The early 90s saw an explosion of flea markets in Johannesburg, with one of the most popular being the Bruma market on the eastern side of the city. Vendors selling bargain priced merchandise, collectibles, African crafts and food attracted hundreds of visitors.
Among them was Anat Apter, who had left vibey Tel Aviv and its dynamic street culture for the City of Gold in 1981, when her husband’s work as an electronics engineer brought the couple to South Africa.
“I found Johannesburg quite dull,” admits the vivacious Apter, “so when Bruma flea market opened I used to go there nearly every weekend with my children, just to get out onto the streets. The atmosphere was lively and it was a lot of fun.”
Where it all Began
Apter came from a family of Yemenite Jews who had travelled from Yemen to Israel, stopping in Egypt along the way to earn some money to pay for the rest of their journey. They did that by selling falafel.
By the time her grandparents settled in Israel, they had 12 children to feed so her grandfather built himself a trailer and set up the first falafel business in Holon, one of the biggest cities in Israel. When her grandmother won the title of mother of the year in 1953, she was given a refrigerator as a prize, and also received a visit from the local mayor.
The mayor was keen to help the family and she persuaded him to find her husband a shop so that he wouldn’t have to work from the trailer anymore. The business was set up formally and it thrived. When the time came for her grandfather to retire, Apter’s father took over running the business, much to her disappointment.
“My father had been a dancer with a troupe of travelling entertainers and I often went to watch them practice,” she says. “I was 12 and I couldn’t believe that he was going to give up that glamorous life to be a falafel seller in a two by one square metre shop. I was too embarrassed to even tell my friends.”
Although her parents started to make some money from the store – more than her father had earned as an entertainer – the toll on family life was heavy as weekends and nights were spent in the store. “I swore then that I would never get into this business,” Apter recalls.
Looking for Something to Do
But by 1992 she was 37, had three children, and wanted something to occupy her time. Her weekend visits to Bruma and her love for cooking had given her an idea. There were many different types of snacks and food for sale, but nothing Middle Eastern.
“I had already catered for lots of falafel parties so one day I decided to put my Israeli chutzpah to work. I was standing at the back of a long queue of people who were waiting to apply for a stall at the market, a process that took up to a year because of the long waiting list.
I stood on my toes and yelled, ‘Excuse me. Do you want me to sell falafel here?’ The man in the booth waved me to the front of the queue and asked me if I would be ready to start in two weeks’ time, working Wednesdays, Fridays, and the weekend. I said yes, without even knowing whether I was really serious.”
Family Support Makes all the Difference
To start up, she needed a trailer and to fill in a whole bunch of forms from the Department of Health. “I didn’t even show the papers to my husband Menachem because I was worrying about what to do with the children,” she says. “Eventually, I couldn’t hold back my excitement and I told him.
He was immediately very supportive. We agreed then and there that when you want something, you must just go ahead and do it. I spoke to my domestic worker and agreed to pay her extra for taking care of the kids on the weekend. I asked her to bear with me and told her it would be worth her while.”
Next, she and Menachem went to the bank and asked the manager if they could max their credit card as they needed R10 000 to set up and buy supplies. Apter recalls that the process was far easier than it is today. “We knew him well and he got quite excited by the whole concept so he agreed to let us go ahead.”
Luck played a role too. A neighbour had an unused trailer in his backyard and agreed to sell it to Apter for R600, and to let her pay it off at R100 a month. She took it home and painted the words ‘Anat’s Falafel’ on it.
On day one, she started by selling just falafel as she didn’t yet know how to make shawarmas. “It was a Friday, and I had not slept at all the night before because I was so nervous,” she says. “I also sold fresh pitas and tahina. I was determined to make only top-quality food because whatever I do, I always try to do my best. Tahina is an expensive menu item to produce and many restaurants cheat a little on the ingredients, but to this day ours is pure and preservative free.”
On that Friday, which by all accounts was a quiet one, she sold 50 portions of food. “My money pouch which I was wearing around my waist was full,” she says. “For the first time in my life, I was earning my own cash. That made me very happy and even more eager.
As much as I hadn’t wanted to be in the food business, I quickly started to love it. There’s always been a theatrical gene in our family and I found that I really enjoyed selling in a busy market – it was like being on stage.”
The business ticked along and she started to make a small profit. Then Menachem, who by this stage was helping out at the market on weekends, pointed out to her that South Africans love meat and that she should start selling shawarmas. Together, they agreed that they might just be able to change their financial situation completely.
“He was right about the demand for meat,” she says. “But I knew nothing about making shawarmas, and there was no Google. I called my parents and got a basic recipe from my mother which had three spices. That first shawarma experiment was sold out within ten minutes.
Today our meat is prepared with nine spices, and we have perfected the recipe. That’s really how I have approached every item on the menu. We try and test everything, and we constantly focus on improving flavours and quality.”
With this new item added to the menu, Apter started to make real money, up to R15 000 in turnover a day. Two years later she moved into a proper shop at the market and employed three staff to help cook and serve customers. All of them still work for the franchise.
The Move to Shopping Centres
By 2001, Menachem realised that change was in the air, and that they could no longer rely on the waning Bruma market alone. “We opened our first shopping centre store in Sandton City,” says Apter. “It was Menachem’s vision for the business that got us to make this move. He saw the potential.”
