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Chicken Licken: George Sombonos

It hasn’t been an easy journey but it’s certainly been an interesting one. George Sombonos, founder of Chicken Licken, shares his story.

Juliet Pitman



George Sombonos of Chicken Licken

If you have moments when, standing on the precipice before you take that leap of faith for your business, you question whether it’s really true that capitalism rewards risk, think of George Sombonos. The story of how this son of a Greek tea-room owner grew a roadhouse on the outskirts of Johannesburg into a R600 million business that boasts the biggest fried chicken franchised brand outside the United States, confirms that big rewards can follow big risks.

Although he was serving customers at the age of seven and knew the difference between a close corporation and a Pty (Ltd) by the time he was 11, Sombonos never expected a cushy rise to the top of the family business; he always knew he’d have to work very hard for a small salary. “The only thing that kept me there in the beginning was the fact that my father and my uncle sent me to North America once a year. I would go to Brazil for a wonderful holiday and then on to the States,” he recalls. Determined to improve the business that he was eventually tasked with managing, Sombonos spent this time in America exploring the fast-food industry and tasting every type of fast food he could afford to buy. “Wherever I was, I’d find the fast-food strip and make my way along it, sometimes eating ten hamburgers a day,” he says. It is not surprising that he was frequently ill.

But the exercise paid off. One day in Waco, Texas, Sombonos tasted fried chicken that was so good he knew he simply had to learn how to make it. Presenting himself to the business owner, he begged to be given the recipe. “I showed him my passport and explained that I wasn’t from the States so that he knew I couldn’t go into competition with him.” The owner asked for $5 000, a hefty sum in 1975 when a cup of coffee cost eight cents, but after much negotiation, Sombonos got the price down to $1 000. It was all the money he had and he gambled it on a recipe that he had no guarantee was even genuine.

“I had just enough money to get to the airport for my flight back to Brazil and then nothing for the week before my flight back home. But I couldn’t tell my father what I’d done because he would have gone berserk,” relates Sombonos. It was while sitting homeless and penniless on a bench in Brazil that his first big risk met with a little bit of luck, albeit from an unlikely source. He smiles as he remembers the story. “There was a kind girl who saved me, a prostitute who was looking for business. But I had to explain to her that I was in more dire straits that she was. I guess she felt sorry for me because she took me back to the brothel where she worked and got me a job for a week serving drinks to clients.”

Sombonos got home, but his worries were far from over. “I was terrified that my father would find out about this crazy thing I’d done buying a recipe for $1 000,” he recalls, so he mixed the chicken recipe and hid it under his bed before secretly introducing it to the roadhouse menu. “At about that time Kaizer Motaung of Kaizer Chiefs fame and his gang started eating at the roadhouse. When people saw Kaizer eating at our place they wanted to eat there too. And regardless of the Apartheid laws, we served everyone, no matter who they were. My father thought I was mad and that we’d lose our licence but my grandfather told him to keep quiet and count his money and leave the selling of the food to me.” The results were nothing short of astonishing. As Sombonos relates: “By changing the recipe and giving people some dignity, we went from taking R25 000 a month in 1972 to taking R200 000 in 1978.”

To what his father attributed the sales growth we’ll never know, but it certainly wasn’t to his son’s genius. Sombonos’ request for a 5% profit share was abruptly turned down with a reminder that if he wasn’t happy with his lot, Dad could always bring up a nephew from Bloemfontein to run things. Living in a tiny flat in Doornfontein, he struggled on but the threat planted a seed. “The thought of someone taking over everything I had worked so hard for was terrible,” he recalls. So when the owner of the property offered him the lease while his father was away on holiday in Greece, Sombonos jumped at the opportunity. It was another big risk but as Sombonos explains, “I didn’t know it then but I wanted that shop so badly that I was prepared to die for it. This is perhaps the difference between an ordinary person and an entrepreneur – that you want something so badly you’d do almost anything for it. I never told people how I felt because I was afraid they’d think I was mad, until I heard a Martin Luther King quote earlier this year that if you don’t find a cause to die for, you’re not fit for living. Then I realised I wasn’t abnormal in wanting something so badly.” His father was so angry on his return from Greece that, as Sombonos relates, he didn’t speak to his son for a full three months.

