Madame Zingara: Richard Griffin

Madame Zingara: Richard Griffin

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Every night that Madame Zingara runs, Richard Griffin and his crew transform the famed Belgian tent of mirrors into a theatre of dreams, complete with spellbinding circus acts and dazzling, dramatic performances. After the guests have departed, the spotlights dimmed and the last traces of glitter are swept from the stage floor, the crew get some rest before staging the entire bewitching performance again the next night.

The scene inside the Madame Zingara tent looks very different by day and Griffin, in jeans and a t-shirt, looks decidedly untheatrical. But I’m not here for the show. I want to get the story behind it, a view into the business that drives the phenomenal and recurring success of Madame Zingara. Because, while smoke, mirrors and a hefty sprinkling of fairy dust are part and parcel of the travelling circus-restaurant’s theatrical performances, the business behind it is real.

“We might be a bunch of hedonistic hippies, but we know our business and we know how to work long and hard,” says Griffin. This combination — a dedicated work ethic and an intimate understanding of what their customers want — is a common thread of success that has run through all the Madame Zingara ventures.

Griffin has a talent for creating unique dining experiences for customers and his focus on delivering personalised service is almost fanatical. “I love what food and hospitality can do for a person’s soul. Whatever we’ve done, we’ve always started by asking ourselves ‘How is this going to make the customer feel?’ We opened the original Madame Zingara restaurant with the vision of going back to the days when dining out was a special occasion. It was all about the individual — it still is. I tell my staff, ‘Never turn a table. Never take a double booking. Get customers into a seat and keep them there. Kill them with love and serve them lots of vodka,” he says.

The original Zingara restaurant gave expression to Griffin’s self-confessed love of “excess upon excess.” Thirteen themed dining rooms of every description paid tribute to the character of Madame Zingara, a “runaway gypsy whore” given life and personality by Griffin’s creative imagination.

The restaurant was a huge hit with local and international Cape Town guests. Started as a 70-seater in Loop Street in what Griffin describes as a “dodgy building with a long lineage of bankrupt restaurant tenants,” it grew to a 350-seater restaurant, eventually taking over the entire building as well as the adjacent ones, and employing 100 staff.

Facing disaster

And then one night it all went up in smoke. “The fire took place at the start of the high season when the restaurant had a reservation book of 15 000 guests and Desmond Tutu’s birthday cake in the kitchen. Of course we’d just spent all our money on renovations getting ready for the season. And while insurance is great it doesn’t help you immediately. I had staff who needed to be paid and no money to pay them,” says Griffin, who describes the fire as one of the best and worst things that has ever happened to him.

It’s the kind of event that would make most people throw in the towel. The strong sense of place that keeps people coming back to a well-loved restaurant is not easy to simply replicate, particularly when it’s the venue itself that has lent the place its unique qualities. (Ask anyone who’s tried unsuccessfully to franchise or open ‘sister stores’ to an existing successful restaurant).

Bouncing back

This makes it all the more remarkable that Griffin was not only willing but able to raise Madame Zingara quite literally from the ashes. While most people would concentrate on getting back what they had lost, he threw himself into the creation of something new that would still hold all the magic of the Madame Zingara brand.

“We had no restaurant and no equipment but we did have two very important things: a strong brand, and loyal employees who knew just how to create magic for our customers. What we needed was a venue and a little bit of time to regroup,” says Griffin.

It was its portable and temporary nature that made Griffin eventually settle on what is known as a mirror tent. “To be honest I was casting around for a temporary venue we could set up quickly – that’s all,” he says. He’d seen a mirror tent in Ireland and, after much to-ing and fro-ing, eventually managed to get one of the few remaining ones from Belgium to South Africa in December, three months after the fire.

Although the creation of the Madame Zingara show was a second thought, it was almost inevitable given Griffin’s indefatigable creative drive. “We had this gorgeous tent – one of only 17 remaining touring mirror tents in the world – with a rich history of travelling shows for the European mink-and-manure audiences. I’d seen shows in Germany previously. Given the fact that we had this venue we almost had to create a show to go in it – but we wanted to do it in our own Zingara way,” he says.

After placing as many of his staff as possible in temporary employment in the restaurants of friends and acquaintances, and moving his reservation book to other Cape Town restaurants, Griffin set about creating the extravaganza that is today so characteristically Madame Zingara.

Golden thread

With a background chiefly in food, creating a live show of this calibre was new territory for Griffin but the first show opened within five months and within a year the business was profitable again. It’s a feat that illustrates a remarkable ability to change a business model – mid-stream, under enormous pressure and with limited financial means – and to do it perfectly, to the same exacting, “ridiculous, revoltingly high standards.”

