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Sophia Town Bar Lounge: Ziggy And Mzwa Thabethe

Two former waiters open their own restaurant in one of Jozi’s hippest centres

Juliet Pitman

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Ziggy And Mzwa Thabethe of Sophiatown Bar and Lounge

When brothers Ziggy and Mzwa Thabethe started waitering in restaurants, they, like many other youngsters, were simply hoping to earn some extra cash. But where these entrepreneurs differ is that they used the experience to learn all they could about the restaurant business– and today own one of the hottest spots on the Newtown bar and restaurant scene.

“The man we worked for at Ocean Basket was a fantastic person to learn from, he was very hands-on and very inspiring. We were waitering at his new branch, so we had exposure to the full set-up process of a restaurant from scratch. It gave us a good feeling for what it takes to set up an operation properly under considerable time pressures and make it work,” recalls Ziggy.

The pair fell in love with the energy and buzz of the restaurant trade and vowed that one day they’d own their own spot. 

In the meantime, however, they set about gaining experience. “Mzwa headed overseas where he worked in a number of different bars and restaurants, all the while gathering information about different processes and ways of doing things, while I managed a call centre at Dimension Data overseeing about 30 people, which gave me invaluable experience in managing, motivating and interacting with staff.

It was a sophisticated corporate environment where customer service was everything,” relates Ziggy. In many ways, however, the brothers were destined for entrepreneurship. “Our father was a hawker and as young boys we worked hard helping him buy, repackage and distribute vegetables to informal settlement dwellers.

At the end of each day, we had to make sure that the money balanced otherwise there’d be hell to pay!” Ziggy laughs.

Each new thing they learned, the brothers added to a growing repertoire of business knowledge, which was to prove invaluable when it came to opening Sophiatown Bar Lounge in the heart of Newtown. They explain the drivers behind the brand:

“We wanted to create a place that would unite people under one roof, something that would have an energy and vibe and a personality of its own. Sophiatown is close to the heart of so many South Africans and was a place that reflected the kind of individualistic, cosmopolitan energy we were looking for.

It’s about culture and heritage and we also knew that the theme would attract not only locals, but the tourist trade as well.”

What they hadn’t planned for was the amount of media attraction the venue would generate. “To be honest our marketing was initially not great but the media just loved the idea and we got loads of free exposure, which was a good sign that the place had the kind of attraction we were looking for” says Ziggy.

There can be no doubt that the media hype and market response are partially the result of the fact that Ziggy and Mzwa understand their market intimately. The reason they believe that Sophiatown Bar Lounge is so successful is that it reflects the vibrant buzz of the young, hip, Newtown scene, and offers a menu that’s an eclectic mix of local South African dishes with a twist of sophistication as well as regular live music and DJ events.

“On any given Friday, the place is pumping from 4 pm,” they explain. 

But early windfalls were balanced by some significant challenges. The brothers experienced tremendous difficulties in getting finance from one of the country’s leading banks. “It was a nightmare,”relates Ziggy, “We had to have a signed lease in order to get funding but once the lease was signed we waited months for the money we’d been promised to come through. This meant that in total we paid R180 000 in rent over those months,without any money coming in from the restaurant because we needed the capital to set it up. If we hadn’t had our other construction and plumbing business to support us and provide the rent money, the whole venture would have folded.”

Assistance came in the form of intervention by Khula Enterprise Finance, an independent agency of the Department of Trade and Industry. They got the funding they needed, but their experience highlights the many difficulties entrepreneurs face in accessing funding through traditional channels.

However, the future looks bright and Ziggy and Mzwa are in consultation with the Franchise Association of South Africa and the Gauteng Enterprise Propeller to franchise the Sophiatown Bar Lounge concept. “We want to be the biggest black-owned franchise in this market in the next five years and although it appears to be earlier than we had anticipated that’s only because the demand has been so great.

Our customers want this venue in Cape Town, in Soweto, all over South Africa and we already have a list of 15 prospective franchisees,” says Ziggy. Just goes to show what hard work, vision and passion can achieve in a little over a year.

Contact: +27 11 836 5999, www.sophiatownbarlounge.co.za

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.

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