LETTER: Spur’s fizzling sizzle is a tragedy
From small beginnings in a two-bedroomed flat, the embattled chain created thousands of jobs and a slew of opportunities
It is a sad day when one reads of a firm that has had such an impact on the SA psyche rapidly going down the proverbial drain due to the Covid-19 crisis — and, of course, more so the ineptitude of those who are supposed to be governing us mere plebs. I am talking of Spur Steak Ranches, the restaurant institution where thousands of individuals got their first taste of work.
It was November 1983 when I stepped off the plane after an arduous journey from the UK to Cape Town. I had been invited by Spur founder Allen Ambor to come to SA to see the country for myself before deciding whether to join the group as franchise director for what was then the Transvaal, Orange Free State and Natal. I expected to stay two weeks, go home and that would be that. That was 36 years ago. I’m still here, which says it all.
My introduction to Spur head office was two plug-in phones at alcove seven (seating in a corner) at Spur Sea Point. Yep, that was the franchise head office, with Gerd Topat, who was then GM, later to become MD. After about six months I was relocated to a flat in Bedfordview, which was to become the Johannesburg office.
At that time the Johannesburg steakhouse scene was ruled by Mike’s Kitchen, Longhorn, Squires Loft and Blacksteer. I clearly remember sitting in the offices of Liberty in Braamfontein trying to negotiate premises. I was told explicitly that Spur was a burger joint, a nonentity, and under no circumstances would Liberty allow the concept into any of its shopping centres.
Due to what I can only put down to my obliviousness, I plodded on with the Spur concept until lady luck passed by and I was able to do a couple of deals. It was then that we decided we needed an assistant. That was (current CEO) Pierre van Tonder, who on his own accord called to say he had two weeks’ leave owing to him where he was employed at the time, and could he shadow me for that period. I said yes. Allen subsequently agreed that Pierre could be my assistant, and the rest is history.
Ambor was the most difficult man I have ever worked for — eccentric and demanding, he came close to driving me insane. But what he gave all of us, no matter what position we held at Spur, was the chance to break out. He gave us great opportunity, whether it be Topat, who came to SA as a grill cook for Wimpy; myself as manager by way of a fish ’n chip chain in the UK; or Van Tonder, a junior manager at the Midnight Grill … Ambor gave us the keys to a future that no-one else would have ever done.
Pierre and I built the Spur business from a two-bedroomed flat and then from a two-bedroomed house in Norwood, and the rest is history. I left Spur in 1993 and went on to become a founder of PostNet, Cash Converters, 3@1 Business Centres and Assisted Home Nursing. Topat cofounded Cash Crusaders. Other concepts from ex-Spur franchisees include Dros, Cape Town Fish Market, Primi Piatti, and the list goes on.
Who would have thought one man’s dream in 1967 would have spawned so may businesses and tens of thousands of jobs? It took 50 years to build Spur, yet Covid-19 — with the government’s help — is busy destroying it in less than five months.
What the future holds for Spur is anyone’s guess but when the heart and soul of a business is no longer in place, it will inevitably die.
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