But while the Madame Zingara Theatre of Dreams was new, its success was based on key elements of an age-old Zingara recipe. The golden thread of the original Madame Zingara magic ran through the new Theatre of Dreams, providing guests with a unique, unforgettable experience, highly personalised service and fine attention to detail. “In a way what we did was entirely new, but in another sense we did what we’d always done: we asked ourselves, ‘How will this make the customer feel?’” Griffin says.

Staying close to the customer remains a key success factor. While Madame Zingara’s ‘spiritual home’ is in Cape Town, the Theatre of Dreams’ largest audience is in Johannesburg. “There’s a bigger market in Johannesburg and it’s not seasonal like the market in Cape Town. It’s also possible that the necessity for escape is higher on people’s agenda.“

Griffin also understands the hospitality industry and, amidst the turmoil, never lost touch with how it was evolving. “The world of food was changing. South African restaurants had moved beyond spaghetti bolognaise. A new thing called hummus was appearing on menus. People were excited. There was a growing appreciation of food and the creative process behind it,” he says. It’s no mistake that Griffin’s marriage between this new interest in food and the creative process of theatre made for a winning combination. It was also, like so many other things he does, unique.

Liquidation

So much so in fact that it caught the eye of a UK-based events company that wanted to take the show to England. “The deal was that they would cover the costs of setting up Madame Zingara in England,” explains Griffin. The company paid the deposit but pulled out of the deal following the global economic crash of 2009. Griffin was left facing a R17 million bill, having transported the entire show to England.

“Looking back I often ask myself what I could have done differently. We had a contract in place but you come to realise that a contract is only helpful if you have the time and financial resources to sue someone over it. I could never have foreseen what was going to happen to the world’s economy, but I do believe that we failed to do our due diligence properly. We didn’t protect ourselves sufficiently from unscrupulous people. And we took decisions that put the company in a position where, overnight, we were suddenly facing ruin.”

Madame Zingara was forced into liquidation. It’s the nightmare of every entrepreneur, and the fear of it is what keeps many people from taking the risks required to start or grow a business. The simple fact remains that the consequences of entrepreneurial failure are deeply personal and long-lasting on every level – from financial and legal to emotional and psychological. And in a country in which failure is a closely-guarded dirty little secret, particularly among thentrepreneurial community, it leaves one out in the cold in every sense.

Knocked off a pedestal and almost literally out on the street, Griffin found himself in a position from which few people have the means or strength to recover.

“It was the first time in business that I felt real shame,” he says. “I couldn’t pay bills, I couldn’t pay staff, family and friends who had invested in me and the business lost huge amounts of money and it was all because of me. It was the first time in my life where I just couldn’t find a way to come up with a second plan. There was this thing that was beyond my control that I couldn’t fix – and it just broke me.”

He sold his car to pay wages and lived on a friend’s couch.

“It was a very dark time. I felt enormous responsibility to people who I’d let down. But when you find yourself with absolutely nothing, you do a lot of thinking and you come to realise that the only thing you have control over is your attitude. My parents, who are amazing people, told me that it’s not your past that defines you. Rather it’s how you approach your future that’s important. Your future gives you the opportunity to take your past – no matter how bad it is – and turn it into the story that you want your life to be,” he says.

It’s a brand of emotional resilience that separates people who give up and go home from those who are able to bounce back. Griffin falls into the latter category, although he’s quick to point out that it was his love of food and the faith of both friends and shareholders that eventually helped get him back on his feet.

Back to basics

“Sweet Lena, who runs my kitchen and with whom I’ve worked and been friends for 27 years, came to me and took my hand and said, ‘Richard, just cook.’” It was sound advice. “I needed to return to the thing that had always given me joy and a drive for life, and that was food,” he says.

Once again it was the inherent strength of the Madame Zingara brand that triumphed. “The brand was all that remained after liquidation,” says Griffin. “It went to two existing shareholders who I owed a great deal of money to, as well as a new third shareholder who had some capital.”

In a rare display of faith (and one that speaks volumes about Griffin’s work ethic and business talent), shareholders wanted to put him back to work immediately. “One shareholder told me that he believed the best and quickest way for him to make his money back was to get me working and building again,” he says.

Their faith was well placed. Griffin was given the opportunity to open a new Cape Town restaurant – the now-famous Bombay Bicycle Club – under the Madame Zingara brand. “We started Bombay with what was left over from an auction site. Nothing matches. Anything goes. It gave me an opportunity to return to the chaos and hedonism of the old days and our old way of doing food,” he says.

