Allen Ambor | Founder & Executive Chairman of Spur Steak Ranches

Allen Ambor opened the first Spur Steak Ranch in 1967. There are now over 280 local Spur restaurants, as well as international Spurs. He also founded Panarotti’s Pizza Pasta, John Dory Fish & Grill restaurants and Captain DoRegos fast food restaurants. Hussar Grill and RocoMamas are now also part of the Spur Group. Overall, his businesses employ more than sixteen thousand people.  Allen also teaches yoga at the Virgin Gym in Green Point.


The First Spur 50 Years Ago | It started actually three years before that because I’d worked for a company overseas, then came back home.  I put myself through university working in a restaurant in Johannesburg. Then I came to Cape Town and tried to find premises, which proved to be very difficult. Two and a half years later I met a man who let me have the premises of a steakhouse in a building he’d just bought.


Twenty-Hour Days | In Malcolm Gladwell’s book called Outliers, he talks about the Ten Thousand hour rule and he says most people get there after ten years. I worked so many hours that I managed to get there after a year-and-a-half. I worked like a demon.As an employer, I was incredibly demanding, and I still am pretty demanding.


Huge Energies | I was lucky to find enough kindred spirits who actually enjoyed the huge energy. I was running around like a maniac from early morning to late at night. I still have staff who were with me from those days who, when we went public, were given shares and became quite comfortable as a result. Now they tell stories about how they loved coming to work. They just loved building this creature. Which, incidentally, was successful from the outset. They bought into my desire to please the customer.


It’s Not About The Money | After a short time at the beginning we put up our prices marginally and then we never put them up for another three years. And I could’ve easily. The demand was huge. But I didn’t want to. I wanted to build goodwill, and we really did dig deep foundations for this brand.


Customer Service, Staff Culture | I’m fortunate in being able to assess people and
see deep into them, whether they’re going to be the right people or the wrong person for the job. I try and hire intelligence, honesty and drive. I fly people like kites. So initially I keep them close and watch every move. Gradually I let out the string. When my trust is really established, I let them just soar, and fly and do their own thing. Also, I’m very demanding; people know it’s black and white with me.

Allen Ambor quote pic 1Imparting The Culture | Once people understand what it’s all about, and buy into it, they impart it to others. So the intellectual property is spread. It’s very strong empowerment and very strong accountability as well.
Getting Things Done | Firstly, write everything down. Secondly, follow up and create a structure, so you don’t lose sight of things or forget. That way, things are moved along.


What’s Going On In My Mind | My mind’s constantly roving. Prowling through the business and thinking, I wonder whether we shouldn’t be addressing this now? How about that? We haven’t looked at this for quite a long time, have the boys been busy with this or have they not just been communicating? For the first 35 years of the business life my mind was always focused on these things.


Delegation | I’m a good delegator. I think the way you design a good business is that if anybody gets knocked down by a bus, the business might shake itself a little bit, and then carry on. It mustn’t suffer too much. I’ve got a team of guys who run this business.


Marketing/ Advertising | I’m a very creative person and I understand our brands. The important part of a restaurant is the look and feel. And that’s my game. The décor in Spur comes from me, initially, and on an on-going basis as well.


The Thinking Behind The Brand | The sense of the brand is important. I had a mate who later became a professor in fine art. I said, Michael, I want some décor for my first steakhouse. He made batiks, and the most exquisite brass lamps out of tomato juice tins, aluminium basins, beer bottle glass, all sorts of stuff. The décor was something he and I created. I wanted the zodiac with bulls separating them. This golden bull is up there on the wall. And from there it got developed.


Franchising | Franchising was a different business from the retail steakhouse. It’s all about training people and making sure that, when they open their own store, they understand every aspect of the business.  I did all the basic design work for the stores. Almost all that came after having watched good operators and bad operators. You learn from both, you just have to recognise the difference between the two.


Creating A Brand |You don’t create a brand. You work extremely hard and the public gives you a brand by acceptance and coming back over and over and over.


