Meet Allen Ambor, founder of 600-store Spur, yoga teacher, mentor: The Alec Hogg Show

In Episode 7 of the Alec Hogg Show, our guest was wannabe or would’ve been musician, Allen Ambor, creator of the 600-store Spur restaurant group, which he started in 1967 with an instantly successful steakhouse around the corner from Cape Town’s iconic Newlands rugby stadium. Eccentric, focused, and opinionated yoga teacher Allen is still living a full life, and in this interview he doesn’t hold back, whether it’s on the reason for his departure from Spur or advice for budding entrepreneurs.

And we kick off with his answer to the obvious question – how it all began. 

Where it came from originally was the mentor of all steakhouses in South Africa – the late George Halamandres Senior – who started the Golden Spurs Steakhouse in Rosebank, Johannesburg, which he and his partner sold and it became defunct. And then he started the Seven Steer’s Steakhouse, and I started working for him there. 

I put myself through university, I still stayed at home and I worked to earn my keep and to earn my study money. And I just somehow got it into my head – I wanted to live in Cape Town. I’d come here on holiday and I wanted to open a steakhouse, because I saw the vacuum here. And I battled for two and a half years going backwards and forwards in a little Mini and found premises by sheer good fortune. 

And I was meant to be franchised by George Halamandres (actually, his nephews who worked for him and his son) – but they didn’t know what franchising meant. He had the idea, he’d been to America and he was a very bright man, but he was already old aged. 

And the youngsters and his wife and his wife’s sister ran the business. And he was just an avuncular chap who was around, but he was very bright and very quiet and calm. 

And he agreed that would be a good idea – that I went to Cape Town and opened up. And I was promised all sorts of things that never eventuated. For example, nine trained people to help me open my business and none of them ever arrived. 

They did help by training a kitchen supervisor, who I sent up from Cape Town, and they trained myself, my partner and a junior partner. But with four people knowing what’s going on, starting what became instantly a very big hit and a busy steakhouse, and having to work all hours that God made and try to keep abreast of things – things really were difficult. 

And we’d phone them and ask for help and they said that they would and they didn’t – and eventually there was a schism. And I, because I was very loyal to George Halamandres Senior and to his son Georgie, I stayed with them in the sense that I wasn’t a franchisee. 

But when I started my own franchise company, I paid them a small royalty from that to compensate them over the years for having given me the original helping and training myself and my partner. 

When we first opened, we were so short of staff because the nine promise people never arrived and we literally were working from eight o’clock in the morning to 02h00/03h00 in the morning after having driven our staff home to the areas that they lived in – Langa, Gugulethu, Athlone, etc. And that was the late, late shift that we do every alternate night, because I got a junior partner in and he did the alternate night. 

We normally got university students coming to us and saying: ‘Look, we want a job” – and we’d put them on the floor and it was arduous. So often, we’d find their book and pen on the fridge and they’d gone. They’d just walked out. They couldn’t take the intensity of a very busy steakhouse: turning over tables and the energy required and the commitment required. 

So, it was almost self-selection, you know. The guys who could handle it and who stuck at it – you became junior managers or paid for the university or got pocket money and then moved on. 

My parents were immigrants from Germany. They fled Hitler and my dad was a very hard working, single agent selling carpets, upholstery materials, smoking pipes, watches. My mom was a fifth year medical student and a concert pianist and could do neither after she arrived in South Africa. She only got in here because her older sister by many years had been born in Bloemfontein. 

So, that’s how they got here. They were both very exacting. I daresay my father was very pedantic. My mother was incredibly organised and both of them were very hardworking. So that’s the home I grew up in, and I picked up their habits, obviously, because you learn from the people you are raised by. 

They fled Hitler – were they Jewish? 

Yes. I am, too. 

I suppose that in itself must have been a story on how they got out of Germany. What year was it? 

