From Jo’burg to beyond, SA gem Tashas is brewing success– Natasha Sideris

Tashas, a beloved brand in South Africa, grew from a single restaurant in Atholl, established with money from a loan shark, to 15 locations across the country. In 2019, Natasha Sideris and her brother Savva bought back Tashas from Famous Brands, establishing Tashas Group. This international hospitality company would soon have 10 brands under its umbrella, including the Flamingo Room by Tashas, Avli by Tashas, Bungalo34, and the World’s Top Galaxy Bar. The group first expanded overseas to the Middle East, establishing a presence in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Saudi Arabia. Now, they are venturing into the London market with a Tashas opening at Battersea Park Power Station at the end of November 2023. In an interview with BizNews, Sideris shared her apprehensions about opening a restaurant in the competitive London market. They plan to bring their first restaurant, Atholl Square to London with its South African flavours and interior design. Like other South Africans who have come to London, one of the biggest challenges is staffing. However, Sideris is adapting to a younger generation with different expectations. She also discusses her decision to part ways with Famous Brands in 2019, how South African staff form the backbone of her overseas teams, and her plans to expand into every major world city and launch a homeware collection. – Linda Tilburg

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Excerpts from the interview

It is nerve-wracking to open a restaurant in London 

It has been nerve-wracking. London is a very competitive market. I’ve always been a bit scared of London. When I first decided to expand out of South Africa, I had a choice between London, Australia, the United States, and the Middle East. I chose the Middle East for very specific reasons and stayed away from London due to the high barriers to entry. We all know the issues around staffing and trying to find staff that will actually stay. And then, of course, there are the high rentals, food costs, etc. So yes, I am very nervous. We’ve been very successful both in South Africa and the Middle East, but that’s not to say that we’ll be successful in London. It’s anyone’s game. We don’t have a big master plan. We’re going to open one location and deliver good service, and great food. Hopefully, people will love our interior and then we’ll take it from there.

When we first started exploring the idea of opening in London, we went to the obvious areas like Marylebone; I was pitching for a site on Sloan Street. I love Chelsea and Mayfair; obviously, those are areas we’d love to be in. But then we went to Battersea and I just thought that because it’s a new development and the location they offered us outside the entrance of the power station and it is next to the biggest Zara in the country. When I say that it’s not as competitive, what I mean is not to say that the retailers and restaurateurs aren’t competitive in Battersea; they certainly are, but it’s not overly saturated yet. Whereas going to an area like maybe Marylebone, there are hundreds and hundreds of restaurants in central London which makes it a little bit more nerve-wracking. So, there is less competition in terms of volume which allows us to stand out there. The site within the already iconic precinct is incredible and we’ve got a great relationship with the landlord so all in all, it was a good first choice.

Bringing Atholl Square, South African flavours and interior design to London 

I’m bringing Tasha’s Atholl Square, my firstborn, to London. We turned 18 on the 15th of September. That’s when I opened Atholl Square. The menu is very much a Tashas menu. We’ve upgraded a few of our dishes and changed a bit of the plating, and of course, there are about 15 or 20 things that’ll be unique to London. As always, we like to raise the bar and improve our standards as we go along. Understanding that London is an extremely competitive market, we’ve had to do that. We’ve had to tweak some things. However, it’s still Tashas at its heart and you’ll find your good old classics on the menu. I think 70% of the menu is still classic.

[For our interiors], we worked with Verhaal, a South African couple, Dewald Struwig and Nadine Bak.They’ve been doing our interiors for many years now, but they have designed from store number five; we’re now going to be at 39 restaurants by the end of next year. So, they’ve done 35 of our stores.

We’ve got a couple of nods to South African artists. We’ve worked with Bronze Age to do our beautiful counter, our signature counter. We’ve worked with Elonah O’Neill to do our installation. But yes, it’s going to look exactly like Athol Square.