Back to work

Getting back to work was a key factor in helping Griffin to recover both his confidence and his will to continue. “What I learnt is that I really do my best work when I have nothing to go on, and I don’t think I’m unique in that respect. It forces you to really think about problems, to come up with creative ways of solving them. In that respect the liquidation, like the fire, was a gift. It took me back to basics, to why I had started all of this in the first place, it reminded me of what was important in the business — of what had helped us to make magic in the first place,” he says.

Once Griffin’s creative drive was kick-started there was no stopping him. He opened a sister restaurant, the Sidewalk Cafe three to four months after opening the Bombay Bicycle Club. Both restaurants remain successful.
It was inevitable that he’d have to face the Theatre of Dreams at some point. “My fantastic shareholders gave me a year to lick my wounds and get back on my feet, doing the Bombay and Sidewalk Cafe projects,” he explains.

Once that year was up, shareholders had him back at work weaving Madame Zingara magic. “Fortunately we had leased the tent so it was not lost in the liquidation. I agreed to a three-year contract as managing director in which time I committed to building the business back up again,” he says.

That three-year period is up and what Griffin has achieved is nothing short of astonishing. Creditors have been repaid and the Theatre of Dreams is currently staged to sell-out audiences. Madame Zingara Entertainment is now worth R30 million, with 14 operations, six restaurants, 350 staff and between 1 500 and 2 000 customers a day.

Leading people

It’s a great deal to be proud of, but what gives Griffin the greatest satisfaction is the fact that 92% of his original staff returned to work with him. “These are people who lost their jobs, their livelihood, because of me. They had every reason to be very angry and resentful. It hurt them personally. The fact that so many of them were willing to come back to work with me is deeply touching,” he says.

It also speaks volumes about Griffin’s ability to lead and mobilise people behind a common vision. “We work very hard here but we’re like a family too. In the same way that we consider how what we do will make customers feel, I try to think about how certain business decisions will make staff feel. When people feel valued and heard, you get the best out of them. When they don’t, they leave or, worse, contribute to a general creeping unhappiness in the business.

So I believe it’s important that I really listen to staff, particularly when we go through periods of growth. It’s at those times that people can get lost in the system. I need to keep going back to the question of whether staff are okay. When they’re not, we stop growing and consolidate again,” he says.

Rooted in history, looking ahead

In the coming months the business is moving into a new growth period and Griffin expects to increase the staff complement from 350 to 500 by the end of the year.

He has one last project to complete before his three-year contract is up. It takes him back to the derelict shell of the original Madame Zingara restaurant in Cape Town. “I think it’s important not to go backwards in life or in business, so while we’re going back to the original site of Madame Zingara we’re not going to try and recreate what was. We’re building a new restaurant there but we’re retaining the history of the fire,” he explains.

The new venue will give expression to Griffin’s recent love affair with India. “Shake Your Honey Mumbai will have seven different dining experiences, one of which will be in the slums, which we’ll locate in the old burned out parts of the building,” he explains.

Working with some of the country’s top creatives, Griffin is back on form and remains as committed as ever to customer service. “It’s become something of an obsession. I went to India originally to learn about their culture of service and how we can bring it back here. There is still so much we can improve upon, so much still to create and build,” he says.

It was Winston Churchill who said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” He also said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” In both instances he could have been describing Griffin’s journey and the incredible resilience that is largely responsible for Madame Zingara’s success.

As he leaves the interview to change for the photoshoot, I notice for the first time the words that are printed on Griffin’s t-shirt: Live.Work.Create. It is, perhaps, the most fitting epithet.

Lessons in overcoming failure

  1. Accept that there are things outside your control and don’t let this stand in the way of allowing you to take the risks needed to build greatness.
  2. How you deal with failure is what really matters. It can be an opportunity to define a new future for yourself.
  3. Take care of your people – you can’t buy loyalty and sometimes it’s the one thing that will get you through business disaster.
  4. When you fail, go back to basics. Identify the thing that made your business successful in the first place and try to build back from there.
  5. Get back to work as soon as possible, even if it’s doing something different.
  6. Sometimes you need to accept that you can’t recover what was lost. What you can do is adapt, change strategy, shift the business model, do things differently. Look for new opportunities instead of trying to recreate what was.
  7. Always stay in touch with your customers and the changes in your industry. This is where the opportunities lie.
  8. Growth can cause destruction. If your business is growing, keep a close eye on how it’s affecting your people. Take care not to lose the essence of what made you successful in the first place
  9. We all fall on our heads at some point – some of us just do it more publicly.
  10. It is possible to overcome.
Juliet Pitman
Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.