- Company: Balkan Burger
- Players: Bojan and Lidija Ivanovic
- Launched: 2012
A Food Adventure
I was a corporate innovation engineer, my sister, a lawyer. We agreed to meet our best friends at Neighbourgoods Market in Joburg, but got our times mixed up. We missed our friends and by 12:30 most of the food was gone and what was left was expensive. We paid R200 for a cheese platter and two beers because we were that hungry and it was a simple supply-and-demand equation.
My sister and I are entrepreneurs by nature and spotted an opportunity to bring Serbian and Eastern European food to the market. We contacted the managers of Neighbourgoods, pitched our idea and they invited us to present our food. We roped our mother in to make a feast of Serbian food. She slaved for hours and the market managers were blown away.
Leftovers for Weeks
Our first few Saturdays were really tough. We over-estimated how much we’d sell and had this huge spread of food that we’d eat ourselves and give to charity. We took an iterative approach and started paying attention to what was selling and what wasn’t, quickly axing the non-sellers. Our burgers were a winner.
I believe in specialisation of labour, so we focused on redefining the burger experience by listing all the things we hated about classical burgers, and that’s how we ended up with a flat, folded patty, a non-traditional bun, and no tomato sauce or mustard. It took us two and a half years to perfect our Balkan Burger. Even now with our shop in Greenside, we have six subtle topping variations.
The Start-up Days
Our start-up capital was minimal; I bought a braai for R4 700, and we paid for ingredients and other business expenses with salaries from our full-time jobs.
We put about six pay cheques into the business and only really started seeing profit after a year. Our mom and dad helped us, and our friendly family banter became entertainment to our customers, who also learnt about a different culture through food and interaction.
At that time we were focused more on building the brand and getting our name out there than making money. After a year we decided to expand to Fourways Farmers’ Market on a Sunday. We were working seven days a week, but by August 2013 Lidija was working full-time in the business and I joined her. I made no contingency plans and that motivated our success.
Waste is expensive, so we always set goals for ourselves of, say 100 servings, and work towards that. That has created exclusivity and demand because people who arrive late at Neighbourgoods are disappointed to miss their shot at a Balkan Burger, so we tell them to get to Fourways early the next day as we’ll be there.
By September 2013 we’d created a loyal following and a demand for the brand. We were also able to buy and launch our Balkan Burger bus which is a retro-fitted 1967 short body school bus, so we could be mobile.
A Bus in the Way
We were effectively food truck pioneers in Joburg and had no one to guide us. We took our bus to Arts on Main in Maboneng and parked it at the entrance but that didn’t work out: People walked past to other restaurants. It was bad for sales but good for marketing and brand building.
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We started getting calls from people asking us to cater for their events, parties, weddings, corporate functions, and that catering has become the bread and butter of the business Monday to Friday between markets.
Big Concerts, Big Crowds
Over time we’d become part of the close-knit artisan community and we’d share news and leads with each other. As a result we landed a spot at one of the In The City concerts thanks to our friends at Braamfontein restaurant, Great Dane. Through that exposure and constantly being visible at markets and events, other concert and event organisers have contacted us.
Event organisers look for caterers who can bring experience as much as food to their events – and that’s what we did.
Big Challenges and Lessons
- We never planned to go into the food business so we’ve gone with the flow, and learnt quickly from our mistakes and pivoted
- We still haven’t figured out stock because everything is fresh and we don’t want waste. When we run out, we leverage that into a kind of exclusivity and FOMO. Sometimes, less is more.
- We’ve kept things lean and simple – patties, burger buns, packaging and toppings, and that lets us focus on delivering the best product every time.
- As we’ve grown we’ve learnt big lessons in shop fitting. We spent a lot of money on the truck, the container at The Sheds and in Greenside. They’re beautiful but we could’ve pulled it off with
- You don’t need a lot of money to get started. But you do need to invest time and energy.
- Use the market to validate your product ideas and get exposure.
- When picking markets, research them, find the busiest and do your utmost to get in.
- If you’re doing something different and amazing, you’re more likely to get into high traffic markets as it gives them the edge.
- Brand ambassadors are an important marketing tool. We don’t have business cards, just social media and a website.