On 1 January 1981, the signs for the old Dairy Den were taken down and replaced with the now-famous Chicken Licken signs. A legend was born and Sombonos was on his way. He started franchising soon after even though he admits he knew nothing about it and that his father, who saw the business opportunity, thought it was far too risky and advised against it. But Sombonos went ahead anyway. “I had a friend who had a Golden Egg franchise and I borrowed his franchise agreement and copied it from start to finish. The first franchise owner was in Zola, Soweto, but we needed to build a shop and I had no architects, nothing. I asked the sign painter who had done the Chicken Licken rooster head to draw what the shop would look like and we built the second Chicken Licken from those drawings,” he explains.

It would be nice to relate how the business went from strength to strength, but Apartheid politics raised its ugly head and the townships spiralled into a state of unrest. Sombonos remembers this as a very bad time for business. “You couldn’t take anything into the townships because the people were burning all the delivery vehicles. We got a panel beater to beat up some small trucks for us so that they were inconspicuous and we took supplies to the shops at night.” Sombonos had sunk all his money into two township stores but as the unrest grew and people were afraid to venture outdoors at night, sales plummeted. “All of a sudden where under normal circumstances the shops would be thriving, I had major cash flow problems.” It was time for another leap of faith.

Sombonos’ attorney put him in touch with a group of private farmers who could loan him the cash needed to make the repayments to the bank. “I gave them everything,” he remembers, “I pledged my house, all my shares, even the jewellery on my wife’s fingers. At Christmas time in 1985, I couldn’t even buy a toy worth R5 for my daughter. We lived hand to mouth, just working and saving but the unrest continued and there was no peace.” Again the risk paid off and the business started improving in 1991.

Looking back on that time, Sombonos says he pulled through for two reasons: “Firstly, I had no alternative and secondly, I was fortunate in that some kind people, including my bank manager, took risks on me and put themselves on the line to give me time to pay back.” Although some of his competitors might beg to differ (he drives a hard bargain and is a frequent thorn in their side), forging good relationships with people is something Sombonos has done well. This is particularly evident when it comes to staff; many of his managers started out as chip fryers and have benefited from his guidance and investment in their development. “The people can make you or break you in this business,” he says, a statement that refers to both staff and customers.

And Sombonos has been in touch with his customers from the word go. “It’s what has differentiated us. We did things differently by giving the market what it wanted. When KFC first came to this country, they didn’t serve chips, only mash and gravy, which was the American standard. But, coming from my background, I served chips. If you are in the shop every day, you know what the customers want. You know what sells and what doesn’t,” he says.

He believes his customers were also loyal because they knew they would be served good quality food: “I was told initially that because my customers were black, I must take smaller pieces of chicken. That was the mentality in those days – that black people must get inferior quality and off-cuts and left-overs. But I insisted on the same quality for everyone. And once, when I banned Kaizer and his gang from my place for misbehaving, they went to eat at our competitor but came back after two weeks and promised to behave if they could only eat our food. That’s when I realised the power that good quality gives you.”

As the company grew, this connection to customers was to prove vital in building and strengthening the Chicken Licken brand. Although he knew nothing about marketing, he approached an ad agency to shoot a range of television commercials for Chicken Licken. “We decided to use Joe Mafela who played S’dumo from the television series ‘Sgudi ‘Snaysi so we went to the producers but they wanted a lot of money for the rights. I didn’t have it all so I agreed to pay them in three instalments.” That was three instalments of R180 000 each – a lot of money in the late 80s. But again, Sombonos went with his gut and took the risk, and again it paid off. The advertising campaign with the now legendary “It’s good, good, good, it’s good, it’s nice” jingle aired in May 1989 and was a marketer’s dream. Sales went up by 47%. “It was like wild fire, the response was unbelievable,” he remembers. “I wasn’t sure, to be honest, that the advertising campaign would work as well as it did but I liked the idea and everyone was watching the programme at the time. Even Nelson Mandela while he was in jail said it was his favourite programme.” Suddenly, suppliers like Rainbow Chicken sat up and took notice, as Sombonos relates. “They used to tell me I was Mickey Mouse but suddenly the joke stopped and they were saying, ‘Your sales are up, George.’” Today, Chicken Licken has some 230 stores across Southern Africa, a serious competitor to global brand KFC.