Menachem found the location for the store after visiting the owner of the Doug’s Donut’s franchise in Sandton City. He had a large L-shaped shop and Menachem asked him if he would be prepared to lease part of the store to Anat. The owner took some time to make a decision, but after visiting the shop at Bruma three weekends in a row he was sold.
Apter went to run the new store with the help of a manager, leaving her staff to manage Bruma. It was a busy December and she worked day and night. But the new store took some time to become really popular with its northern suburbs clientele.
Two years later, the Apters decided to open a franchise in Eastgate, also in tandem with the existing Doug’s Donuts franchisee. Eastgate was a success from day one. Anat was already well known in the area because of the flea market which was just down the road, and the big Greek, Israeli and Lebanese communities close by quickly became loyal customers. The popularity of this store made it possible to keep Sandton afloat for three years.
Perfecting the Recipe
“During this time I was changing menus and really homing in on what our customers liked. I discovered, for instance, that my big Greek salads were not loved by everyone because some people don’t like olives and others don’t like onions. I simplified by doing away with salad and allowing people to choose the fillings they wanted separately.
We also added other Middle Eastern items to the menu, like humus and tzaziki. I built a central kitchen that supplies meat products, pickles and sauces for all the franchise stores in Gauteng and Cape Town. I opened my own bakery so that we could supply the stores with fresh pita bread every day.”
More than 15 000 pitas are baked every week just for the franchises. Anat’s bakery also supplies fresh pita to major supermarket chains. The franchisees know that freshness is critical in this business. “We do not keep anything from the day before,” says Apter.
“I monitor this carefully to make sure that they order sufficient fresh stock from head office every day. This is a principle that the franchisees understand – the cost of giving customers fresh pita bread is nothing compared to the value of doing it because it keeps them happy. “I cannot stand soggy salads and vegetables,” she adds. “If I pop into a store and see anything looking limp, I go to Woolworths and buy fresh produce at the franchisee’s expense. We also changed the size of the salad serving dishes, making them much smaller so that they can’t be piled up with lots of lettuce or tomatoes that then look tired and old as the day progresses.”
The next store was opened in Cresta. By this stage the Eastgate manager wanted to acquire the store he was running as a franchise. Apter decided it was time to create a franchise agreement. “The initial agreement I drew up was just a template based on what I had seen and read. It was a document full of holes.
Today Anat is a member of the Franchise Association of South Africa and adheres to strict franchise business principles that have been adopted and accepted internationally.”
Apter points out that the hugely successful growth of the franchise can in part be attributed to the locations chosen for the stores. There are more than 20 today, and all of them are located in the country’s top shopping centres, where they attract lots of customers who have money to spend.
The Ideal Anat Franchisee
Food is about entertainment, for Apter. She looks for franchisees who love people and take pleasure in selling good food. They have to be performers who always have a smile on their faces and understand what it means to serve a top-quality meal.
“When a prospective franchisee walks into my office I can tell within 15 minutes if the chemistry is right. I’m not interested in experience, as the franchise system will teach them everything they have to learn. What I care about is generosity and giving.
I’m very influenced by the Mediterranean way of thinking about food. It’s all about largesse and hospitality for people like the Italians, Greeks, and Israelis. The dinner table is the centre of the home. I cannot work with people who worry about portion sizes. Fill the pita, I tell them. Be generous. A little extra filling is nothing compared to the loyalty you get from customers in return.”
Managing the Money
Apter admits she’s is not much of an accountant. Six years ago she almost lost the business when the recession hit. But while many other franchise systems disappeared in that time, Anat survived. She says she stopped being an operations manager and started focusing on becoming a business manager.
“I taught myself to understand the financials properly and I realised that my cash flow was suffering because of late payments. There was lots of money owed to the business that simply wasn’t coming in. I sat in my office for several days and nights sorting it all out and chasing the money.
We were forced to close a few errant and under-performing shops, and after that experience I changed the way I ran the business. My renewed focus on financial management has seen profits grow by between 25% and 30% every year.”
Anat’s franchise facts
Specialities: Middle Eastern cuisine such as shawarma, falafel and laffa.
Ideal store size: 45m2 – 50m2, excluding seating and preferably with an entrance opening of 7 metres or more.
Estimated investment required: R850 000
Joining fee: R100 000
This amount includes: Design, building, commissioning, staff training, equipment, layout, fixtures and fittings.
Monthly royalty fee: 5% of turnover
Monthly advertising fee: 3% of turnover
Hot spots available:
- Carnival Mall – Boksburg
- Mall@Reds – Centurion
- Village Mall – Hartebeespoort, North West
Running an Anat
- A big factor to take into account when looking for a suitable location is good visibility and high foot traffic.
- To maintain consistency, the franchisees are required to purchase their meat products, pickles, sauces and packaging as well as pita bread, falafel and hummus from the central kitchen.
- The franchisor will help, advise and negotiate site selection in order to ensure costs, location and general feasibility are all in order.
- Stores are required to be owner-run for the benefit of the business;typically five staff and a manager are required to run a shift.
- Staff and franchisees undergo a two-month training programme prior to the opening of the store.