Yeah, my dad actually was sent here by his company, a German company in Hamburg that he worked for, to open a South African office. And he got out here in 1928, so he didn’t really flee Hitler. But my mom and her family certainly did, and she lost the sister she was closest to and the husband of the sister. The rest of them – and she was one of eight – all got out. Fortunately. 

Many came to South Africa, some went to Israel – her parents went to Israel. And my dad – he was a loner, and he was a self-starter. He really was a self-starter. But he kept to himself and just worked hard all his life. And on the weekends, he’d get into his gardening clothes and he’d hack around the garden and get a lot of fun from it. 

And that was the sort of home I grew up in: my mom cleaning it and baking and cooking, not much baking – but definitely cooking meals all the time. And only much, much later in her life, sadly, did my dad afford to buy her a piano, and I came home from school one day and she was sitting there playing the piano with tears rolling down her face. 

And I asked her what was wrong, and she said: ‘Well, her new teacher wanted her to change the position of her hands and she couldn’t’. So very much unlike her (because she taught herself Italian) – she stopped playing and that piano just stood there. I’ve never known my mom to give up on anything, but she did instead of getting another teacher – which was sad. 

Getting back to the Spur itself. So this is in the sixties that you now started the Golden Spur? 

1967 – 24th of October, but it started nearly three years before that – going backwards and forwards. 

And how did Cape Town treat you?

Wonderfully. The minute I opened, we were hectic from day one. What we did, which was (I thought) a very good marketing exercise: we had Sacs school around us, Rustenberg, Westerford and a few others (Rondebosch), and I let it be known to the kids in the neighbourhood that on Tuesday, the 27th of October, they could come straight after school and get a free ice cream. 

So, we had millions of kids milling around waiting for their ice cream and they’d go home, tell their parents, their parents came along to have a look, had a meal and the thing grew from there. And because it was so busy, we launched with turnover being almost at a zenith – it was ridiculous. 

That put extra strain on us, of course. But Cape Town treated us marvellously. They loved it and we loved them and looked after them as best we could. 

And people would say to me: ‘Are you an owner?’ I said: ‘Yes, I’ve got a small share, but my uncle and aunt are in the kitchen’, because don’t forget – I was in those days a relatively young looking, fresh-faced 27 year old.

And I sort of felt that if I said I was the owner, people might lose confidence, so I manufactured (please forgive me, Capetonians) an uncle and aunt who ‘knew’ in inverted commas about food and all I was doing was serving it. 

1996, you listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. What was behind that? 

We had now got big enough profit-wise to hope to grow the business even bigger, which would have taken much longer without the exposure that the stock exchange gave us. And also, one has to be candid – you revalue your business’s worth. 

And one day it gives you an opportunity to exit and do well for yourself and your family and for others and their families, because everybody who is working in Spur – and I mean, everybody – got some allocation of shares. 

Some of the people who were originally with me in Golden Spur’s kitchens and were now in the central kitchen, we started to make fruit juices and sauces, which we supplied. They were our own recipes to franchisees around the country. 

Some of the grillers got shares, and then, of course, the area managers and the senior execs. I had a friend who was financially orientated and he said to me, you must go public. I think Juicy Lucy had already gone public. 

Just before the crash, the 1987 crash.

I’m not a terribly financially orientated chap, I must admit to you. So to me, the stock market, I played it a bit when I was younger and had a bit of spare cash. I lost a bit there and didn’t like it, so I stayed away. 

But more like putting their head down, concentrating on the business, knowing that if you look after people at store level – you’ll be okay. So, the shares are worth less – so what? We’ll build it up in time. There’s always cycles – it’s cyclical. And if we run our business right, we’ll get a chance to grow again. 

600 outlets plus worldwide now. 15,000 people who earn a living through the group. Did you ever have that in mind when you started? Often we hear of people who say: ‘Well, I’ve got a vision and I’ve got a dream, and that’s where we’re going to’. Were you one of those? 

No. I wanted just a steakhouse. And then, because of what happened with the people who were meant to make sure that we launched our ship with success and who didn’t pitch, and because of that schism. 