Although it has established itself as one of the biggest fast food brands in South Africa (it was rated second biggest in the Sunday Times Markinor 2004 Brands Survey), the company still faces some uphill battles, the most recent one being with shopping malls. “Getting into the malls is vital, vital, vital,” says Sombonos. But time and again his applications for store space have been rejected. Explaining the reasons why, he gets first indignant and then angry, “People think Chicken Licken is a downmarket business that sells downmarket food to downtrodden black people. Their idea is that we are going to bring ‘undesirables’ into their centre. They hide behind LSMs but in reality it’s a race issue.” He’s been told on at least one occasion that Chicken Licken is ‘too black’ for a particular mall and explains what he thinks is the cause of such responses: “A lot of the shopping centres are controlled by pension funds which are controlled by people who don’t understand or don’t want to see that South Africa is changing. Malls are seeing customers from all race groups. Our customers have disposable income. A Chicken Licken store costs R1,8 million to R2 million to set up.”

But slowly, the company is winning the battle, getting space in upmarket shopping malls, and Sombonos is well on his way to achieving his goal of making Chicken Licken a R1 billion business by 2010. When asked if he ever imagined success of this kind, he answers: “I always believed in Chicken Licken but in the beginning I just wanted ten shops. I discussed it with my father a few months before he died and he said, ‘Georgie, if you have ten shops you’ll be the richest Greek in Johannesburg!’ What I didn’t realise was that I was in the right place at the right time with the right product. And as the townships were liberated and people had freedom of movement, Chicken Licken just grew.” About the tough times, he says, “Determination was my biggest success factor. I would rather have died than give up.”

It’s something to remember. So the next time you’re faced with the decision to take a risk, step off the edge of the precipice. Take the leap. Think ‘Chicken’.

The three most critical factors that have determined the success of Chicken Licken:

  • Flanking the opposition by going into the uncontested townships first and expanding fast. If you’re the first to get into a market, you have the opportunity to create a strong foothold, develop customer loyalty and ‘own’ that market. This is what Chicken Licken did.
  • The determination to build a brand from day one. Without any formal training, Sombonos understood the value of a brand. He has fought court battles with KFC, who accused the Chicken Licken brand of capitalising on its ‘finger licken’ good’ pay-off line but each time he has won. His vision for the first Chicken Licken adverts paid huge dividends and built a brand that South African consumers could relate to.
  • A unique chicken taste that has never been changed and attracts new customers every day. The old Texan chicken recipe, originally hidden under Sombonos’ bed, has stood the test of time.

Sombonos’ advice on:

  1. Starting a business:
    Have a simple business plan and develop a thorough knowledge of the business you want to start, preferably practical knowledge.
  2. Franchising a business:
    You should own the first franchise and it should be successful before you even consider franchising. Then become an expert in your field in order to lead the franchisees to success. Your franchisees must be successful for you to be successful.
  3. Staying focused and motivated in the face of challenge:
    Believe in yourself; believe in your concept and idea and believe in the power of focus.
  4. Competitors: Competition is good for you. It pushes you to keep improving with research and gaining new knowledge. Strategy will keep on changing as circumstances change and new trends emerge. Your burning desire to keep on moving will ensure your continuous success.

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Th?nk !ndustr!es

    Feb 2, 2015 at 09:45

    Th?nk !ndustr!es Founder, read this.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

6 Lesson Gems From Appanna Ganapathy That Helped Him Launch A High-Growth Start-Up

Twenty years after first wanting to own a business, Appanna Ganapathy launched ART Technologies, a business he aims to grow throughout Africa, starting with Kenya thanks to a recently signed deal with Seacom. As a high-growth entrepreneur with big plans, Appanna spent two decades laying the foundations of success — and now he’s starting to collect.

Nadine Todd




Vital Stats

Like many entrepreneurs before him, Appanna Ganapathy hadn’t even finished school and he was already thinking about his first business venture. A friend could secure the licensing rights to open Nando’s franchises in Mozambique, and they were very keen on the idea — which Appanna’s mom quickly dampened. “You can do whatever you want,” she said. “As long as you finish your degree first.”

