The Spur Story: One of SA’s Most Successful Franchises

It is Cape Town Art Fair this weekend and so I thought I’d share some new art that I’ve been enjoying. Although, as you know, it is not like I need an excuse to share art.

I loved this piece by young artist Rahimah Ismail, I particularly resonated with her description of letting her creative energy guide her. I have always felt that the intellectual connections of Nkrumah, Sobukwe, and Biko mean that Ghana and South Africa are soul-mates. So, I’ve particularly enjoyed observing the vigour with which Nabeeha Mohammed has immersed herself in her Accra residency and am coveting the small pieces she’s been painting, inspired by the work of Ghanian photographer James Barnor.

/ Strategy 

I was eager to read Allen Ambor’s, A Taste for Life. Ambor is the founder of one of South Africa’s largest and most successful restaurant franchises. I had spent my university years working as a waiter in a Spur and always thought that Spur’s growth and how it was achieved, was a business story that needed to be told.

Unfortunately, ‘A Taste for Life’ is light on the details of exactly how Ambor created the infrastructure, processes, and systems that enabled Spur to grow from one shop in Newlands to hundreds across the country. I am hoping that its subtitle “How the Spur Legend Was Born”, means that there is a sequel coming about ‘How the Spur Legend Grew’. There is so much richness in the interlocking processes that power that business, that it feels a shame that there is not more detail. Nevertheless, there are some great moments in the book that provides guidance for all of us.

Ambor provides us with a taste of the sophistication of the operation in the chapter “Go Fly A Kite”. He says, “the secret is in the system, in the myriad of interconnecting principles, practices, methods, and routines…”. It is a powerful way to think of any business. Imagine for a second that you were to franchise it. What is your system? What are those interconnecting practices? How would you communicate them to a ‘franchisee’? In effect, every new employee could be thought of as a franchisee. How much rigour do you put into communicating your business’s secret sauce to new members?

When Gary Keller, founder of Keller Williams, one of the world’s largest real-estate franchises, started to expand, he realised that there was so much he was doing that was critical to the success of the franchise, but because it was almost invisible to him, he struggled to communicate it to newcomers. His solution? He got a camera crew to follow him and record all he did. If I remember correctly, part of the Spur ‘recipe’ was to have a prospective franchisee work for a few months in a top-performing store as a trainee manager. What is the equivalent in your business? How do you ensure that your magic is transmitted?

Ambor notes that “These ways are sacred, and eventually, as Spur began sprouting franchises across the country, they were stamped into gospel to ensure a consistent and memorable experience.”

Ambor recounts how he would shadow waiters and then send them back to a table if they had failed to offer a salad, or side order, something that would both add to the experience and the restaurant’s revenue. It’s a difficult line to walk giving detailed feedback that builds consistent, excellent delivery and not crushing people’s individuality. I like the way that Jim Collins captures it “Don’t confuse empowerment with detachment”.

Ambor describes people management as ‘flying kites’ saying, “You keep your crew close to you while you’re showing them the ropes, and then slowly, bit by bit, you unwind the reel, setting them ‘free to fly’ on their own. But still, you keep the strings attached, so you can reel them back in if they need help, guidance, or a friendly reminder”.

Throughout Ambor’s story, the building of relationships with his customers is central. He describes a moment in the early days of his first restaurant where he saw a couple leave, unwilling to wait in the queue for a table. He rushed after them in the rain, knocked on the car window, and persuaded them to come back inside. Every customer was valuable to him. In this hustle to get people into his restaurant he reminded me of Y Combinator founder, Paul Graham’s Do Things That Don’t Scale. So often, we stop ourselves doing something because in the back of our minds is a business school mantra about ensuring scale, repeatability, replicability etc yet in the hurly-burly of building a business or a career, sometimes, often, it makes sense to run out into the rain and fetch that customer. I’ll return to Graham’s piece sometime in the future.

/ Self

In part, Ambor’s story tells us that our lives rarely unfold in a straight line. Before he became South Africa’s most recognised restaurant name, he did a Bachelor of Arts at Wits University, started his career as a carpet salesman, and then was a schoolteacher for a while. Along this journey, he kept working as a waiter. He loved the energy of the business, but his parents weren’t massively supportive. Still, it was there and not the office or the classroom that he felt energised.  Eventually, in his late twenties, he took the step to start his first restaurant. Very often, our lives reveal themselves over time. It helps to be patient and curious. Sometimes, we think our passions can’t be our livelihood, but with a bit of imagination, it’s amazing what becomes possible. Tens of thousands of Spur lovers and hundreds of franchise owners and their families are no doubt grateful that he found his way to his passion.

Ambor described a moment when running his first restaurant where he was completely exhausted. He felt he couldn’t continue. It was 23h30 and he phoned a fellow restauranteur to see if he wanted to buy the business. He didn’t pick up. Ambor went to sleep. In the light of the next day, life didn’t feel that bad and so he continued. Generally speaking, we should avoid making decisions from places of exhaustion (or in the middle of the night, whether that is literal or metaphorical).

/ Soul 

Reflecting on the courage it takes to start any new journey took me to this conversation between author Anne Lamott and Tim Ferriss on Taming Your Inner Critic. Lamott is my favourite kind of person pragmatic, spiritual, and not averse to the occasional profanity.

Among other books, Lamott is the author of the highly acclaimed guide to writing, Bird by Bird. The title comes from a childhood memory where her brother had failed to do any work on his term paper. It was due on Monday, a whole semester’s work, and on the Saturday, he confessed in tears that he had not started. His father sat down next to him, put his arm around him, and said “Just take it bird by bird, buddy. First, you read about chickadees and then you write a paragraph in your own words about chickadees, and then you draw a picture. And then you take pelicans, and you study up on pelicans, and then you write a paragraph or a passage on pelicans.” In a sense, it’s a variation of Paul Graham’s Do Things that Don’t Scale. Just begin and do the work systematically. I will have to come back to the podcast to share more with you. There’s so much wisdom in it.

For today, I want to share her FEAR mnemonics. She says that she thinks of it as, False Evidence Appearing Real, that leads to Future Events Already Ruined, but that Fear Expressed Allows Relief. Perhaps Ambor’s late-night call attempting to sell his business allowed him the relief that he needed to acknowledge his fatigue and in recognising it, ironically it gave him the energy to continue and build an iconic business.

Okay, I can’t resist, I have to share this one last detail with you…

She says that she thinks of us as having dual citizenship. “We’re children of the divine… And we also have these kinds of screwed-up biographical details. We’ve got genetic details that we would have maybe not preferred. We have predispositions to alcoholism and mental illness or to weight gain in our thighs or whatever. But I have to remember that I can toggle back between dual citizenship, between being a child of God or of the great universal spirit, and Annie Lamont.”

That strikes me as a good place to end. Our lives carry with them bits that we would rather not have, and the possibility of connecting to something greater than ourselves (however we experience that), and fear can hold us back but expressing it allows us to reconnect to the magic of who we are intended to be.


PS: You can learn about my coaching practice here and subscribe to this letter here.

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