Tashas 18 year journey from one restaurant in Atholl Square to 10 brands

I intended to continue my degree. I studied psychology and sociology, and I was going to open this café. I was going to go back and continue my studies. So, I bought an apartment right next to Athol Square. I thought I’d have my café and study at the same time, and we opened Tashas in Athols. The intention was to just have one. There were no big plans at all, like there aren’t for London either, no big plans. Let’s just open one and see where it goes. We opened Atholl Square, and it was a rip-roaring success. We had queues out the door. We were serving 1,200 people a day. I had to rally the troops and get some friends to come and work behind the bar. It was just absolutely pandemonium, it was crazy. 

A couple of years later, I converted one of my restaurants in Bedfordview. Previously it was a Nino’s. I was part of the Nino’s franchise. I converted that store into Tashas and then the journey began and we started opening restaurants. I did a deal with Famous Brands and we embarked on a journey to roll out the brand in a franchise model.  In 2014, I opened in Dubai. I was still in partnership with Famous Brands but I also owned restaurants in Dubai. So, I was both a franchisee and a franchisor. 

During COVID, I had an opportunity to buy Famous Brands out, we had been negotiating for some time… then, as COVID hit, we started putting down the details of the deal. Coming out of COVID, we sealed that deal and I bought the business back. And since then, we’ve been growing exponentially and we now don’t only have Tashas as a brand, we have nine brands under our belt, soon to be 10, including some beach restaurants, including two bars, including a new brand that we’re about to open called the African Lounge, Flamingo Room, Avli (a Greek restaurant), Galaxy Bar (another bar). So it’s been an amazing journey but Tashas will always be the mother brand.

The decision to end the partnership with Famous Brands 

I think Famous Brands was a great partnership. It taught me a lot about corporate governance. I’m a creative and a restaurateur at heart. I’m not really an admin or a corporate type of person. I didn’t know how to read a balance sheet or do a business plan. Everything was done from the gut. I think that helped bring a lot of process into the business. But after that point, there was very little value that they could add only because their business models were totally different.

Steers and Debonairs are totally different beasts and animals compared to Tashas. Everything’s made to order. We spend all of this money on our interiors, among other things. So, it reached a point where I wasn’t getting any more value from them and  I just went to them and said, ‘Listen, guys, the partnership is unfairly balanced. I’m doing all of the work and I’m not really getting any value from you as a partner. So, allow me an opportunity to buy you out.’ It wasn’t an easy deal. They didn’t really want to let me go. But, both Kevin and Darren were gentlemen and pushed towards me being able to buy the business back, which has been incredible. I’ve got my independence. I don’t have to report to anyone. But also, I feel that all of the efforts that my brother and I put into the business, we are fairly rewarded and we’re not having to share it with someone who isn’t adding any value.

Overcoming the challenge of finding staff in London, adapting to younger generations

I think finding staff is very challenging in London. The younger generation seems to have a different view of hospitality. Hospitality is a really tough business. There’s a general culture, and I’m not going to call it laziness because it isn’t laziness. It’s just a different way of looking at work. Restaurants require 12, 14, 16-hour workdays.

That’s what I’m used to. But, we also have to change and adapt for the younger generation, altering our style of restaurateuring to suit the expectations of this new work ethic or this new style of working. So yes, it has certainly been a challenge, but I think that the staff we’ve managed to find are starting to understand our way of doing things. I hope that they’ll soon learn that as much as it is a culture of excellence and hard work, it is also a culture of reward, family, and giving back. So as much as we make demands on our staff, we also give back to our staff.  I think that’s maybe where some restaurateurs make a mistake; it’s all take, take and no give. I think that’s where the balance has to come in. So I’m hoping that we’ll overcome those challenges. Time will tell.

South African staff, the backbone of franchises moving overseas

I believe the biggest threat to any company’s growth is a lack of training and failure to instil your culture and DNA in new hires. Ensuring that you have a strong existing culture, and investing heavily in training, is crucial. If you neglect this and venture into a new market, as we did in the UK, without bringing over some staff from South Africa or the Middle East, it’s highly likely that you’ll fail. New hires need to understand what Tashas is, what our culture is, our service style, and our ethos around food. This understanding can only come from training and experience. It’s essential for existing staff to pass this knowledge down.

