Natasha Sideris: Inspirational creator of Tasha’s, SA’s hottest restaurant chain

“Tasha” Sideris borrowed from loan sharks and worked punishing hours to get her first store started, proving the point that successful entrepreneurs need 99% perspiration along with 1% inspiration. In this fascinating interview, she tells her story to’s Alec Hogg.

Well, I’m in the studio with Natasha Sideris, who is the Founder of Tasha’s, which is already an institution in South Africa and is only ten years old.

Ten years old on the 15th of September.  That’s right.

Now you’re moving into the international environment.  Last year, August, starting in Dubai.  I believe London is next.

We’re probably going to focus on the Middle East, just to get a bit more traction there.  It’s been very well received and it would make sense for us to build a base in Dubai and probably open another two or three in Dubai – one in Abu Dhabi (and we are currently looking in Qatar) – and then shortly after that, look at other countries such as London, Australia, etc.

That’s an incredible story. 

Thank you.

What does it cost to open a restaurant in the Middle East?

Well, many of the costs that we incurred in the first store wouldn’t be part of a normal setup.  It was in the region of $3m (R30m).

You’re very successful and you sell a lot of food, but you need a big brother no doubt, to help with it.

One hundred percent.  We have a local partner in Dubai, a very well respected businessman who is very well connected.  As I said, the build of the actual restaurant wasn’t expensive, but because we invested a lot of money on training, flying staff (our 30 South Africans) over, and visa costs, which are very expensive in Dubai – that’s where the real cost came in.  When we do our second one, we’ll probably be able to build it for about R15m.

We’ll talk about that later because it clearly was the relationship with Famous Brands, which has given you the springboard to go international.  Where did it all start?  I’ve been to many of your restaurants, but Atholl Square 2005 was the first of those.  Did you get a special deal from the landlords?

I got no special deals.  It’s actually funny.  Today, someone asked me the question ‘do I have any formal education in business and have I done a business degree’, and I actually haven’t.  In the early days, when I started at Atholl, if you read a business book they’ll tell you ‘don’t overcapitalise.  Don’t encumber yourself too much and definitely, don’t go to a loan shark’.  I did all of those things.

A loan shark.

For sure.  I went to a loan shark.  I didn’t have any money.

What interest did you pay?  Do you remember?

No, I don’t.

You don’t want to know.

No, I don’t want to know.  No, there were no special deals at Atholl.  It was a brand new concept.  No one knew it.  I didn’t have an intention of rolling it out.  I was going to go back and study.  I was going to carry on my psychology degree.  I have a BA in Psychology and I was going to take that further.  I had this little romantic idea of having this café, and go back and study part-time.  We opened the store and it was a success from day one.  Thank God.

Why?  Looking back.

I think that we managed to get all the elements right.  I’m a very A-type personality and I want to control everything, so I made sure that I watched every plate of food come out of the kitchen.  I was in the bar, checking the drinks.  I was speaking to the customers and I literally worked from 5am until 7pm every day for four or five months, without a single day off – just making sure that all of those elements came together.  Whether I was going to do it part-time or fulltime, I wanted it to be perfect.  It’s part of my character.  If I do something, I want to do it right.

Did you always want a restaurant?

I’ve been in the food business since 1994.

How old are you?

I turn 40 on the 15th of July.

Okay.  A quick calculation…that means you’ve been in the food business from your teens.

As I matriculated, I became involved in the food business so I’ve always been in the food business.  My dad was restauranteur and a chef and I’ve been in the game ever since.  What I’d do is, in the mornings I’d go to my lectures at the university.  In the afternoons, I’d have my work clothes in the car and I’d head off to Fishmonger in the evenings and I’d help him run his restaurants.

So he’s Fishmonger…

I don’t know if you remember Squire’s Loft.  My dad was involved in that.  He had the Town Tavern in Town.  He had The Highwayman.

Those were great steakhouses.

My dad was the steakhouse man.

Did he give his name (Squires Loft) away?  There was a failed restaurant around the corner here.

He was in partnership with the guy who started it.  That was many moons ago when Squires first started.  Then he got involved with Fishmonger and I ran in Rivonia and the one in Greystone for a little bit.

Malcom Gladwell says you need 10,000 hours.

I’ve exceeded those 10,000 hours, for sure.

The whole concept of Tasha’s is quite a long way from a steakhouse.

