Restaurant entrepreneur ready for post-pandemic bounce-back
Amid all the usual uncertainties of running one’s own business, Neelesh Harduth has found an unexpected certainty: no matter what happens in future, chances are very good that things cannot possibly be as difficult as his first two years. If his business could survive that, it will survive anything.
In fact, now that the economy seems to be emerging from the calamity of the COVID-19 clampdown, Neelesh’s Masala Indian Restaurant in Bartlett, Boksburg, looks set to thrive once more.
Barely six months after Neelesh left his corporate job and bought the four-year-old restaurant he had to undergo a hip operation which took him out of the day-to-day running of his business for three months. And just a few months after his return to the business, government ordered all restaurants shut as part of the COVID-19 lockdown.
Ironically, it was uncertainty that first prompted Neelesh to leave his promising corporate career as a banker and start a new life as restaurateur. He was rising fast up the corporate ladder and was appointed head of payments for the local chapter of an international bank when he caught wind of a round of retrenchments. Even though he was unlikely to be retrenched – he had just received a performance award at the bank – the process made him think harder about turning one of his many side-hustles into a full-time venture.
Neelesh, who comes from a family of entrepreneurs, says he has always been busy with money-making sideline projects. One day an associate with whom he was negotiating about a consignment of cellphones mentioned to him an excellent business opportunity – a thriving Indian restaurant whose owner had to sell because his wife wanted to return to India.
Neelesh jumped at the chance, and the more he investigated the business the clearer it became that it was a major business opportunity. Masala Indian Restaurant was situated in the heart of his hometown, it was popular and highly rated for its authentic Indian cuisine, the financials reflected a healthy profit, he got on well with the founder who was keen to mentor him in running the restaurant, and the restaurant had an excellent manager on the payroll.
“The founder had prepared the soil, planted the trees, and took care of them for years. All I had to do was pick the fruit,” says Neelesh.
To finance the shortfall on the purchase price after cashing in all his savings, he approached Business Partners Limited (BUSINESS/PARTNERS) whom he knew about through his brother, who had one of his service stations financed through the small-and-medium-business financier.
BUSINESS/PARTNERS’ own due diligence confirmed that the restaurant was a gem. The only concern was whether Neelesh, who was used to corporate life, would not struggle to adapt to the rigors of the restaurant trade. As part of the transaction, BUSINESS/PARTNERS provided finance to pay the restaurant founder to mentor Neelesh through its Technical Assistance Programme, supported by the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO). The TA programme provides interest-free technical assistance loans for services such as accounting and marketing support and turnaround solutions to BUSINESS/PARTNERS clients.
For his part, Neelesh was under no illusions the life of a restaurateur was difficult with its long working hours and intensive interaction with thousands of people, including clients, staff and suppliers. He was partly prepared for this by his childhood in a business household where the dinner-table talk often revolved around business difficulties.
But Neelesh soon realised that he was cut out for the role of restaurateur. Sociability is one of his strengths and his interactions with his clients gave him the energy he needed to sustain the long hours, and his love of managing people rubbed off on the staff. The fact that the restaurant was situated in the heart of his community meant that he could draw of a large pool of potential clients. After a few months, the turnover of Masala Indian Restaurant started growing.
Then came the first test. After a busy winter season, Neelesh had to undergo a hip operation which took him out of the business for three months. His trusty manager kept the ship afloat while Neelesh recuperated.
That disruption was of course nothing compared to the lockdown, which came barely three months after Neelesh returned to the business. There were “dark days” in which he questioned his decision to leave his corporate career for the restaurant trade, even though no one could foresee a calamity of that scale.
Fortunately, all the stakeholders in Masala Indian Restaurant pulled together, including the landlord, the staff and BUSINESS/PARTNERS, which agreed to a payment holiday. Neelesh says he got the impression that BUSINESS/PARTNERS remained in control of the situation by having solutions readily available for its clients most heavily affected by the crisis.
Masala Indian Restaurant started meal deliveries and take away as soon as it was allowed. It helped to mitigate the damage and sustain the staff even though there was no hope to remain profitable in the early months after the lockdown. Costs had to be slashed and today Neelesh still has to keep a sharp eye on the expenses.
The latest social distancing regulations mean that Masala is still running at half its pre-Covid-19 seats, but Neelesh can sense a renewed enthusiasm for dining among his customers. “People are tired of staying at home,” says Neelesh, who remains confident that trade will bounce back.