The story behind family steakhouse chain Turn ‘n Tender is somewhat different from that of most franchised restaurants. The original restaurant was founded in Greenside in 1977 by the four Aaron brothers: Mervyn, Steven, Howard and Brian.
Another branch was opened in Balfour Park shortly after, followed by Turn ‘n Tender Braamfontein in 1982, which was to become the flagship restaurant of the group.
“For many people the Braamfontein store was considered to be an institution, and to this day we still have people telling us about their experiences there,” says Brian Aaron.
The early days
The founders came straight out of school. One of tzhe brothers, Howard, was working at the well-known steak restaurant Mike’s Kitchen at the time that Brian, the youngest, was just finishing school. Howard encouraged his brothers to take the plunge and open their own steak restaurant.
“That’s how Turn ‘n Tender was born,” says Aaron. “In terms of our experience, we really started from scratch, learning as we went along. I’ve been in the business for 36 years now and I still learn something new every day.”
By 2003, the Braamfontein area had degenerated, along with much of the inner city. The property was sold, and the Mini Tender Steak Boutique was launched in the suburb of Emmarentia. Even with the name change, this particular store soon became famous in its own right. In the interim, Howard emigrated and Steven passed away tragically, leaving Brian and Mervyn to run the business.
In June 2007, Aaron and Farrel Osher, a property developer and entrepreneur, joined forces and opened a store in Parktown North. They reverted to the original brand, which really put Turn ‘n Tender back on the map, with Mervyn at the back-end controlling the central kitchen and butchery. After much consideration, Aaron decided to close the Mini Tender in July 2010 and open up a larger store in Illovo’s Thrupps Centre, to restore the brand to its former glory.
“The decision to go into franchising came very much later in our evolution, 35 years later to be exact,” says Aaron. “The dream to significantly grow our business turned into a reality with our first franchise in Camaro View Shopping Centre in Bassonia, which we opened in October 2011. That was followed by another in Nicolway Centre, Bryanston in April 2012 and our most recent store in Village View Centre in Bedfordview, which opened in April 2013.”
Ready, set, fast-track
Aaron says he and his team knew that franchising was the way to go, but they were also well aware that their core strengths lay in their ability to run steakhouses, not franchises. So, when Famous Brands approached them, they realised there was a perfect match between the group’s franchise expertise and their restaurant experience.
Aaron recounts how the relationship with Famous Brands began. “Kevin Hedderwick, the CEO, went to dinner on a Saturday night at our Parktown North restaurant, which is run by my daughter Ashleigh. He chatted to her about the concept and gave me a call on the following Monday morning.”
The joint venture, which has given Famous Brands a controlling stake in Turn ‘n Tender, is in line with the group’s strategy to expand its presence in the casual dining sector. The transaction has given Famous Brands a 51% stake in the trademarks and existing franchise agreements in the business, which currently consist of the five steakhouses and a central kitchen in Johannesburg.
“The partnership will enable us to fast-track the roll-out of the Turn ‘n Tender franchise,” says Aaron. “We are aiming to achieve a national footprint of 25 restaurants over the next five years.”
Noting that Famous Brands is acquisitive by nature, Hedderwick says the company had been keen to invest in the steakhouse category for some time. “This segment has seen strong growth and we believe there is potential to build a niche for Turn ’n Tender, given the wide gap between the entry-level mass-market steakhouse restaurant brands and the premium upper-end offerings.”
Aaron says he is confident that the partnership will enable Turn ’n Tender to become a brand that is represented in major cities across South Africa over the next few years.
Facing down challenges
It’s early days still, and Aaron says he has not really had many challenges to face when it comes to building the franchise. After all, he’s been in the business long enough to know how restaurants — and customers — operate.
“We have selected the right franchise partners, we believe we have the right sites and we have solid marketing and communication in place. We are also, as a family, very involved and hands-on, so when problems arise, we are able to deal with them swiftly. We are always available, our lines of communication are short and we have got the answers and solutions for problems if and when they do arise.”
Biggest business strengths
The biggest strength has always been that the family is involved at both store-level and at central kitchen level. This has produced the highest level of success in developing and nurturing the franchise business.
“Our most notable success is that the stores are busy with delighted customers and the franchisees enjoy an immediate positive cash flow,” says Aaron.
But there’s another key element to the brand’s success. Aaron says he knows more than 90% of his customers by their first name. “We have four generations of families coming to our Illovo restaurant and I remember them from the Braamfontein days.
That level of customer loyalty only happens when you are prepared to become friends with the people who dine at your restaurant. I know what my customers will drink and eat before they have even sat down. I have a regular customer whose bottle of whisky is always waiting for him and his guests at the table.”
Staying ahead of the pack
Steakhouses are popular in South Africa and globally. Premium steak restaurants in the US, for example, generated $5 billion in revenue in 2011.
“What differentiates Turn ‘n Tender is that we have remained hands-on. We have always made great steaks consistently, worn a smile on our faces and offered an inexpensive, fun dining experience to our customers,” says Brian Aaron.
He says that although there have always been fast food steak and burger spots, as well as the more upmarket ‘white tablecloth’ steak houses, Turn ‘n Tender has filled the gap in the middle for “fun dining,” which allows families and friends to enjoy high quality food in a relaxed environment with brilliant service.
Differentiating in a highly competitive market
Aaron says the business is constantly innovating with great, regular specials at affordable prices. “We’ve incorporated social media elements like Twitter to communicate with our customers, which we feel is key in such a highly competitive market. We also have a choice cuts butchery and central kitchen that manages quality control and maintains our high standards.”
A path to growth
In the last two years, Turn ‘n Tender has opened three new stores, adding up to five in total. Growth in turnover has more than doubled, and the plan is to have a total of 25 restaurants as part of the franchise system in major metropolitan areas throughout the country, following the Famous Brands deal.
The founding partners
The four Aaron brothers did not have any formal post-school education.
Their true education and experience really started on the shop floor in their first Turn ‘n Tender restaurant in Greenside, 1977.
“Everything we know about food, people, problems and successes has come from our own lived experience – and a little university called Turn ‘n Tender,” says Brian Aaron.
Business partner Farrel Osher has been in the property development field for 30 years. He has been involved in the development of Stage One Melrose Arch, Trade Route Mall, The Glen Shopping Centre, JSE and Alexander Forbes in Sandton.
Fancy yourself a franchisee?
- Minimum investment required: +R4,5 million
- Joining fee: R200 000 including project management and design fee
- Monthly Royalty: 5% of net turnover per month
- Marketing Fee: 2% of net turnover per month
- Management fee: None
- Unencumbered capital requirement: At least 50% of initial required capital
- Expected time from signing agreement to opening for business: Three months from occupation of premises
- Average time for return on investment: Two and a half to three years from opening
- Hot spots for development: All major metropolitan centres in South Africa
- Ideal store size: 350m2 to 400m2
- The ideal Turn ‘n Tender franchisee: Turn ‘n Tender franchises are owner-operated, and franchisees must have a financial stake in the business. A potential franchisee has to be hands on, passionate, committed, financially independent, have an understanding of food and recognise customers as being central to their success, Brian Aaron says. “Most people can run a restaurant, but not everyone can run a successful restaurant. We understand what it takes to be the best, serve the best and look after the best and therefore we aim to select only the best to represent our brand in the market place.”
- Franchisee training and support: Backed by Famous Brands’ franchising expertise, Turn ‘n Tender offers full formal training to staff upfront for at least four to six weeks before a new store opens, supplemented with operations, training and recipe manuals. Ongoing support is provided by the management team at the Turn ‘n Tender head office.