Tasha’s story – in conversation with founder of a growing global empire. The Alec Hogg Show

You’ll find a Tasha’s at trendy spots across the country. The popular restaurant Tasha’s is well-known across SA, with many going back for the good food and delicious coffee. But what about the woman behind the well-known name? Here, BizNews founder Alec Hogg talks to Natasha Sideris (better known as Tasha) about her humble beginnings in the restaurant industry – an industry which runs in her blood.  – Jarryd Neves

Our guest in this episode is 45-year old Tasha Sideris. She’s the daughter of one of South Africa’s leading restaurant entrepreneurs, whose impact on the sector has been even greater than her father’s. Like other guests on this show, Tasha was selected on the basis that if her story were captured in book form, it would likely be a bestseller. In this case, her creation – the popular restaurant chain Tasha’s – reaches its 15th birthday next week.

A double celebration for the family after earlier this month, they announced that they’ve bought back control of the 26 store chain from JSE-listed Famous Brands. So eavesdrop for the half hour and I’ve no doubt you’ll learn a lot more about this globe trotting entrepreneur, who I caught in her ancestral homeland of Greece, where she’s on a short break.

We started off with the morphing of her full name – Anastasia – into the now famously branded Tasha’s.

It’s a Greek name, Anastasia. It’s my grandmother’s name. At school, it was just a little bit too long, so everyone started calling me Natasha, which comes from Anastasia. Then that got cut down again to Tasha. Everyone calls me Tasha. However, people will email me as Natasha. It’s quite strange.

It is strange, particularly as you’re very famous now and you’ve got your name up in 18 restaurants in South Africa and eight in the UAE? Are you spending more time now in the Middle East? 

I am spending more time in the Middle East. I officially emigrated – three years ago – to concentrate on the business there. My brother Savva runs the South African arm of the business with another very competent guy called Anthony Sclanders. I moved to Dubai to actually get the Middle East off the ground. At the same time, I formally emigrated.

That’s quite a challenge. Last time we spoke, five years ago, you were saying it cost about $3-million to open a restaurant in Dubai. It’s a big investment?

A massive investment. We’re very lucky to have a fantastic franchisee and business partner in Dubai. His name’s Mubarak Binfahad. He really believes in the brand and he’s been an incredible support. Of course, it is a sizeable investment, but it’s proved to be quite lucrative for him as a franchisee.

Let’s go back a little. I recall last time we spoke, you were telling me about your late father and then you spoke about emerging from being a Greek cafe owner. But were you?

Tasha’s is what it is, because I’ve been in the food business for over 20 years. I think the only reason why it was successful is because I’d work seven days a week, from 6am – sometimes 5:30am – till 10:00 or 11:00pm. I did that up until store number 11/12. I’m in the stores all the time. When a new store opens – in the first two months – I open and close it. At our latest one in Dubai, I literally open and close that business almost every day. I’m lucky enough in the cafe’s to have a big support team so I don’t have to be opening and closing.

But certainly, I’m there every day of the week for a good couple of hours. I think that’s critical. I think it was the Airbnb guys who said you’ve got to do it until you can’t do it anymore. So, for as long as I am able to be in the restaurants every single day, that’s what I’ll be doing. It’s the same with the food. I developed every menu item, cooked every menu item and trained every menu item up until store number 10.

I did it until I just couldn’t do anymore. Then I had to employ a team and now I taste every single dish before it goes on the menu – that’s why I’ve grown a bit since you’ve seen me last. But certainly, I think it is a key piece of advice to any entrepreneur, is to do it until you physically cannot do it anymore, or it just becomes too much of a mammoth task and you’ve got to hand it over and delegate. So, yes, I was a cafe owner and in some respects I still am. 

Savva, your brother. Is he younger or older?

He’s younger than me, four years.

When you guys were growing up did your father – being an entrepreneur himself – bring you into the businesses to show you early on or did he keep you away? 

He kept us away. I watched my dad working really hard. We would only get to see him on a Monday. In those days, restaurants were closed on a Monday. He’d pick us up from school and then we’d go to the Dolls House. We’d get to spend a good amount of time with him on a Monday and maybe catch a movie in the afternoon. Other than that, he was working.