We make sure to pay properly and on time. We don’t skimp on pay, and we ensure that salaries are pegged where they should be. We’re known in Dubai as one of the best employers because we never delay salary payments, not even by half a minute. This was true even during COVID-19; all staff were paid before any partners or executives took money out of the business.

Leave is important in our business. Everyone knows that our business involves long hours. We’re not clock watchers. If someone works extra hours, they will, of course, be paid overtime. But if they’ve been particularly hardworking, we’ll say, ‘Take a couple of extra days off,’ and we don’t count that leave against their normal leave pay.

Small gestures also count for a lot, but they have to be sincere. If the team has worked really hard, we’ll take them out for lunch or buy them a meal. There are small things you can do to make people feel appreciated. It isn’t all about money; a lot of it is about time. How can you give back in terms of time? We try to do this by not being overly pedantic about leave. If people have worked extra hard, we give them a couple of extra days off.

Where Natasha Sideris’ inspiration comes from

My mom was very artistic. She was a dressmaker and loved painting. I believe the artistic side certainly comes from my mom. She was also a great cook. The food and people side, however, comes from my father, an unbelievable restaurateur. He was a qualified chef who had studied as a chef and was just an all-around great restaurateur. So, I think my interest in the business came from a combination of my mom and my dad.

From a young age, I’ve always been driven. I was the head girl. I was victorious in the swimming, and an athletics victrix ludorum seven times in a row. When I get a task, I’m pretty determined and want to make it a success, but also ensure that the people who have contributed to the success also benefit from it because I do have a love for people.

The absolute drive comes from, I suppose, being an incredibly ambitious person. The drive isn’t about money. Money is just something that happens along the way if you’re lucky. It’s more about proving to myself and others that my team and I can take an idea, actualize it, and make it a success. We’ve been blessed so far that all of the ideas we’ve come up with have been successful.

Tasha plans to conquer every major city, not ready for the US yet, Tashas homeware

I think London is going to be a significant market for us. If everything works out and if people start to love Tashas as much as they do in the Middle East and South Africa, then we’ll shift our focus to London. We see an opportunity to open at least 20 to 30 Tashas in the UK. Many people have approached us about expanding to the United States, but we’re not ready for that yet.

As for our concept brands, which include the Flamingo Rooms, Avli, African Lounges, and Bungalows, I’d like to see a few of those in every major city. So, Paris, London, Ibiza, Monaco – we’d like to open one in all of those places. We have big plans. Of course, we are looking into bringing a little bit of Tashas brand into people’s homes. We are working closely with our designers on launching a retail range. So, you’ll be able to get Tashas napkins, plates, knives, forks, glassware, beautiful ceramic bowls, and other items along with a cookbook. We’re going to call it Tashas Home, and it will include some of our furniture.

I’m not going to say that we give Tashas the most love and attention, but it’s certainly the brand that serves as the glue holding everything together. However, as a creative, I’ve always wanted to demonstrate that we can do more than just cafés. So, we’ve established a couple of bars, some fine dining restaurants, a beach restaurant, and a Greek restaurant. We’ll continue to expand and grow. That’s been our journey so far. There’s been a lot of pain and tears along the way.

CEO Ocean Basket, Grace Harding

A message from Grace Harding, Ocean Basket Group CEO 

Londoners, you are in for a treat.  Natasha has an insatiable drive and unique talent to turn a breakfast, time alone or a craving for a slice of cake into an occasion like no other.  Born with the fire and determination of South Africa plus the soul of a fiery Mediterranean, this woman and her team are going to blow you away. Get ready for a treat!

We are women who lead the restaurant industry during COVID-19 and now holding hands to enter the centre of the world!

I think Grace is a formidable force as well. I think the work that Grace and I did, and it was all Grace pushing really hard when we did the Restaurant Collective to help people during COVID, it just shows the tenacity and the passion that Grace has got for this business and hats off to her. She’s an extremely successful CEO and drives an amazing business and her passion for the business is just tangible. You see it with her staff. They’ll go to war for her.

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