Keith Fourie at one of his two Port Elizabeth franchises. Picture: Brian Witbooi/The Herald
Keith Fourie at one of his two Port Elizabeth franchises. Picture: Brian Witbooi/The Herald

The year 2020 was meant to be a celebratory one for franchisee Keith Fourie with his Silver Cloud Spur in Port Elizabeth turning 35, but instead his business is fighting for survival.

For Fourie, the Covid-19 pandemic couldn't have come at a worse time as he had just found his feet again after surviving emergency heart surgery and colon cancer three years ago. Looking back, he tells how in 2017 he faced down armed robbers who held up his restaurant. The ordeal brought on chest pains which led to hospitalisation and the discovery that he needed a quadruple bypass operation.

The robbery turned out to be a blessing in disguise because without it Fourie may have never learnt that he urgently needed a heart operation. But then, just two weeks after surgery, he found out he had colon cancer. After treatment, Fourie had a new lease on life and every reason to believe the worst was behind him — until the pandemic spread around the world.

“I'm in the clear as far as cancer is concerned and my heart beats like a teenager. I've been given, by default — by an armed robbery — some extra time. And just as we've found our feet and I'm back at the helm and getting ourselves organised, along comes Covid-19 and here we are.”

The fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and the resultant lockdown is now threatening his livelihood and the jobs of 125 employees working at his two restaurants in the city.

Fourie, who opened his first restaurant in 1985 before launching a second one, Carolina Spur at Greenacres Shopping Centre, 10 years later, is one of thousands of business owners in SA facing an uncertain future, with the lockdown extended until the end of April and them having no idea of how long it will take for the economy to recover after it is lifted. For businesses like his, which work on a high-turnover, low-margin basis, every day they're not operating pushes them closer to the edge.

Fourie paid the salaries of his staff for March and has made use of the government's special Covid Unemployment Insurance Fund payments to help cover salaries for April, with him paying the shortfall.

“We are hoping that with the help of everyone being closed we can flatten the [infection] curve and be up and running sooner rather than later without risking lives.”

He says that every month he keeps his two Spur outlets closed he loses a minimum of R500,000.

“That is what it costs, [the minimum] to remain closed. The other invariable costs [such as rent and rates] continue coming.”

Fourie says the parent company, JSE-listed Spur Corporation, has been of great assistance to franchisees during this period, zero-rating any trade from the stores from the middle of March. This means restaurants have not had to pay royalties (5% of turnover) or marketing fees (4% of turnover) during this period.

“I also have a loan with them and I've asked Spur to freeze it and give me a holiday period on the loan and they've agreed.

“They've been incredible and it's clear we are in this boat together.”

Fourie has also found landlords and suppliers helpful and understanding.

“We need to survive. Right now from the largest of companies, [landlord] Growthpoint Properties, to the smallest of traders, my local butcher, they've all said, Keith, when we're ready we will rebuild this. The sentiment has been incredible at this stage but the reality of what's coming can't be discounted either.”

Fourie's Spurs are part of the fabric of Port Elizabeth's social life, with generations of the coastal city's teenagers having worked there as waiters over the years. They've also helped with sponsorships for the annual Iron Man competition, as well as Grey High School's rugby side.

“I'm not going down without a fight. I'm going to try my level best to save every job,” Fourie says. “I've got ladies who have worked for me for 35 years. I've got guys who have worked for me for 28 years and operators who have worked for me for 15 years. It's my absolute responsibility to protect them and every staff member as best I can.”

The Franchise Association of SA (Fasa) has called on the government to include takeout and fast food under essential services, saying that before the lockdown the industry had already taken steps to augment their preparation procedures to deliver contactless food orders.

Fasa also says that according to the Sanlam Franchise Survey conducted in 2019, the franchise industry in SA contributes about R734bn to the economy.

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