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 Restaurant owners only regret-I should have started sooner


 Despite having just been through the most difficult period of his business career, restaurant entrepreneur Dunga Hlabangane has only one regret about leaving his high-powered corporate career seven years ago - he should have done it much earlier.

​​​​​​​​Dunga and his wife Thabitha have so far started five franchised restaurant outlets in Kempton Park and Pretoria. And although the lockdown and COVID-19 restrictions had been a harrowing experience for the couple and their staff, the turnover of three of their outlets has actually risen due to the increased demand in meal deliveries.

Dunga says they would choose entrepreneurship, with all its ups and downs, any day over the safety and comfort of corporate employment. Thabitha left her teaching job fourteen years ago to start their first business, an outlet of the pizza franchise Scooters in Bramley, Johannesburg, while Dunga kept on working in senior corporate positions as a Human Resources executive. His former employers include South African Breweries, Robertsons and the Road Accident Fund.

Dunga says the corporate world has been good for him, especially the training programmes run by SAB, but he points to his younger brother who had worked as an employee for only one year before starting his own business. Today, he owns no fewer than seven service stations.

Dunga attributes his entrepreneurial drive to a fierce desire for independence, which was instilled in him by his parents. Although they were not businesspeople themselves, his father, a headmaster, emphasised the independence that comes from education, and his mother taught them self-sufficiency and hard work on the plot which was their home in Groblersdal in Limpopo. Today Dunga and all of his five brothers run their own businesses.

Thabitha worked as a teacher for 20 years until 2006 when she and Dunga decided they would buy an outlet of Scooters. She ran the outlet while Dunga kept his corporate job in order to mitigate the risk. Five years later they bought a Mugg and Bean outlet in Kempton Park and in 2013 Dunga left the corporate world to join his wife full time in the business.

Dunga says although he took a careful approach to working towards independence, finding a foothold in the world of fast-food franchising was a strict learning curve for him and Thabitha.

In hindsight, they would have chosen a different franchise than Scooters group, which closed down in 2016. And they also learned a lot about choosing the right location for a new outlet. Today they look much closer at the consumer culture around a target location, and not simply the average household income.

In 2018 they jumped at the opportunity to open a combination of a Steers and Debonairs outlet in Atteridgeville. And in February this year - one month before the lockdown - they opened another Debonairs, also in Atteridgeville, 7km away from their other branch. Their strategy is to capture the whole market by creating a presence in every business centre in Atteridgeville.

At first it looked like the timing of the opening of their second Debonairs could not have been worse, but to their surprise the Steers and both Debonairs outlets showed strong growth in turnover since the lockdown, due to the increased consumer demand for meal deliveries. Dunga says they will probably be increasing their staff numbers from the current 35.

Although they would have been able to finance the new businesses through bank loans, Dunga found that the deal offered by Business Partners Limited (BUSINESS/PARTNERS), with tax breaks via the government's Jobs Fund, was preferable.

Dunga and Thabitha's Mugg & Bean outlet in Kempton Park took the greatest hit in the lockdown and its aftermath because of its nature as a sit-down restaurant in contrast to a take-away or delivery service.

At times there were doubts about whether they should open the outlet again but by September they were up and running. Dunga says all the parties came to the table to pull through the crisis, including the landlord, the franchisor, suppliers and BUSINESS/PARTNERS which offered a three-month payment holiday.

Cash flow from the Steers and Debonairs also helped to save the business, which they expect to relocate in the New Year to a new high-end development in Kempton Park called Serengeti.

For the immediate future, Dunga says they will aim the entrench the market position of each of their outlets, and work towards getting them debt free, another important milestone on their way to full independence. ​




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