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So I always said I’m never going to get involved in the food business. Long hours, you’re on your feet etc. But then my dad opened the Fishmonger in Rivonia – I was studying psychology at the time – and he said I should come and do some shifts for some extra money. If you are the type of individual who loves people and adrenaline – I’ve been lucky enough and blessed enough to only have worked in busy restaurants – once it bites you, there’s no escaping. That was the beginning of the journey, I suppose, was the Fishmonger in Rivonia. 

Is it still going?

It is, the Illovo one is still going. We helped Pedro open his store and he’s an unbelievable operator. The picture on the wall at the Fishmonger in Illovo is a painting of my dad. That’s my father there on the wall. But it’s a tough business and I did try and get out at one point. I thought I’d just continue with my psychology degree or I’ll go do something a little bit more different. But you know what? If you love it, you love it. I’m glad I didn’t because here I am today.

Do you think you were lucky? Just going back into your story, when you opened the first restaurant – being the Nino’s in Bedfordview – and one of your most ardent customers was Kevin Hedderwick, who I’d love to talk about in a moment as well. But he then clearly spent time with you, saw your talent and perhaps pushed you in the direction that you’re now sitting in. Do you think you were lucky in that way of meeting him or do you think you would have got there anyway?

I think there is a bit of luck in everything. That took me in a certain direction. At that point when I had met Kevin and he was a regular at the store, I had already been planning to grow the brand. Perhaps not in the direction of franchising, but I wanted to own my own stores and give my managers equity in them. I wanted them to all be company owned.

But certainly, a bit of luck definitely plays a part in everything. I’d never say that you’re the architect or your own destiny all the time. As they say, hard work brings good luck and I think working so hard and proving myself in the food business obviously got Kevin’s attention. Then we began our journey.

When he brought you into the whole Famous Brands enclosure, there were only two stores. Now, there are 18 in South Africa and eight that you’re looking after in the UAE. That’s quite an acceleration. Looking back on it, was it a good thing to have done? 

Yes, I think that the deal was fantastic at the time. I think that both of us have contributed to the business in the way that we could. But I just think that Famous Brands’ contribution had reached its limits, because operationally, we’ve always been very independent. 

I think that helped us lay that solid foundation for the admin and all the controls, processes, business plans and the board meetings, which we otherwise wouldn’t have had. But yes, I think it was great. I think we learned a lot from each other. I’d like to think that they learned a lot from us as well.

That was Kevin strength, wasn’t it? The processes. Coming from SAB, which had brilliant managerial operations. When I spoke to him in bygone years, he said that was what transformed Famous Brands – bringing in the processes. But he left in 2016. Well, he left the board in 2018. Did that change your relationship with Famous Brands? 

No, not really. They’ve got Darren Hele at the helm and I will always wax lyrical about him. I think Darren is an unbelievable leader. Two very different styles of management. But Darren and I got along very well and we actually became close friends. I viewed him as a business partner. Someone that I could pick up the phone and shoot the breeze with. I think they’ve got a fantastic guy. He really is amazing.

So why did they sell their 51% share in Tasha’s?

It had always been an aspiration of mine. At a certain point – when I realised that their contribution into the company had reached its limit – I just went to Darren and said, ‘It really is a dream of mine to own my namesake. It’s my heritage, it does have my name on it. I’m doing the bulk of the work and I just think that it’s only fair that I get an opportunity to buy the business back.”.

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It wasn’t an easy negotiation, I don’t think they wanted to sell. There were times where I thought, ‘Am I doing the right thing by buying the business back?’ But the timing was right and I was quite persistent in the fact that I really wanted to own the business again.

How do you feel now that the deal’s done? 

There’s a little bit of bittersweet and a bit of nerves. But I feel good. I’m happy that I own my business. I put a lot of effort into it, to make it what it is today and a lot of effort into growing Dubai. I went there alone to the region to negotiate in a foreign country and open all these restaurants.

We built a reputation. We’re a household name in Dubai as well. I feel good. it’s always a good feeling to be able to buy your business back. The sky’s the limit. We’ve got global aspirations. We want to open everywhere, but being cautious and making sure that we are keeping our brand integrity intact. But we certainly see ourselves building a global food business.

To listen to this remarkable interview, download the link here. You can also subscribe to The Alec Hogg Show on Spotify here.

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