Unlike many other entrepreneurs however, Appanna not only finished his degree, but realised that he had a lot of skills he needed to develop and lessons to learn before he’d be ready to launch the business he wanted.

“We launched ART Technologies just over two years ago. If I had started any earlier, I don’t think I would have been as successful as I am now,” he says.

Here are six key lessons that Appanna has learnt along his journey, which have allowed him to launch a high-growth start-up that is positioned to make an impact across Africa.

1. You don’t just need a product – you need clients as well

Business success is the ability to design and execute a great product and solution, and then be able to sell it. Without sales, there is no business. This is a lesson Appanna learnt while he was still at university.

“I was drawn to computers. I loved figuring out how they worked, playing computer games — everything about them,” he says. “My parents lived in Mozambique, and during my holidays I’d visit them and a friend who had a computer business. I helped him assemble them and thought I could do this too while I was studying. I convinced my dad to buy me a car so that I could set up my business — and never sold or assembled a single computer. I delivered pizzas instead.”

So, what went wrong? The simple truth was that at the time Appanna had the technical skills to build computers, but he lacked the ability to sell his product.

“If someone had said, ‘I’ve got an order for 30 computers’, I would have filled it — but to go out and get that order — I didn’t really even know where to start.”

2. Price and solution go hand-in-hand

As much as you need the ability to sell your solution, you also need a market that wants and needs what you’re offering, at a price point that works for everyone.

In 2007, Appanna was approached by a former supplier whom he had worked with while he was based in Mozambique. The supplier had an IT firm and he wanted to expand into South Africa. He was looking for a local partner who would purchase equity shares in the company and run the South African business.

“I loved the opportunity. This was something I could build from the ground up, in an area I understood well,” says Appanna. The firm set up and managed IT infrastructure for SMEs. The value proposition was simple: “We could offer SMEs a service that they could use for a relatively low cost, but that gave them everything an enterprise would have.”

The problem was that although Appanna and his team knew they had a great product, they were competing on price with inferior products. “If we couldn’t adequately unpack the value of our solution, an SME would choose the cheaper option. It was a big lesson for me to learn. It doesn’t matter how good the solution is that you’re offering — if it’s not at a price point that your target market accepts, they won’t choose you.”

It was this understanding that helped Appanna and his team develop the Desktop-as-a-Service solution that ART Technologies now offers the SME market.

“While I was developing the idea and the solution, I needed to take three key things into account: What do SMEs need from an IT infrastructure perspective, what is the most cost-effective way to offer them that solution, and what will the market pay (and is it enough to cover our costs and give us a small profit margin)?”

Appanna’s experience in the market had already taught him how cost-conscious SMEs are, and so he started developing a solution that could deliver value at a price point SMEs could accept. His solution? A unique Desktop-as-a-Service product that combines all the processing power and Microsoft products a business needs, without any capex outlay for servers or software.

“It’s a Cloud workstation that turns any device into a full Windows computer,” Appanna explains. “We hold the licences, and our clients just access our service. A set-up that would cost between R180 000 and R200 000 for 15 users is now available for R479 per user per month.”

It took Appanna and his partners time to build the solution, but they started with the price point in mind, which meant a solution could be designed that met their needs as well as the needs of the market.

“Too many businesses set everything up, invest in the solution, and then discover they can’t sell their product at the price point they need. My time in the market selling IT and infrastructure solutions gave me invaluable insights into what we needed to deliver on, and what we could realistically charge for our service.”

3. Get as much on-the-ground experience as you can


The time that Appanna spent building the IT firm he was a part-owner of was invaluable. “I started as a technical director before being promoted to GM and running the company for three and a half years. Those years were very, very important for me. They’re where I learnt everything about running a business.

“When I started, I was responsible for sales, but I didn’t have to actually go out and find clients, I just had to meet them, compile quotes and handle the installations. Everything I did was under the guidance of the company’s CEO, who was based in Mozambique. Being the guy who did everything was the best learning ground for me. It set me up for everything I’m doing today. In particular, I learnt how to approach and deal with people. Without people and clients your business is nothing.”

