Finding my Mo-Jo!
If you had told Jo Ann Gibson 25 years ago that she would be one of the most trusted names in Durban’s culinary lexicon, she would’ve probably told you to stop messing around and hand her a cloth so she can get back to carrying plates of piping hot Noodles to her table of hungry guests during a buzzing Friday night dinner shift on Florida Road.
Isaac Lediga chats with Durban restaurateur Jo-Ann Gibson about her career, her love of the hospitality industry and being a woman in a male dominated industry.
Today she’s running one of the most revered Asian Fusion restaurants in the city, enjoying every minute of it.
She’s constantly talking to guests – more like old friends, the very same people who’ve adored Mo’s Noodles since its Florida Road days, growing and celebrating with her, making her an underground Rock Star who always delivers at every show, every night, like it was her first and last.
I caught her on a busy day right before the Friday afternoon lunch rush, she had a lot of errands to run that morning, effectively and effortlessly managing things here and there like a woman who is in control but so easy going you would think she was just one of the guests popping in for lunch.
As busy as she was she was generous enough to spend some time with me, a little over an hour.
Cool would be an understatement to describe the vibe & atmosphere of the gorgeous lofty dining area coupled with breezy seaside colours, Sky-high windows, historical artwork and a very Brooklyn, New York apartment inspired spiral staircase that led to what felt like a champagne-laden VIP section, but it was just an extension of Jo’s signature touch, unpretentious, effortlessly cool & inviting.
The service was just as welcoming, casual & laid back with the professionalism of tuxedo clad 5-star butler but not as stiff. Everything about my first 3 minutes there was a reminder that Mo’s Noodles heart & soul is in the food, it has always been about the food and the vibe was just as exciting & flavourful.
I was greeted with the coolest table reservation – A Scrabble rack with my name on it, and it was actually spelled correctly (Take some notes Starbucks Baristas).
Instantly impressed by the attention to detail, which normally would intimidate me but I just felt a little more relaxed, whether it was intentional or not it was playful more than anything, it was like meeting Jo-Ann before meeting Jo-Ann.
We sat down and chatted over Plates of pan-seared Chilli-lime Calamari tubes paired with a citrus-kissed Lentil & feta salad – her recommendation – as if I wasn’t already blown away, it’s almost a crime for lentils to taste THAT good!
Right away we started chatting like old friends, it felt very natural, casually telling me about her day, new developments in the neighbourhood, (Not to mention the artwork on the wall, 3 colossal collages of old photos of the original Mo’s, Newspaper & magazine article cut-outs
. It was a celebration of the culture at Mo’s that never died, you’d just have to see it for yourself) & jumping into the history of Mo’s Noodles, about how she started off just like us, showing up every day, paying her dues and diligently just working her butt off.
She worked as waitress for several years’ right into her twenties, getting promoted to Manager and then reluctantly buying the restaurant from the previous owners Janine & Michael.
I recall her saying “I don’t know why the hell they would trust me with this but they did and I stepped up”
It’s that level of risk taking that turns cubs into lions & the previous owners knew she was ready before she did.
Fresh out of her comfort zone and adjusting to the newly acquired restaurant, she was still running tables and making sure things were going just as they were before, nobody would ever tell it was under new management, she was probably the only one who felt the transition.
She expanded the place, gave it a facelift and kept going.
The people still kept coming back every night, like clockwork.
She decided to relocate across the river to Umhlanga and that’s when she really flourished.
It had been a rollercoaster since the move but she has no regrets, her original fan base stuck and she managed to evolve the place into more than just a trendy hangout spot for the smartphone armed, Insta-crazed millennials, it was still the same Mo’s noodles from 25 years ago and the community’s loyalty reflected that.
Isaac: How has Mo’s changed and evolved since you bought it 17 years ago?
Jo-Ann: The History of Mo’s is a beautiful story about a 19 year old girl who started working for the best people (the original owners of Mo’s noodles – Janine and Michael) their small 8 table restaurant was the small footprint made over 25 years ago in Florida Centre.
Although the food was delicious, their Mo’s was a funky, fast, trendy vibe. After waitressing, managing, and then buying the restaurant 7 years later, expanded the shop to double the size where it remained for a further 10 years.
The vibe stuck, the locals loved the ethos which is still the same – Simplicity – drawing attention to the food.
