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Q&A with Unathi Mhlati

By Thobile Hans

Unathi Mhlathi, 2020. PIC: Mdu Ndzingi

There’s no better time to talk about entrepreneurship – what really works, and why start-ups are crucial to economic recovery from the Covid-19 crisis – than now. Unathi is a serial entrepreneur who traversed different industries following his passion for innovation and start-ups. He’s not yet a millionaire, but here is his journey to achieve that and even more.

How nice is it to do that from the back of your yard, at your own time and pace?

When people think of restaurants they have in mind brick and mortar, but we are changing that culture now. There’s a concept of a restaurant that’s not physical, it’s called ghost restaurant, where you don’t have the overhead costs. Basically, you cook from where you are and deliver to your clients. That’s it. As a start-up you try to minimize your costs for the business to be afloat. The less costs you have the more chances of making good profit. That’s the idea behind the ghost restaurants.

By the way, who’s Unathi Mhlati? Briefly.

Unathi Mhlati, nicknamed Stix, I was born and raised in the Transkei. I wear many hats from photographer, events manager, farmer and more recently chef. Last year, I decided to follow my passion and register at Capsicum Culinary School. My vision is to host culinary events in and around the wildcoast (Eastern Cape) and showing off the beauty of the area, my culinary skills and growing the tourism market.

You are now three months into your ghost restaurant ITIS, but you have been cooking for too long. Why cooking?

About two years back I was involved in farming back home. I started appreciating growing my own vegetables and getting fresh products from the ground. So, I would take my fresh lettuce and spinach from the garden to the kitchen. I would take crayfish and see what works best with it. I would basically do experiments every single day. The good thing about cooking is that you enjoy doing it, and you get pleasure from seeing people enjoying your food.

I actually got a call from my sister who said, ‘You are realising its Covid-19, right. So, why aren’t you selling people your meat?’. Basically that’s how it all started.

You may be only three months old, and a coincidental business, but you have been doing fish supplying business for a long time and that involved hospitality industry. Tell us about your association with Saxon Hotel and The Four Seasons Hotel, and all.

I have a friend from Lesotho, Neo, who is a chef. He told me there’s this fish in Lesotho that nobody knows about, and we should get some to sell in South Africa. I was like, ‘Okay, let’s go’. We drove to Lesotho and went to Katze Dam, up in the mountains. We got a box of trout which we took back with us. We took it to the most expensive hotels because there’s no supply chain. We were not going to speak to somebody at the receiving (department). We got there and asked for the chef and we said, ‘you want this, and here is the price’. That’s how it started. We supplied Saxon Hotel, Westcliff, and we did a chesa nyama. The chesa nyama was the biggest client which was the funny bit, they took about 20 000 kilograms of fish every month. A black business?

You are entering this restaurant industry when many businesses are closing shop because they could not manage business under the Covid-19 lockdown? What will you be doing differently? 

In this high unemployment rate in South Africa, places like Spur have gone belly-up now. And Spur is a white man’s restaurant. Basically, the idea is to close that gap and take that advantage in the market. The only reason people flocked at places like Spur, it was because the place is children friendly with all its playing facilities. Now there are so many places to go to, especially for black families.

Please explain how you envision your idea of franchising with shipping containers.

In this day and age there’s even global warming, among other environmental challenges and Covid-19. So, with the container you don’t disturb the environment the way you would do with brick and mortar. You put the container at the corner of Main and Witkoppen, for an example. If there’s no traffic there, you simply pick up the container and put it on another spot. You can move it around until you find a place that works for your business. So, it is basically mobile.

Start-ups have all these ideas of creating jobs, expanding into franchise, but they are operating in spaces where bigger guys are looking for successful businesses to acquire. Money can tempt you to sell. How do you guard against this from happening?

In this time of Covid-19 they predict that the unemployment figures may reach something like 7 million this year. Now the challenge is to create employment at all costs. You listen to all these government ideas about grants of different forms. It is worrying. If you have less employed people, that’s a recipe for disaster. That means you have less people paying tax in the country. This government survives on taxes – unfortunately. Jobs saves lives.

How are you taking advantage of the current situation?

I am very present on social media to market what I do. I post every single day on Facebook and Instagram, I also do Whatsapp stories. Basically, I make sure that my food is awesome so that it spreads by word of mouth. I realized that my business needed a good word of mouth strategy, where someone would say, ‘Oh my God, I had good food from such and such’. That’s how it works, it’s a chain.

What is your business model? Are you open 24 hours, seven days?

I only take orders from Mondays to Wednesday and I start preparing my food on weekends because I don’t want to expand too much too early. What if I cannot handle the traffic of orders I take? The idea is to slowly introduce meatless dish on Mondays and seafood dish maybe on a Wednesday.

Who’s your target market? Let’s put it bluntly, who are your customers and how do you find them?

I would like to push it and say everyone. But realistically I am looking at families who want to enjoy Saturday and Sunday lunches. People just want to relax on weekends, they don’t want to cook for themselves. We are, basically, trying to do the cooking for you.

Where are these ideal families?

You will be surprised, I have delivered almost everywhere in Joburg and Pretoria. This other weekend I started my delivery in Sandton, from there I went to Diepsloot, and from Diepsloot I went to Pretoria. So, I delivered from kasi to affluent suburbs.

Do you think the market from black communities is ready for your food? Do you think you can have regular clients, as opposed to have once-off people who only come when they have special occasions?

Yes, the market is ready as I’ve found out that my customers are curious. For some or other reasons, they trust me with their curiosity, it could be word of mouth that helps. Thanks to cooking shows that are flooding our television screens. Black people are watching Master Chef and Chefs Table and others like never before.

At least that’s a start. Do you think you can have them as regular clients?

Yes, most of my customers are regulars and my regulars introduce new customers all the time.

And what about the cooking school?

I was supposed to graduate in September this year, but thanks to Covid-19 everything has been put on hold.

After working for a year as an events manager, I decided to go back home to Mthatha on the family farm, and I started growing spinach and lettuce that I sold to the local supermarkets.

While doing that I met a guy who was in the fishing sector who was like, ‘You know you can apply for a permit to be a buyer for lobster’, and that’s what I actually did. I bought crayfish from local community that I took to the market. So, I started doing business with hotels, again.

While doing that, I enrolled towards a cooking qualification to become a chef. So, I was doing that course on part-time when Covid-19 arrived. Under the Covid-19 lockdown there’s no fishing anymore.

How have the cooking books triggered your passion for cooking?  

What I actually do is basically get cook books to see if there recipes that will interest me, and also see what I could improve from their recipes for myself. It is basically getting the method like how to prepare a duck. For example, a duck goes well with orange and honey. That’s the information I get from the cooking books.

You lived in the rural area before coming to Joburg to study for photography and work at Drum magazine. You also worked as a events manager. How does your ghost restaurant cater for people in the villages?

Let’s say there’s umcimbi ezilalini (traditional event in the village) and there’s a cow that has been slaughtered. So, why not have a smoker and take briskets and the leg and put them in a smoker. And then the rest of the meat go to the pot. That’s how you want to get people even ezilalini asking ‘yetheni ke le’ enjoying the meat.

Why is entrepreneurship and small business growth so important to the health of the country’s economy?

It stimulates the local economy and also sources its inputs locally. I buy my wood from a small business, I buy my ducks from a small farm outside Mpumalanga called The Duck Father SA (founded in 2016), I get my branding done at a small printing place, Label Beezz SA. It’s a chain of growth and network that will eventually create the jobs that are much needed. Oh, and I get my smokers from Big George.

What are your lessons from Covid-19?

Time will never be perfect, just start and the rest will follow.

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