But how did you get the flywheel rolling then? Before you add resources to any young company – there’s always this tension between: Can I afford it? Will the bank give me the money? How am I going to repay it? How did you get over that? 

Let me give you the answer. It’s quite an interesting answer, because this is a different model, you see. With franchising: the franchisee supplies the capital for his new business. You give him the intellectual property, the training, you train him, you train your staff. If you do it properly, (which we do or did), he then opens highly trained, highly motivated, highly supported with the same image, decor, etc., and he makes his own profits and pays you a royalty. 

Now, how did my next store come along? Funny story again. A schoolmate and his brother, Raymond Padowitz, walked in one night in December: ‘Hi, Alan. How are you?’ ‘Hi, Raymond. This is Paul, my friend, my partner’. ‘Your partner? What are you going to do? You’re going to open a business in Jo’burg?’ And he said: ‘No, I’m coming to live here’. ‘Oh, that’s interesting. What are you going to open?’ He said a steakhouse in Bellville. I said: ‘Isn’t that funny? I’ve just had an approach from the old mutual – they want me to open a steakhouse in Bellville. He says: ‘Well, will you help me?’ I said: ‘Certainly, I’ll franchise you’. We shook hands. That was my first franchisee. So he walked in the door. 

When Bellville was a success, other people started approaching me. Fortunately, at relatively easy intervals and buildings weren’t always ready. And I started adding to the group. I’d opened one Apache Spur in town on Strand Street, which is still there across the road – lower down now in the hotel. And so it went, you know: Bellville, Milnerton, Bergvliet, Gardens. 

What did you look for in those franchisees or were they all like number one – just fortuitous? 

No, no. Look, I made mistakes, as everybody does. And you look for (and I’m sorry to be so crass), but have you got the money? Number one. Number two: are you of an age and a disposition to look after people, to be able to manage staff? And even if you’re only halfway there, we’ll train you and kick your butt if necessary, that you maintain a standard. 

And, of course, when the group is small – even though it takes a lot of work – it is easier to achieve. When the group grows – you have to have top class people, people who had bought into the culture, who understood the culture. 

Allen, in 50 years, you only made or only added another seven brands. That’s an average of just over one every decade. 

Very interesting question. Number one: Panarottis I started personally and I initiated it because I felt it was silly to go to all these towns and only be in the steak business. Let’s try and get a nationwide group in the pizza industry. 

Thereafter, Pierre van Tonder became managing director for a good number of years and then later on, CEO. And he brought in John Dory’s with a lunatic of a founder whose name I’ve forgotten to protect my sanity, who gave us a very hard time. 

Read Also: Spur moves up the supply chain with new acquisition

And then eventually, we bought him out. And I send him my good wishes if he’s hearing this – I really mean that sincerely. And that grew very slowly. I think it was the right area to go into, but Ocean Basket is the king in that area in South Africa. 

Thereafter, we added a couple of other brands. There’s Hussar Grill, which is a comparatively recent up-market steakhouse, which is doing well and is like high-class, champagne type, finer dining as well. And we are doing it well, I believe, as a group. 

And then we got the most recent one, a thing called Nikos, which is a Greek franchise and the original owners are still operating it. When Rocomamas came along, the guy who initiated Rocomamas approached Pierre. I had absolutely nothing to do with it. 

You mentioned that you aren’t that close to Spur anymore. What happened? 

No. Well, firstly – and I don’t want to go into great detail – but the last CEO and I didn’t see eye to eye for a long time. And we made an arrangement a year and a half or a little bit earlier than that ago that I’d become non-executive chair, and a week later – he reneged on the arrangement. 

And I thought, (and I don’t want to use expletives) well, that’s it for me. I think I’ll resign, because – as you can probably hear from this discussion – I’m very emotionally tied to that business. It’s very much a part of my body and soul. It’s a baby that was created with the help of hundreds of people and even thousands of people who were inspired by the whole vision and culture that everybody conducted and disseminated and enjoyed being in that atmosphere and living their lives in the manner that we lived our lives. 

