Pierre van Tonder. Picture: Supplied
Pierre van Tonder. Picture: Supplied

When Pierre van Tonder joined Seven Spur as a trainee manager in Sea Point in 1982, Time magazine’s Man of the Year was the computer, Michael Jackson would release his smash album Thriller, and the first CD player was sold in Japan. Clearly, a lot has changed since. Spur back then had only 80 restaurants; today it has 640 — across SA, the Middle East and elsewhere in Africa. Van Tonder plans to hang up his apron this December; we asked him if he would still be going if there were no Covid and SA were enjoying the economic growth it should.

PVT: It’s obviously a very difficult question to answer, but I don’t think it changes the situation in terms of my retirement. If you look at my years of service, the baton had to be passed to someone else to take Spur to a higher level than it’s been. So, very simply, yes.

You talk about taking Spur to a higher level: is that remotely possible given our present challenges?

PVT: In the current economic climate, I would agree with you [that it’s challenging], but I think Spur still has an expansion plan further into Africa [and] Mauritius. And so, having taken that all into consideration, I would suggest there’s still potential for the Spur and Panarottis and RocoMamas brands to grow — and in the Middle East as well.

Who would want the job of running Spur? After all, the post-Covid reality is brutal, and the future in SA is anything but certain.

PVT: There are some very exciting opportunities. It’s not going to be business as usual, and you will need a different dynamic. The team that is in Spur at present is exceptionally talented. There is apprehension but the team certainly does not fear what the future holds, so any candidate is going into a very positive environment. It’s not all doom and gloom.

You’ve got to wake up in the morning and say: I can handle this, I can do this. There are some elements beyond your control but there certainly are areas that fall in the ambit of your control and those have to be tackled with positivity and clear strategy. I don’t think it’s a poisoned chalice.

Practically speaking, how will Covid change Spur’s model?

PVT: You well know that the restaurant is not having a great time, because of regulations, but as the regulations become a little bit more sensible a part of your business will go back to business as usual. However, I would suggest that technology and home deliveries will play a bigger role in terms of what we do as a brand.

Can the restaurants actually benefit from this change, or will all the gains be reaped by the food delivery companies — like Uber Eats?

PVT: Uber Eats and Mr Delivery spend an awful amount of capital in terms of getting market share, and I think there are other third-party aggregators, as they call them, who are doing deliveries. Based on that I think it’s a case of having a discussion with them so there’s margin in it for the restaurant and for those guys.

Is there margin in it for the restaurants now, or are you squarely at a disadvantage?

PVT: Restaurants are probably at a disadvantage at present, and I think there’s got to be a more equitable platform where it works for both parties.

Are you having discussions?

PVT: Yes, continuously; every single day.

How do you get a chain of restaurants right? It can be quite arbitrary: take the expansion of eateries like Jamie’s Italian, say, which was disastrous.

PVT: There are two platforms: company-owned stores which are fraught with problems (like the Jamie Oliver principle) [and franchises], but if you look at what we’ve done, the selection of our franchisees has been critical to our success. The franchisee and franchiser are both tied by an umbilical cord to share the same values and strategy. The franchisee is in it for the bottom line, the franchiser is on the top line, and as long as there’s common purpose, you have a good chance of success.

What have been the best and worst moments of your tenure?

PVT: I’ve always been very excited about the growth opportunities that Spur afforded me, coming from a small base. We’ve also had failures in the UK and Australia, but the intangibles that we brought back from a procurement and operating perspective led to our benefit.

And the worst times? The racial flare-up, I imagine, wasn’t fun?

PVT: That was stressful. And I suppose the [expansion into] the UK cost us quite a bit of money and we never quite cracked it. We didn’t have a franchise base in the UK. Australia is a whole different model, and we battled with the model there.

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