Circus Circus: the restaurant franchise that’s all about service

A memorable experience is what keeps customers coming back in tough economic times.

Successful restaurants don’t sell food. They sell an experience.

After over 25 years in the restaurant business, Soti Sonitis is convinced that making customers feel special is much more important than running weekly specials. “Yes, you should have specials. But that only attracts customers for as long as the special runs. A great experience and great service is what brings people back time and again.”

Sonitis is the owner of Circus Circus, a franchise of casual dining restaurants in KwaZulu-Natal. He bought the first Circus Circus from its original owner about a year after it opened in Musgrave in 1994. Today, the franchise consists of four restaurants – two in Durban and one each in Umhlanga and Amanzimtoti – and has become a firm favourite in local eating. Circus Circus also wants to pitch its tent in Johannesburg and Cape Town in the near future.

Sonitis believes that its focus on creating a memorable experience for customers is exactly what has allowed Circus Circus to remain successful despite the increasing pressure on South African consumers in recent years.

“That is what ensures that Circus Circus is still at the back of people’s minds when they do have some extra money to spend. In tough economic times, it’s just about going back to basics and realising that you need to work harder than the opposition.”

This means that the ability to work with people and to manage and motivate staff is one of the most important characteristics Sonitis looks for in a potential Circus Circus franchisee. “Your staff are very important. They are really the ones who make your business work. They are the ones who sell your business and make sure that you get bums in seats. You have to create a culture of teamwork and respect for all team members.”

Sonitis says ensuring that every staff member understands that they are really selling an experience is crucial. However, this doesn’t mean that other aspects of the restaurant can be neglected. The Circus Circus brand and menu have also had to keep evolving to remain successful for nearly three decades in an increasingly competitive market. “There is no doubt that competition in the South African restaurant business has increased. I think the number of restaurants out there must have tripled or even quadrupled compared to 20 years ago.”

This means Circus Circus has to make sure that it remains in touch with its customers.

“It forced us to make sure that we really understand our clientele and what they want. We had to make sure that we are in touch with what is trending. Diners’ tastes have definitely changed since the 1990s.”

Circus Circus responded to these changes with a menu that focuses on fresh, seasonal ingredients that are locally sourced. “We started out more as a coffee shop but have grown into a casual dining restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. The look and feel of the restaurants has also changed. I don’t think we would get many customers if everything still looked the way it did in the 90s.”

The decision to franchise Circus Circus only came about in 2009 when Sonitis found a perfect site to open a new branch but realised that his team did not have the capacity to run it.

He nonetheless makes sure that each Circus Circus maintains its own identity and does not feel franchised.

Each restaurant is encouraged to develop its own decor and is encouraged to develop and run its own specials – with the added advantage of support from Circus Circus’s operations manager and group chef. “Our group chef spends an equal amount of his time at each of the four restaurants to support the chefs in developing menu items and to continually train them to ensure everything meets our standards. He is there to say: ‘Let me show you how to do this again and again’.”

Sonitis advises anyone who is considering buying into a restaurant franchise to look for a franchisor that offers this same high level of support.

“A good franchisor will help you to set everything up at the start and train you well. They will hold your hand and send their staff to help you when you encounter difficulties. They will see you as a partner.”

He says entrepreneurs should also do careful research about any franchise before making a commitment. “Pick up the phone and call existing franchisees. Ask for their advice. Ask what they think is good or bad about the franchise. Ask what their challenges are. At least then you will know what the problem areas are, so you know what you are in for.”

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Great restaurant, I had only great experiences there. Keep it up!

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