Winning hearts and customers
It is impossible to bake a good chocolate cake when you are in a bad mood. Similarly, a restaurant void of zeal and dedication cannot succeed, says Richard Griffin, the owner of the Madame Zingara group. “It starts with gossip between the kitchen staff and next thing the soup doesn’t taste the same.” And the consumer, he says, can see it.
Griffin’s business has rocketed to success and the group, best known for its travelling dinner theatre, the Madame Zingara Theatre of Dreams, is rapidly expanding.
The staff grew from 80 to almost 300 in six months and, in just over a year, the company’s monthly turnover climbed from R80 000 to R8-million.
The chain encompasses four restaurants in the Western Cape—the Bombay Bicycle Club, the Sidewalk Café, Café Paradiso and Café Mozart—two retail outlets, a training centre (known as the Lotus Room) and the Madame Zingara tent, of course.
The recipe for success is simple: employees come first. “Consistent workforce means consistent turnover and consistent revenue.”
Human resources must acknowledge modern-day needs, Griffin says, and that means engaging staff emotionally. At the beginning of the year he decided to throw away the training manuals. “I want to try to approach people through their hearts and not their minds.”
Madame Zingara traditionally hires “damaged goods” - people with a criminal record or a history of substance abuse. “If you’re covered in tattoos and you look a bit weird, you’re welcome,” Griffin jokes. He believes the success of his business depends on a good balance of “reprobates and top industry pros”.
Regardless of what employees do—lie, cheat or steal—there is a three-month cooling-off period and they can apply to come back. “Is it good enough to just fire a person? They will just move on and do the same thing to the next employer,” he says. “Everybody goes astray at some point.”
But it’s certainly not an easy pursuit. “It is a battle every day, and an expensive one.” The company also provides a doctor, a dentist and a psychiatrist for employees. “But it pays off. They would lie down in the street for you.”
Damian* began experimenting with drugs at the age of 13. His first drug conviction was when he was 16 and he was 25 when he was sentenced to nearly two years in jail in the United Kingdom for being a drug mule.
“I was clean when I came to Madame Zingara. It was like being included in a big family which accepted me for who I am and gave me the chance to prove myself.”
Five years on, Damian has risen the ranks from waiter to Cape Town unit manager, responsible for a portfolio that includes maintenance, security and insurance. He says the trust the group gave him played a role in keeping him on the right track.
Loyal staff is a by-product of Griffin’s approach to business in an industry plagued by high staff turnover. Employees stay with the company for an average of five years, although many stay much longer. Griffin’s team even includes people he has worked with for 24 years.
There are also opportunities to advance within the company. Alicia Matiso and Lucky Tshuma both started as dishwashers and became kitchen managers at Café Mozart and the Sidewalk Café respectively. Kholiswa Loze, one of the prep workers in the kitchen, is now the head chef at the Sidewalk Café.
Griffin fell in love with the industry as a 13-year-old dishwasher. “Restaurants, for me, symbolise a place of healing, a place of safety.”
Madame Zingara was opened in 2001 as a bohemian eatery in the heart of Cape Town. The entertainment aspect of it slowly crept in—first it was the snake woman, then the blue gorilla and the tarot reader. The 1 000 square meter property was gradually decked out with eccentric themes and decor when, in September 2006, a lit cigarette was left in Griffin’s new Moroccan safari suite.
The entire property burned to the ground. Unable to rebuild it, the Theatre of Dreams was housed inside one of the last antique mirror tents in the world. With the same great service, food and energy, Griffin’s venture again achieved great success.
But, in 2009, he was dealt a crippling blow when the company was liquidated after expanding its operations to England and incurring huge debts. But after a few months of therapy, Griffin was ready to start again when a friend handed him a failing restaurant. “The staff came back without any expectations. I didn’t have any money to pay them,” he says. “It taught me huge amounts of humility.”
A large proportion of restaurants in the Western Cape are doomed to fail and Griffin knows the story all too well. Success, he believes, depends on reinvention. The dinner theatre was relaunched in 2010 and has since enjoyed sold-out shows in Durban and Gauteng where it seated more than 85 000 guests in just eight months.
*not his real name