The fact that this chap wasn’t very creative and was administrative to a certain extent, at one stage I was trying to replace him with a fella who I thought was appropriate, but he ‘didn’t want to ruin the friendship’ – to use that lunch bar marketing line. 

And so he said: ‘Look, he didn’t feel it was right for him to move up as I moved the other fella out,’ and he might have told the other fella – which didn’t improve matters. So in the end, and it was the best thing that could have ever happened. Alec – I decided that’s it, I’m outta here. 

And I’ll tell you something: it hurt me and it took me months to recover. It really took me a long time and I’d been quite ill before then and then recovered with something that was virus born that I picked up in Mauritius. And then I had this happen to me. 

And then I left and then I recovered. And I do a lot of yoga and I teach yoga and I’ve done it all my life. So, that helped me get my strength and balance back – literally and figuratively. 

Is there any regret about actually listing? Because, if you think about it, you’re 79, you’re in good shape, you do yoga – which keeps you in good shape. Warren Buffett‘s 90 and he’s still going strong with Berkshire Hathaway. If you’d asked him at 79 to give up Berkshire Hathaway, he would have told you where to jump off. 

Yes, I felt that I wasn’t being included enough in decisions, even though I was executive chairman. I felt that the behaviour of certain people, particularly the one I mentioned, was reprehensible and I was 77 or 76 – and I just didn’t want to deal with people whose behaviour wasn’t acceptable. 

I thought it’s enough and I tell you something: God bless Warren Buffett. God bless him. But for me, it was the right decision. Financially, definitely, because I sold my shares. And another area was I’d sold my shares a little bit before then, because a set of circumstances came up that meant I could maximise their value. 

Read Also: Spur founder Allen Ambor sells entire R100m shareholding

And I didn’t know what was going to happen in the future, but I decided to sell and I informed the CEO and he neglected to pass the information on. So, there was a lot of annoyance and anger amongst the franchisee body and the head office body – and I was accused of having done so behind their back. 

And I told him I did not do so behind their back. I told the CEO – and the fact that he didn’t disseminate the information might have been a political move. I don’t know. I can’t say for sure one way or another, and I don’t really give a damn. 

But it was one of those incentives that caused me to say: ‘I’ve done my time here. I’m not going to stand up in a boxing ring with a fella almost double my weight in size.’ And I’m using a physical analogy, but he certainly isn’t double my weight intellectually. 

And I decided it’s time to leave and it was the best thing that could have happened to me in the final analysis. And that isn’t sour grapes. That’s just how it is. 

It’s so interesting, Allen. I’ve had – on a very minor level – a similar journey with the company I started and then 15 years later left – because I didn’t own it anymore. And I often thought back what life might have been like had I never listed on the stock market. 

Now, in your case, did that ever occur to you? You would have still owned the company, you would have perhaps grown slower – but perhaps you might have still been involved with your baby? 

Well, maybe I don’t know so much, because when I say that it’s the best thing that ever happened – I mean it deeply and sincerely. I’m not trying to make up for a lack. And sour grapes is no sour grapes and there’s no regret, Alec. There’s really no regret. 

But then I’m a different person to Warren Buffett and maybe to you – we’re all different. And the fact that I’ve been able, because of lockdown, to teach yoga on Zoom has done a lot for me physically and mentally, because – when you go to a teacher, as I was doing – you don’t always get what’s best for you. 

And I had been a teacher as well, more as a hobby for nearly 20 years, and when I had to teach over Zoom – and there’s everybody looking at the screen doing their asanas in yoga – you have to be good. So, I had to up my game. So, I had to put a lot of work into it and to design classes, etc. It’s not just something goofy that you repeat over and over. Every class is different. There are many different facets in the body that you have to look after, and I won’t go into that. 

Would I still have wanted it to be my baby having grown up slower? I don’t really think so.