I have tried to keep the brand current & fresh adding cocktails, dessert and tweaking the menu to be niche.
Now the restaurant is more of a lifestyle – appealing to all ages, food is fast, still fresh and unlike anything else Durban has to offer.
8 years ago I moved to NUR to strengthen the brand – giving it yet another facelift and beginning the process of a bigger footprint.
Isaac: How did you keep the establishment fresh & current while maintaining the authenticity and integrity of the original Mo’s that was opened 25 years ago on Florida Road?
Jo-Ann: It has been easy to keep the food consistent having had the same chef since inception.
He is a 1 of a kind – and deserves all the accolades, Chef Sam Nomandla.
The menu speaks for itself and so very little has changed as the locals all have their particular favourites.
I pride myself on the fact that the dishes that are produced are consistently good – as they should be. Because of the locals the food has always been an east meets west fusion – Very few dishes are authentically Asian.
Isaac: Will we be seeing more locations opening up around Durban or even around the country soon, are there any projects you’ve set your sights on?
Jo-Ann: Because of all the uncertainty that has presented itself since the Pandemic started, the need for expansion has been put on hold and the idea of concentrating on one store ensuring its success is key.
Isaac: How did u manage to stay afloat and keep the place running smoothly in the past year & a half with the global pandemic and the ever-changing lockdown regulations?
Jo-Ann: the last 16 months have been challenging – the local support has been incredible. We are because of our patrons and they truly have kept us alive.
Isaac: What advice would you give to other women and girls who have dreams of making a name for themselves in the restaurant business & hospitality industry in South Africa & beyond?
Jo-Ann: To anyone wanting this career – I would suggest never giving up – keep doing what you love – hard work shows and if you have the dedication, passion and determination to succeed it will happen for you.
I lived, breathed the restaurant, my customers are now my family and share so much of my life – I love seeing each of them and perhaps that shows – If you have a passion for people it’s the best industry to be in.
Isaac: What is the best Seller on the Menu? Name one dish & one cocktail.
Jo-Ann: Best seller without a doubt the classic combo (Pan Fried Calamari + Lentil & Feta Salad)
Cocktail: Ginga Ninja
Isaac: What is your personal favourite on the menu?
Something you don’t hesitate to eat on a daily basis.
Jo-Ann: Personal favourite is also the classic combo!
Easy to eat every day.
Soon after we finished our lunch she had to rush out to handle some mom duties, busy but not at all stressed or overwhelmed, she’s got it handled.
She left me in the capable hands of the Staff, I was offered a trio of Ice cream, coffee & light conversation.
The homemade ice cream really did taste wonderfully homemade (she probably would never commit the heinous crime of serving supermarket ice cream) coconut, honey and cashew and Nutella. Rich, smooth, ice-cold but gave me the warmest feeling.
You can taste and experience the love & care that went into every detail of the menu, no surprise when you consider they’ve had the same Head Chef since they opened 25 years ago!
While other establishments battle with high turnovers and office drama she’s managed to inspire a fierce level of loyalty from her staff, who she considers family.
There’s mutual reverence and respect in the way they interact but they’re not afraid of her, she’s one of the boys but still effortlessly carries head honcho energy.
Through the pandemic, the internet era and relocation there’s still a lingering feeling of that small 8 table noodle bar vibe, the smell, the taste, the textures, it is all in that first bite after you grab your chopsticks.
There are stories of successful women all over the world who have put blood, sweat & time into building empires and this is one you can still witness & have a chat with a legend in the making. Her sense of leadership is approachable, strong & effective.
It’s refreshing to see. I was even tempted to apply for a job just so I could hang out there every day.
Food snobs all over will drone on and on about how Mo’s Noodles isn’t really authentic Asian cuisine. Maybe true but 25 years in the restaurant business is no joke.
Jo-Ann Gibson delivers a high quality experience, puts her people first and always keeps it real.
Jo-Ann is the owner of Mo’s Noodles located on 21 Lighthouse Road Umhlanga
Not just a noodle bar, they serve fresh seafood, curries, Dessert and cocktails, a balanced mix of east meets west, bright, pungent, bold flavours. Crazy portions, worth the trip even if you’re not in the neighbourhood. And GREAT value for money.