Yes.  I wasn’t really involved in the steakhouses.  I was involved with the Fishmonger – extensively.  I helped my dad run that restaurant and then I moved over to Fishmonger head office and I opened 8/10 restaurants for them.  I was working as the training manager and as the ops manager.  What happened with Tasha’s is that I actually bought the Nino’s in Bedfordview in 2001.  It was a typical coffee shop, part of quite a big chain and we were selling very little food, a lot of drinks, muffins, and toasted sandwiches.  I said ‘there’s something wrong here. People are coming for breakfast, lunch, and early dinner and we’re not selling real food’.  I started to play with the specials and work on stuff and suddenly, it shifted and we started to sell a lot more food, coupled with the drinks.  Then I saw a gap in the market, a definite gap in the market for really great breakfasts, good lunches, a space that’s classy and contemporary but still quite relaxed, and then Tasha’s was born.

Atholl Square.  As you’ve told us, you put your head down.  You worked long hours for a long period of time.  When it did it become apparent to you that this concept was really working well enough to open a second?

After month one, I knew that I was onto something good.  We were very blessed.  We opened the doors and we were packed.  We started running a queue and I really worked hard to make sure it was successful.  A few years later, my landlady in Bedfordview said ‘I love what you’ve done at Atholl Square.  Convert your Nino’s into a Tasha’s’ and I said ‘I don’t really want to.  I’m quite happy’.  She said ‘if you want to keep your site, we want a Tasha’s here’ so that was the beginning of the journey.  Then Kevin Hedderwick approached me and said ‘what do you want to do with your brand’ and I said ‘I don’t really want to mass roll it out’ (and you can see we haven’t).  We’ve been franchising for eight years and we only have 12 restaurants in South Africa and one international, which is very slow for a franchise model.  The brand’s just over ten years old, so we’ve done one and a bit per year.

Why Kevin Hedderwick?  Why Famous Brands?

Kevin Hedderwick was a very good customer of mine at Nino’s, and I always teased him ‘come and have a toasted chicken/mayonnaise’, nearly every second day.  We became good friends.  We just used to chat.  He saw what I had done at Atholl and later I converted the store in Bedfordview and that was it.

Eleven stores in South Africa.

Twelve, soon to be 13…soon to be 14 and then we’ll probably cap it.

Where are the new ones coming?

Nelson Mandela Square is coming, which is going to be an iconic site for us.  Definitely the flagship…really big site.  It is Nelson Mandela Square and we’re doing something spectacular on the piazza.  Then we’re doing Menlyn-on-Main in 2017.

Are you in Cape Town yet?

We have three.

All right Tasha, so this is a business that you found a great concept.  You worked hard at it.  I think any entrepreneur can get that.  Where do the soft things come in, though?  It’s all very well to have the money and have the idea, but the people are what makes a difference and clearly, in this business it has to be even more so.

It’s all about the people.  We’ve broken our business down into three pillars, (1) for the love of people, (2) for the love of food, and (3) for the love of design.  When we talk about design, we want to create these beautiful environments for people to sit in because we believe that sitting in this beautiful space is absolutely key to the experience.  Food: we make all the food to order with the best ingredients and then of course, (and first and foremost, I should have started with that) is the people – choosing the right people.   From a Head Office level, from a managerial level, from a waiter level, from a kitchen staff level, and them training them.  We’ve always fostered our relationships with our staff and that’s probably the reason we’re so successful.

Training is one thing.  It’s about keeping people engaged and keeping them actively engaged, which your waiters seem to be.  You walk past.  The guys will call you in or they’ll have a smile for you.  They don’t come to your table too often.  That must be a bit of an art as well as a science.

It is an art.  Part of it is the training, but I think a key thing is to hire people who want to make other people happy.  If they can mimic me in that way, that’s what I want to do.  That’s why I started Tasha’s in Atholl.  I didn’t have this huge business idea.  I didn’t think I’m going to roll out one million restaurants.  I wanted to serve a good plate of food and give good service in a stunning environment.  That was it, and it’s the same thing today.  When we hire people, they have to be trainable obviously, and have a certain level of skill.  Most importantly, do they have hospitality?  Do they want to please other people?  I’d like to think that when we hire, that’s what we hire for.

Tell us a bit about the economics of a restaurant business.  Again, it must be fairly challenging.  You have fresh produce coming in.  If you don’t sell it on the day, I guess that affects your margins.

