with Panama Jacks will be advertised for Port Industrial use in line with Transnet policy.

“Transnet Ports Authority manages the South African port system in a landlord capacity and operates within the legislative and regulatory environment created by the National Ports Act 2005,” he said.