Cricket Club Café has long been an OG (original gangster for all you over-30s reading) in the restaurant business having set up in 1996. Everybody at some point or other has had a meal there. As restaurateurs James and Gabby Whight, owners of Cricket Club Café have flown under the radar and avoided the limelight [...]


Bouncing back with a recipe for consistency

Two cricket-loving Australian restaurateurs who opened their cafe in Colombo soon after Sri Lanka’s historic World Cup victory in 1996 see the current pandemic situation as one more challenge in their life here

Cricket Club Café has long been an OG (original gangster for all you over-30s reading) in the restaurant business having set up in 1996. Everybody at some point or other has had a meal there.

Gabby and James Whight

As restaurateurs James and Gabby Whight, owners of Cricket Club Café have flown under the radar and avoided the limelight but their wonderful relationship has mirrored itself in a successful partnership. Both worked in hospitality and met whilst doing the catering for the International Terminal at Tullamarine Airport, Melbourne. Gabby talked about how they landed in Sri Lanka in 1995 – “Jamie had explained how passionate Sri Lankans were about cricket and it wasn’t till we got here …just to see people crowded round the shop-fronts of the Singer showrooms when a match was on was quite amazing!”

Sitting in the café’s Flower Road premises, both remain cheery despite the setback of the coronavirus. “People who have been coming in here for the past few days have said, ‘Don’t worry! Everything’s going to be alright’ and it’s been such a boost for us!”

We dread to ask this question, but just have to find out: How is business going?

James replies, “Financially it’s been really difficult – business ebbs and flows but this time it was a full shutdown.”Like so many other places that needed to pay their staff and generate income, Cricket Club made the move to UberEats during curfew. “Now, business is slowly picking up but two weeks ago when we first opened it was terrible. Gab and I were doing 40/50 Uber orders to 10 dine in with no electricity and two cooks!”

Seeing as the ethos of the business and the staff hasn’t changed over the years, we ask whether consistency is the key to their success.

They both reply enthusiastically, “Oh, absolutely! We’re not just reliable for food and beverage; we are reliable as a brand.  I think people had the confidence to come to us during this pandemic because they’ve seen us through so much already – when the war was on or the tsunami happened we didn’t pack up and leave. After the Easter attacks, people from the Shangri-La were told to come here for a meal before they flew out.  It’s a comfort zone because people have grown up here.”

Initially, when they had plans to open the Cricket Club Cafe before the 1996 World Cup, eight hour power cuts made it hard for tables and chairs to be made but this didn’t deter them and three months after Sri Lanka’s landmark win, Cricket Club Café opened its doors at Alfred House Gardens. In terms of their signature menu, Gabby explained how she taught the two cooks who have been with them from the start to cook Western. “I kept them in my kitchen and we bought all the produce from Colpetty market. They couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak Sinhala so the only way we could do stuff was to physically cook together.”  For now though Gabby doesn’t get too involved in the kitchen instead preferring to let the cooks teach the new kitchen helpers who start off learning basic culinary skills and watching the senior cooks make meals before moving up as the years go on.

Long innings: The cafe opened three months after Sri Lanka’s landmark World Cup win. Pic by Sameera Weerasekera

The café has been with us during this country’s darkest moments and we wonder how they’ve dealt with these numerous setbacks. Remarking that they anyway came at a difficult time, Gabby shared how bomb blasts would go off quite close to them when they were working at Galle Face Hotel. And if it wasn’t war it was internal politics – the original Cricket Club neighboured a minister-owned restaurantwhich experienced a shoot-out. It seems like they’ve really been through the worst so nothing now can faze them – “I refuse to let things negotiate the way we lead our lives and Sri Lankans bounce back extremely quickly!”

Apart from the successes of the café, Whight & Co. is their burgeoning coffee business which was born out of a need to expand and reinvent Sri Lanka’s coffee industry. With an estate in Udapussellawa, James explains it’s one of the few where the coffee is grown, roasted and packaged all in one place and it’s also a sustainable, eco-friendly environment. “We handpick everything instead of using mechanical harvesting which really stresses the plant. We try not to use chemicals like weed killers but we do use a bit of fertiliser when the plant is small. But once they get into the field we only do ring weeding and light fertiliser. Due to this our bird life is quite prominent.”

Explaining the process, “The cherries grow in bunches and when you wash the cherry, the skin comes off and you can see the coffee beans. We repurpose the skins along with the husks by burning it and putting it back into the fertiliser.Originally we sent samples from here to tasters around the world and the Sri Lankan was right up there with the best of the world.”

Both businesses keep the Whights on their toes and the stress must be unbelievable. But judging by the fact that they’ve managed 24 years in the business and still cherish its home-grown roots, they’re definitely doing something right. Having found the key to longevity despite the instability we ask whether they have any advice for new restaurants and start-ups? Gabby says, “You have to be strong willed. Don’t let it get you down. Just try to carry on and weave your way through difficulties.”

But the thing to take note of is that businesses can only function as long as they have the backing of people here! So what message do they have for people reading this?

“Come out and enjoy yourself. We need you to support local businesses and don’t worry – Sri Lanka WILL bounce back.”


Share This Post


Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.