It does, particularly in South Africa.  It’s becoming more and more difficult to make a good bottom line in a restaurant business.  As you say, there are many variables.  There’s food, staffing, and overtime.  Are the suppliers bringing in the product at the right price?  One of the ways that we choose to control it is that we don’t pre-prepare anything in our restaurants, partly because we want to deliver fresh products to our customers but also, it minimises wastage in a major way.  We’re not going to prepare ten potpies and then day four, those things are old and you have to throw them away.  If you order a chicken potpie, we make it on order.  We cut the chicken on order, put it in the pan, do the pastry, and it goes in.  That way we get to control our stock much more efficiently.  Our franchisees struggle a little bit in terms of food costs and margins because we insist on the best quality ingredients.

Sure, there are ways to take shortcuts.  Buy cheaper Cheddar.  Buy chicken that’s been pumped with water and do all of those things.  Those are tricks that restaurants use.  We don’t do that and we monitor the supply chain very strictly, so they’re only allowed to buy from certain suppliers and then we monitor those suppliers.  It’s tough.

And the price points…  How do you judge?  Do you have competitors that you judge against?

Of course we do.  We look at what’s out there in the market.  What are people charging for a cappuccino today?  What can we charge?  However, we use a formula to work out what the GP’s are supposed to be and what the food costs should sit at.

So it’s science as well as observing.

It’s mostly science and then controlling that.  In the front end of Tasha’s, all the restaurants look unique and they have the same DNA, but they’re all individual, very organic, and very bespoke.  However, on the back end, there’s a system that controls it.  Whom do you order from?  At what price?  How is it captured?  What is the recipe?  Is it being followed?  Again, we don’t do strict portion control because it’s a handmade product.  When you’re working a place that makes burgers, it’s a bun, a 200g patty, one lettuce, and slice of tomato cut at so many ml.  We can’t run our business that way because we’re making an artisanal product.  We’re making a salad with a bit of extra lettuce, one piece of tomato, all cut on order and made by human hand.  There are ways to control things.  People do central kitchens.  We will never have a central kitchen.  We will never pre-make sauces.  We will never put stuff in a bag.  It’s never going to happen. No pre-made burger patties.  It won’t happen in our brand.

Why do you think it is (and you’ve already been very successful in your move outside of South Africa) that South Africans are doing so well in the food business, globally?  Nando’s being the flagship, but not the only one.

Nando’s is an amazing story.  Wow, that’s a tough question.

Is it competitive in South Africa?

South Africa is competitive, but not that competitive and when you go to a global arena, you are forced to up your game because you’re competing.  For example, a place like Dubai has the top chefs in the world, top restauranteurs in the world, top brands in the world, so you automatically up your game.  If you look at the South African staff, we’ve sent over 30 South African staff.  Their skillsets and their game has even been upped because they’ve had to go into an arena where they’re competing with other people.  I don’t know.  I think South Africans are hard workers.

They may be suited to a very difficult industry.  People have to work hard in this sector.

One hundred percent.  Then again, the hospitality factor: if you are to ask people in Dubai of the other South African restaurants (I’m talking about the meat companies of the world and the butcher shop and grills of the world), the locals, the Emirates, and the ex-pats will say ‘the service is outstanding’.  We as South Africans are very hospitable.  We’re friendly.  It’s in our nature.  We want to welcome people.  I think that’s also part of the success factor.  We love people.

Tasha, you’re 40 as you’ve just told us.

Not yet.  July 15th.

Robbie Brozin: I remember his story very well.  He listed on the stock market – individually.  Then he took it back and he’s now more of a philanthropist than running Nando’s anymore.

A good customer of ours…a very nice guy.

Well, you seem to have them all when you have your competitors eating with you.  My question really is ‘what next’.  Do you see yourself conquering the world?

I certainly would like to see Tasha’s becoming a global brand – I don’t know if ‘brand’ is the right word to use – a global restaurant group.

It is transportable and it is replicable.

Well, going to Dubai was for us to test whether the international market had an appetite for a brand like ours and obviously, it did.  Touch wood, we’ve been really blessed and we’ve tested the waters.  We now know that it works.  I’d like to have a couple in the Middle East, two or three in London, two or three in Australia, but still keeping the same vision and model for each country that we go to that we’ve adopted here.  Keep it small.  Don’t open too many.  Be able to control it.  A Head Office team that’s in the stores every day, very hands on with our franchisees and our managers because the other route is to go to a place like America and open 500/600 stores, like the Chipotles of the world.  That’s not really our game.

Let’s get back to Famous Brands and the reason why you decided to do that.  You’ve kept it small.  There are many loan sharks out there whom even if they’d given you very high interest rates; given your success, you would probably have been able to fund it yourself.  What did Kevin Hedderwick say to you that convinced you to go into partnership with them?