Building the Brand |  It takes a lot of committed individuals who deliver the same message, the same product, with enjoyment, and who have a good rapport with customers. We’re part of the entertainment industry.  When people come into Spur, Panarotti’s, etcetera, they want to enjoy themselves and be looked after. They’re spending their hard earned money. They want to eat good food in a nice surrounding. And they want entertainment as well, a waitress who’s prepared to give them a vibe, the waiter who’s prepared to give an odd joke.  Just make it fun, a good experience. And I think we’re reasonably good at that, most of the time.


Family Play Centre | Spur’s success is down to good food, good value and the family play centre, which has got increasingly important over the last twenty years. The demand was there. You want to give your customers more than they’re getting elsewhere in every area of endeavour.


Importance of Comfortable Seating | This is not a small thing. Our seating is very comfortable and that’s part of the over-all whole. Loose tables and chairs are just not as convivial. If you can sit and lounge around a bit, talk to your mates and put your hands on the back of the seat and feel comfy, rather than sitting bolt upright with your elbows together, this is a whole different experience.


Hard Work VAllen Ambor quote pic 2s Relaxation | I’ve worked myself too hard, but it has agreed with me. I should’ve taken it easier, earlier, and given an opportunity to other people earlier. But for me there’s this strained quotient. You’re relaxed, can you relax? Because if you can’t really relax because they’re not doing as well as they should, there’s much more strain created. You’ve got to keep getting it right over time.


Making Mistakes I think generally my business mistakes have been fewer and further between than my personal mistakes. Life in business has certain relatively rigid rules, provided you’re also prepared to add to the rules. Living life out there in the world is a different experience altogether. When you go out there, you’re not the boss of Spur, you’re a father, a husband, and you’ve got to do that well. So maybe I haven’t balanced my life quite as well as I should. But I’m getting there now.


Physical Vs Mental Age |  I’m in my seventies but mentally I’m in my fifties. Every morning, before I come to work, I do an hour-and-a-half of yoga. It’s very good for the soul, very good for the spirit, and very good for the body to be kept supple and strong and balanced, which is what you’re trying to be when you’re doing yoga. So that’s helped with my health and my sanity. I’ve been doing it for thirty years.


Teaching Yoga | I went to a teacher, and I’m still with her. And this tiny thing bullied me into becoming a teacher, about fourteen years ago. So I did the three year Iyengar Yoga Teacher course. It’s really increased my understanding so that I’ve been able to benefit myself and others. It’s great. It’s giving back. I teach at the Virgin Gym in Green Point.


Advice I’d Give An Eighteen Year Old Today | If you’ve got a dream, try and live it. If you’ve got a real vision, try and live your vision. I had this absolute passion to open a steakhouse and my parents were very kind to me. They let me even though I couldn’t find premises and didn’t have enough money. But realise that you also need something more to fall back on than just your backside. There are always times, in any business, where you’re right up against the wall, face forward and sweating and you just don’t know where you’re going to go next. But it all works out in the end, even if you’ve got to take a step back. Provided you believe, work hard and focus on what you’re doing. And I believe in Mr Gladwell’s ten thousand hours. Put them in. Really understand what you’re doing. Teach yourself more responsibility. Take responsibility.  And then take time off to enjoy yourself. And have fun. And make sure that you’ve got friends who are close to you. And you can’t be friends with everybody. And if you stand for something, some people aren’t going to like you, and you’ve got to learn to live with that, which is not easy. I find that very hard, learning to live with people who didn’t like what I stood for. So, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, but there it is.


Advice To Someone Who’s Just Opened A Restaurant | The main thing is, don’t get yourself into that situation without knowing a lot about it. But firstly, if you’re busy, cost out your menu. Get a decent financial person and work out what it costs to produce what you put on the plate. Then add at least a 120% mark-up, and those are your prices. That’s number one.  Number two: make sure there is wire mesh over your store-room. Lock the doors, and realise that some people are thieves. In the restaurant business, you’re dealing with cash, drink and food. They all disappear very easily, so you’ve got to control them. Build a control system in your cash register, so that when you sell a rump steak, you know you’ve sold that steak. Count your rump steaks, know how many you’ve got, so if you sold five and had twenty, there should be fifteen left. If you have ten, you’ve been stolen from. Something’s going wrong, or waiters are charging for a burger and giving a steak. So you’ve got to be very vigilant.