Appanna didn’t just learn by default — he actively worked to expand his understanding of all facets of the business. “At the time I wasn’t planning on leaving to launch my own business,” he says. “I was a shareholder and I wanted to grow that business. That meant understanding as much as possible about how everything worked. If there was something I wasn’t sure of — a process, the numbers, how something worked — I asked. I took personal responsibility for any errors and got involved in every aspect of the business, including areas that weren’t officially ‘my job’. I wanted to really grow and support the business.”

4. Stay focused

Interestingly, while the experience Appanna has accumulated throughout his career has allowed him to build a high-growth start-up, it also taught him the importance of not wearing too many hats as an entrepreneur.

“I’m glad I’ve had the experience of wearing multiple hats, because I’ve learnt so much, but I’ve also learnt that it’s important to pick a lane, not only in what you do as a business, but in the role you play within your business. I also race superbikes in the South African Kawasaki ZX-10 Cup; through this I have learnt how important it is to focus in the moment without distractions and this is a discipline I have brought into the business.”

“If you’re the leader of an organisation, you need to let things go. You can’t be everything to everyone. When I launched ART Technologies, I knew the key to growth would be the fact that although I’m technical, I wasn’t going to run the technical side of the business. I have strong technical partners whom I trust, and there is an escalation framework in place, from tech, to tech manager, to the CTO to me — I speak tech and I’m available, but my focus is on strategy and growth. I believe this is the biggest mistake that many start-ups make. If you’re wearing all the hats, who is looking at where you’re going? When you’re down in the trenches, doing everything, it’s impossible to see the bigger picture.”

Appanna chose his partners carefully with this goal in mind.

“All the partners play a very important role in the business. Ruaan Jacobs’s strength is in the technical expertise he brings to the business and Terry Naidoo’s strength is in the support services he provides to our clients. Terry is our technical manager. He has the most incredible relationship with our customers — everyone wants to work with Terry. But there’s a problem with that too — if we want to scale this business, Terry can’t be the technical point for all of our customers.

“As partners we have decided what our blueprint for service levels will be; this is based on the way Terry deals with clients and he is developing a technical manual that doesn’t only cover the tech side of the business, but how ART Technologies engages with its customers.

“Terry’s putting his essence down on paper — a step-by-step guide to how we do business. That’s how you build a service culture.”

5. Reputation, network and experience count

Many start-ups lack three crucial things when they launch: Their founders haven’t built up a large network, they don’t have a reputation in the market, and they lack experience. All three of these things can (and should) be addressed during start-up phase, but launching with all three can give the business a valuable boost.

Appanna learnt the value of networks at a young age. Born in India, he moved to Zambia with his family as a young child. From there he moved to Tanzania and then Mozambique, attending boarding school in Swaziland and KwaZulu Natal. At each new school, he was greeted by kids who had formed strong bonds.

“I made good friends in those years, but at each new school I recognised how important strong bonds are, particularly as the outsider.”

Appanna’s early career took him back to Mozambique, working with the UN and EY on various projects. When he moved to South Africa, as a non-citizen he connected with his old boss from the UN who offered him a position as information officer for the Regional Director’s team.

His next move would be to the tech company that he would run for just over three years — also the product of previous connections. “Who you know is important, but how you conduct yourself is even more so,” says Appanna. “If your reputation in the market place is good, people will want to do business with you.”

Appanna experienced this first hand when he left to launch his own business. “Some key clients wanted to move with me,” he says. “If I had brought them in it would have settled our business, but I said no to some key customers who hadn’t been mine. I wasn’t ethically comfortable taking them with me.”

One of those multinational clients approached Appanna again six months later, stating they were taking their business out to tender and that they were hoping ART Technologies would pitch for it. “Apart from the Desktop-as-a-Service product, we also provide managed IT services for clients, particularly larger enterprise clients. Due to the client going out on tender and requesting for us to participate, we pitched for the business and won. The relationship with this client has grown, allowing us to offer them some of our services that they are currently testing to implement throughout Africa.”

“I believe how we conduct ourselves is essential. You need your own personal code of ethics, and you need to live by it. Business — particularly in our environment — is built on trust. Our customers need to trust us with their data. Your reputation is key when it comes to trust.”

Interestingly, although Appanna and his team developed their product based on a specific price point, once that trust is built and a certain standard of service is delivered, customers will pay more.