I think the fact that our business is so widespread: there may be 15 or 20 of them in the Cape Town region, there’s maybe 50 of them, 80 of them in the reef greater region, there’s Natal, there’s Zeerust, there’s Polokwane, there’s Lydenburg, etc. etc. – I don’t want to labour the point more than I already have. 

To keep that under control, when you’ve got a head office in the executive side – over 200 people – and some of them come in later and don’t necessarily get trained as well as those who’ve come in early and the culture starts leaking out – then emotionally, personally, mentally, physically – I didn’t want that. 

So, going public was a better way for me to maximise my value. I still could grow the business with a group of really competent people in a manner that delivered good food to many, many families throughout South Africa and beyond. 

Although, I don’t regard us as international in the true sense of the word. We are in Africa internationally. We’ve got one store in New Zealand – where the guy was going to become CEO, Mark Farrelly, is going to go now. He’s got the master franchise for New Zealand. 

Australia’s never really worked for us. And I think from what I hear on the grapevine, they are busy trying to divest. The UK was a bloodbath from start to finish, and I put that down to the CEO who left recently – because he wouldn’t listen to people. It should have been closed much earlier. 

But it’s other people’s fault, mine included, but mainly the guy who was driving it and who started off the whole thing with a franchisee who I, quite candidly, would never have accepted. That’s the truth be told. But the deal was done before I had a chance to meet him. But that doesn’t absolve me – it’s just a statement of fact. 

So, would I have liked to have still had the baby? No, sir. Life is far too rich. Far too varied. I walk the mountain, I do yoga, I see the odd friend (although Covid has done a lot to damage that). I want to play more tennis – not that I have played for years. There’s lots to do and I’m happy with where I’m at.

Those youngsters, thousands of them, who got their first starts as waiters at Spur: if they were to engage with you and ask you for some advice – how would you answer? 

You haven’t asked me the one question I thought you were going to ask me just now, so I’m just going to interpose that answer. If I had my life again, I’d become a musician, a singer. So, that’s that one out the way. 

I then say to kids: find something you really enjoy and pursue it. The trouble with people when they are younger and they haven’t necessarily been given the confidence that they should have been given by the school system, their home, their parents, their siblings, their friends, is that they think they can’t do such and such. 

But if you love something enough and are prepared to work very hard – the chances are you can succeed in whatever you intend doing.

So that’s what my answer would be. I’d say: food, retail – if you love it and you want to do it, go for it. But be aware that the dice is a little bit loaded. 

But then with the one word that we haven’t mentioned, which we must mention now, is: maybe within a year we’ll all be vaccinated with something that works. 

Allen, a singer? Where did you go off that path? Because it certainly is a very long way from building up a massive restaurant chain. 

I never was a singer, Alec. My parents started me on the violin, which I didn’t like, and I stopped. If they had started me on the guitar – maybe I would have become a singer. And it’s not their fault, I should have picked up a guitar and played it. 

But I love singing. I am a good singer. I do not sing publicly, because I’m not practised enough anymore as I’ve got a little older. But if I had my time again, I think that’s what I would do – knowing what I know now. It’s a very obtuse sort of thing to say, but I feel it’s quite real. 

It’s a passion, and I think that’s what you’re telling young people – follow your dream, follow your passion.

Yes. Follow your passion and give yourself a chance to love your life, is what I’d say to them – instead of (hopefully) not grinding yourself into the dust, being obliged to do something every day and every night or every day that you’re not particularly happy doing, with people you might like (that makes it easier) or not be so comfortable with (which makes it harder).

And that’s why – in the end – when I became uncomfortable, I decided to move on. 

Thanks for being with us for The Alec Hogg Show. 

To listen to this remarkable interview, download the link here: The Alec Hogg Show: Meet super-charged Allen Ambor, founder of 600-store Spur, yoga teacher, mentor. Ep 7 (or find the interview on BizNews Radio on the BizNews home page). You can also subscribe to The Alec Hogg Show on Spotify here.

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