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 Driven by passion for food and entrepreneurship

 

 That Donald Bruins-Lich has a passion for food and customer service is clear. He started working in restaurants at age 16, and 30 years later he is still at it. But in conversation with the 46-year-old restaurateur from Richards Bay his passion for entrepreneurship also becomes apparent.

His thriving restaurant called “Porky’s The Don” at the Tuzi Gazi Waterfront Richards Bay provides more than enough opportunity for him to indulge in his first two passions. He revels in the fact that South Africans are open to a huge variety of cuisines. That is why he has always built the Porky’s brand as a combined steakhouse and pizzeria, complete with the recent addition of a sushi bar, staffed by a professional from Japan.

But even as Porky’s thrives as one of the most popular restaurants in Richards Bay, Bruins-Lich admits that he misses the adrenalin rush of opening a new restaurant – the excitement of the first nights and the satisfaction of seeing the venture work after months of preparation.

It is an experience that he has lived through many times since he first started working as a waiter in Pretoria while still at school. He immediately knew that he wanted to spend his whole life in the industry. After leaving school he became the youngest manager in the Pizza Hut group, twice winning the company’s Manager of the Year award.

At 21, he bought his first restaurant, a steakhouse in Alberton. Within a year he had paid back the money he had borrowed from a lawyer for the purchase, and another six months later he had sold it for three times the purchase price.

His early success, despite youthful late-night parties and a rather care-free approach to management – he rarely bothered to do a cash-up after a day’s trade – gave him his thirst for restaurant start-ups and turn-arounds.

He got plenty of opportunity for those when he next joined Mike’s Kitchen, at the time a fast-growing restaurant group for which he successfully launched a huge branch in Roodepoort. Spotting his undoubted talent, the company sent him to struggling branches to turn them around. This brought him to KwaZulu-Natal for the first time, where he tripled the turnover of the Empangeni branch within a year.

No company was ever going to hold onto an entrepreneurial spirit such as Bruins-Lich’s for very long, and in the early nineties he spotted a struggling branch of the Irish pub franchise O’Hagan’s in Empangeni. He bought it and converted it into his first Porky’s, and developed the multi-cuisine concept that soon proved to be a major success in small centres.

Because of the usual lack of variety in small towns, he explains, customers appreciate a wider range of cuisines than a city restaurant would normally dare to offer. If you combine choice with top quality and service, you have a winning recipe.

He proved it by opening a further two Porky’s branches, one in Umhlanga and another in Richards Bay, and built the three restaurants over the next ten years into a thriving little group.

Bruins-Lich believes that part of his success is his approach to people-management. In each of the three restaurants, he appointed a husband-and-wife team as managers. Because of the long hours of the restaurant trade, he says, such a team often make the best managers. Using a profit-share model, “they could basically write their own salary checks”, he said.

Bruins-Lich said he could probably have expanded the Porky’s group further by going the franchise route, but he says he lacks the ruthlessness required by a franchisor – the willingness to risk failure with people’s life savings.

In 2009, Bruins-Lich sold his three Porky’s outlets to a Johannesburg gaming company that had earlier installed some highly successful gambling machines in the restaurants.

What followed were some brutal lessons in the importance of industry knowledge. The gaming company lacked restaurant experience, and after initial expansion the Porky’s group folded. At the same time, Bruins-Lich invested in a large laundromat in Durban in 2010 and lined up large deals to service hotels and restaurants. But because of his lack of experience in the industry, his control systems were not adequate and the business failed.

Starting virtually from scratch, Bruins-Lich turned back to his first love, and bought back the Porky’s in Richards Bay.

An opportunity arose to relocate the restaurant to the town’s popular waterfront. While no bank was willing to risk a loan to the risky restaurant industry at that stage, Bruins-Lich turned to a financier that was willing to take his prowess as a proven restaurateur into account. Business Partners Limited financed Porky’s relocation, and has since extended more finance to expand the thriving restaurant by enclosing the deck surrounding it.

With Porky’s back on an even keel, Bruins-Lich finds the entrepreneur in him stirring, and he is looking at expanding once again. He has just signed the lease for the restaurant next door, which he wants to set up as a mini casino and pub. Given his passion and experience, it’s a pretty safe bet.

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