6. Start smart and start lean

Appanna was able to launch ART Technologies with the savings he and his wife, Kate, had put aside. He reached a point where he had ideas he wanted to take to market, but he couldn’t get his current business partners to agree to them — and so setting up his own business became inevitable.

Although he was fortunate to have savings to bootstrap the business, it was essential for the business to be lean and start generating income as quickly as possible. This was achieved in a number of ways.

First, Appanna and Kate agreed on a start-up figure. They would not go beyond it. “We had a budget, and the business needed to make money before that budget was reached.” The runway Appanna gave himself was only six months — highly ambitious given the 18-month runway most start-ups need. “Other than my salary we broke even in month three, which actually extended our runway a bit,” says Appanna.

Appanna had a server that he used to start with, and purchased a second, bigger server four months later. He also launched another business one month before launching ART Technologies — ART Call Management, a virtual PA services business that needed a PABX system, some call centre technology and two employees.

“I’d been playing around with the idea for a while,” says Appanna. “We were focused on SMEs, and I started noticing other challenges they faced. A lot of entrepreneurs just have their cellphones, but they aren’t answering them as businesses — it’s not professional.

“In essence we sell minutes — for R295 you get 25 incoming calls and 50 minutes of transferred calls. We answer the phone as your receptionist, transfer calls and take messages. How you use your minutes is up to you. For example, if you supply the leads, we can cold call for you. ART Technologies uses the call management business as a reception service and to do all of our cold calling. It’s kept the business lean, but it’s also brought in an income that helped us with our runway.” In 2017 ART Call Management was selected as one of the top ten in the SAGE-702 Small Business Awards.

The only problem with almost simultaneously launching two businesses is focus. “It’s incredibly important to know where you’re putting your focus,” says Appanna. “The call management business has been essential to our overall strategy, but my focus has been pulled in different directions at times, and I need to be conscious of that. The most important thing for any start-up is to know exactly where your focus lies.”

Into Africa

Thanks to a distribution deal signed locally with First Distribution, ART Technologies was introduced to Seacom, which has available infrastructure in a data centre in Kenya.

“It’s a pay-per-client model that allows us to pay Seacom a percentage of every client we sign up,” says Appanna. “First Distribution will be our sales arm. They have a webstore and resellers, and we will be opening ART Kenya with a shareholder who knows the local market.”

From there, Appanna is looking to West Africa and Mauritius. “We have the product and the relationship with Seacom gives us the foothold we need to grow into East Africa.”

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Kid Entrepreneurs Who Have Already Built Successful Businesses (And How You Can Too)

All over the world kids are abandoning the traditional notion of choosing a career to pursue until retirement. Gen Z aren’t looking to become employable job-seekers, but creative innovators as emerging business owners.

Diana Albertyn



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Do kids have an advantage or disadvantage when it comes to starting and building a company? It depends on how you look it. Juggling school, friends, family and other aspects of childhood and adolescence comes with its own requirements, but perhaps this is the best age to start.

“Being an entrepreneur means having to learn, focus, and connect to people and these are all traits that are valuable throughout life. Learning this when you are young is especially crucial, and will set you up for success and to be more open to other opportunities,” says billionaire investor, Shark Tank personality and author Mark Cuban.

Here are some of the most successful kidpreneurs who have cashed in on their hobbies, interests and needs to start and grow million dollar businesses borne from passion and innovation:

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Entrepreneur Profiles

30 Top Influential SA Business Leaders

Learn from these South African titans of industry to guide you on your entrepreneurial journey to success.

Nicole Crampton



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Entrepreneurship is said to be the answer to South Africa’s unemployment challenges and slow growth, but to foster entrepreneurship we ideally need business leaders to impact grass root efforts. Business leadership is vital to improved confidence and growth. These three titans of global industry say:

  • “As we look ahead, leaders will be those who empower others.” – Bill Gates
  • “Leaders are also expected to work harder than those who report to them and always make sure that their needs are taken care of before yours.” – Elon Musk
  • “Management is about persuading people to do things they do not want to do, while leadership is about inspiring people to do things they never thought they could.” – Steve Jobs

Here are 30 top influential SA business leaders forging the path towards a prosperous South African future.

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