Control Is Vital | You’ve got to control the business, the people, the environment, the circumstances, and you’ve got to control yourself. You’ve got be there. You won’t make money unless you set it up with the right controls and the right people.


Franchise Something Unique | To franchise something, you’ve got to have something unique that people want to buy, and that you control. We designed the stores, we negotiated with the shopping centre developers. My first franchise was in Bellville, with a friend who wanted to open a steakhouse. By the third month they were in profit. My first Spur and second are still there today.


Success Breeds Success |  People saw that all these Spurs were making money, and they heard the one was franchised, so they came to me, and the first twelve stores sold themselves. I never went out. And then we started expanding because people wanted the Spur brand. They wanted to create a business for themselves and their family’s security.

Allen Ambor quote pic 3Problems With Franchises | You get certain people who you know you mustn’t go into business with. It’s the same as employing somebody. You’ve got to work with them. They pay your royalty for your brand, but they can do terrible damage if they don’t listen to you. Sometimes you get a franchisee who’s not operating properly. You say, unless this and this is rectified, you’re going for retraining. Two weeks or even a week later, if it’s not rectified, they must come for retraining. If they don’t want to do that, they’ve got to sell. That’s it. And they want to sell because they’re not doing well, and they’re not happy. Otherwise they’d be doing well. It’s a circle.


Royalties And Contracts | They pay 5% royalties and 4% advertising contribution. All that advertising money is spent on the brand and Spur Corporation doesn’t have any of it at their disposal at all.  It’s a good deal because the brand is so successful. You open your business, and if you run it right, you make a profit.  Not every business can do that.


Personal Plans | I’d like to stay in the business for a while, while I’m contributing. I’d like to travel a bit more, and I’m starting this year, doing an extra trip which I know I’m going to enjoy. And just to lead a full, rich, happy life.  Keep up with my yoga. Keep myself as strong and fit as I possibly can for as long as I can.


Meaning Of Life | To contribute in whatever way to what’s going on. I think that Spur is a huge contribution to this country when you consider that before it existed one person was employed and not getting a salary. That was me. Now it’s got over fifteen thousand people, possibly even more with all the other brands, working for it. So we’ve contributed to our country and we’ve helped our countrymen to earn a living and to enjoy themselves doing so. I think I’ve contributed in other areas as well. The meaning of life, I think, is to have a full life. To be the best you can be. Try to stand up
for what you believe in. Try not to compromise too much, which can be a bit painful sometimes when you don’t want to compromise. And I think that you just do well to be a man amongst men and a woman amongst women.


Taking South Africa Forward | Some people on the rich end of the South African spectrum can be passive sometimes.  But there’s a huge bunch of South Africans who aren’t that rich or passive. They’re quite vocal.  So what can we do? This country needs leadership. That means sourcing the best people no matter what their colour or religion, and giving them jobs that they are suited to carry out to the benefit of the country. Leadership means not tampering with the constitution, or trying to bring in the official secrets act. There’s too much confrontation in this country and not enough working together.


Intention Is Key | It’s not about how you speak, it’s about what you say. It’s about your intentions. Have you got a good heart? Are you trying to help your fellow man and your country, and your family and yourself, in a decent manner with integrity?


What Can The Average South African Do | Be more vocal. Write letters to the press and to independent TV channels. You can protest. Get an issue that is genuinely important, such as building hospitals.


Education | You’ve got to have teachers who are erudite. I’ve got a favourite thing that I’m going to regale you with.  In the middle of the year when it’s winter here, July, August, September, the universities and colleges in America close for their summer recess. We should get graduates and even undergraduates and teachers who are on leave and fly them out to South Africa. We should house them reasonably well by way of a stipend, pay them a nominal salary and let them teach our teachers. They should have clinics for six weeks around July during (our holidays) and put the teachers back “in school” again. Get all these thousands of erudite people to teach the teachers and then send them back to the schools so that they can teach the children more competently.

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