It wasn’t so much a funding thing because there wasn’t funding put into the business, per se.  I’m an entrepreneur and I’m very artistic.  I love food, I love people, and I love design.  What Famous Brands brought to the party was a lot of structure.  I didn’t know what a balance sheet was.  I didn’t know what an income statement was.  I didn’t know how to prepare a business plan.  Whatever I’d done, I’d done on gut.  When I was working at Head Office for Fishmongers and Nino’s it was also operationally, day-to-day.  It wasn’t on a corporate level.  I said to [Savo? 16:14.] ‘if we’re going to take this business to the next level, we need to partner with someone who’s going to bring the back end that’s needed to make this business successful – be able to collect the royalties, produce a proper income statement, a proper set of results, and give it the gravitas that it needed.

I’ve personally grown from being a Greek café owner and I’ve changed.  I’ve had to learn about the corporate world and we’ve grown a lot, as people.  It was a no-brainer for us.  It took a while to negotiate the deal because part of it was that I control the brand in terms of the aesthetics, the food, the product, and how many we open.  Obviously, Famous Brands is the leading franchise company in South Africa.  Maybe they would have liked to have seen more stores rolled out.  I think I might be speaking out of turn but I think that in the last couple of years, Kevin actually said ‘you know what, Tash?  You were right.  This was the right way to do it.  Keep it neat.  Keep it small’.

Are you still friends?

Kevin and I?  Very.

So he still comes into Bedfordview for his toasted sandwich.

Yes, he and his wife.  They are fantastic and Kevin’s been a father figure in many ways.  My dad passed away six years ago just before we had done our deal.  I think it was the year before we had done it.  It’s been amazing.

Tasha, what about the advice you would give a young person, or your 20-year old self?  What would you say to a young entrepreneur who’s had the same experience and found their passion, want to build a business and are prepared to work hard?

Sacrifice.  You have to accept the sacrifice.  There will be days where you’ll think ‘what am I doing…Is it all worth it’ because you’re not seeing the money coming in or you’re not getting the reward.  You have to be able say ‘I am prepared to sacrifice a lot because I love what I’m doing’ and I think that’s probably the biggest piece of advice.  I find many young people today are not prepared to make the sacrifices to get the results.  Especially in my game, it’s becoming more and more difficult to find people who are serious about the restaurant business, who love it for the right reasons and not only for the money.  That’s a key factor.  Love what you do and the rest will come.

You’ve just brought out a cookbook.

I have.

Aren’t you worried that people are going to be taking the cookbook home, knowing all your recipes, and not coming to join you?

No, I don’t think so.  It was one of the concerns when I took the book to the Board.  They said ‘but all our recipes are in here’, so I said ‘don’t worry about it.  We share our recipes’.  Coming to the stores, I’d like to think that it’s part of a more complete experience.  It’s about the meal, the service, the ambience, the whole package – the way it makes you feel.  We were happy to share our recipes and our menu changes often.  We just launched a new menu now.  We have 30 new menu items.

Do you get involved in that?

I cooked every single dish up until store #10 and I trained every staff member on all the food, up until store #10 – my brother and I – and then it just became too much.  We started to expand globally and so now, we have Ilse Rim who is our Executive Chef, but nothing is put on the menu until I’ve tasted it and said its okay, and it’s gone through a whole process.

What do you do, day-to-day?

What don’t I do?

Do you go to the different stores?  Do you still get into the kitchens and see if they’re doing it right?

I don’t get into the stores as much as I’d like to because I’m doing a lot of planning and strategizing about where we’re going.  I do interior designs with my interior designer, Nadine Buck.  I work on all the menus, daily, so I get to do the stuff that I really love (creative) and then obviously, preparing business plans and doing all my corporate roles and responsibilities.

When you walked in here, you said ‘I recognise you from coming and eating at my restaurants’.  How many people do you think you could recognise?

Quite a few, especially from the Atholl and Bedford stores.  In the early days…  Actually, I don’t even know why I’m saying that because if I think about all the restaurants, I spend at least two to three months opening a store.  With the ones that I haven’t been able to, I’d get to them later but I was at Melrose Arch for four/five months.  In Durban, I had an issue with our franchisee.  I was there for five months, so I’d probably be able to recognise many customers.

Living the dream.

Yes, definitely.  Stressful, very stressful.  It’s all consuming.  Whether you’re on holiday or whether you’re chilling at home, you’re always thinking about the business.

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