Salsa Mexican Grill’s first restaurant was an overnight success and now, four years later, its owners believe the growing franchise can ensure that ‘Mexican’ becomes a permanent item on the South African casual dining menu.
George Nicolopoulos, managing executive at Salsa, says ‘Mexican’ is already a well-developed dining category elsewhere in the world and continues to grow in popularity, not just in the United States, but also in markets like Australia and the United Kingdom. “In South Africa, people will say ‘Let’s go have Italian or let’s go out for burgers’; no one says ‘Let’s go out for Mexican’. It’s our vision to develop Mexican as a category here, and I believe this is starting to happen.”
Nicolopoulos recognised this gap in the South African market when he spent some time in California and Arizona in the US, where he experienced traditional Mexican food and hospitality. “I visited so many restaurants, but Mexican just stood out,” he says. “The food was different and interesting, and I just fell in love with the vibe and hospitality.”
It took him and his partners almost a year to develop the concept that would become Salsa Mexican Grill – and when the first Salsa restaurant finally opened in Fourways in 2015 it took off much more quickly than he could have imagined. “Within the first two weeks, we couldn’t keep up.
“We had barely been open for six weeks when Kevin Hedderwick, the CEO of Famous Brands at the time, came in and offered to partner with us.”
Salsa later entered into a joint venture with Famous Brands, which now holds a 51% stake in the business. Listed on the JSE, Famous Brands is Africa’s largest branded food service franchisor and the owner of popular South African restaurant chains like Steers, Debonairs and Wimpy.
Despite the immediate interest from a big player like Famous Brands, Nicolopoulos says many people doubted whether Salsa could sustain its initial popularity. “Many people expected Mexican would be hot for six months and then disappear.”
Nicolopoulos says Salsa’s menu also reflected its complete commitment to the Mexican category from the beginning. “We focused exclusively on Mexican and nothing else – no pizza or pasta or anything else. This was a risk because if it had failed, it would have failed completely.”
Creating memorable experiences
He admits that the restaurant market is changing a lot more quickly these days. Restaurants need to make sure they offer customers fresh flavours and a unique and memorable experience. “With Salsa, we moved away from the franchise model where every restaurant looks exactly the same and has the same decor. Every Salsa restaurant feels the same, but they all have a unique look. For example, the Salsa at Menlyn Maine [in Pretoria] has more of a classic Mexican feel, while the one in Fourways has a more festive, party-going feel.”
Nicolopoulos says restaurant owners should recognise that marketing has gone digital and ensure that they use this marketing channel effectively. “The first thing I do every morning is go on the respective social media platforms, this allows me to keep in touch with our customers.”
He believes Salsa’s focus on quality ingredients, ensuring consistency throughout all its restaurants and excellent service plays a big role in keeping customers coming back. The group maintains a strong service culture not only through rigorous training but by ensuring they hire people with the right attitude. “We really look for people who gain satisfaction from serving people and enjoy making others happy. That is where I get my personal satisfaction. It’s not from monetary gain – it’s from seeing people happy in the space that I have created.”
Nicolopoulos comes from a long line of hospitality entrepreneurs, with his father having been in the restaurant business for over three decades. He says this extensive exposure to the hospitality industry also taught him that owner-managed restaurants are most likely to succeed. Salsa continues to adhere to this approach.
“That is how I was brought up – with the understanding that to be successful you have to put customer service first, it is the key. You can really see the sense of pride that comes through in owner-managed restaurants and the impact of the owner being there to ensure that everything is done properly.”
He says the most important characteristic that every entrepreneur should possess is perseverance. “After the number of doors that were shut in my face when I tried to start Salsa, I was almost ready to give up, it felt like I was never going to succeed, but as an entrepreneur, you also have to be ready. Because once those doors finally open, the real work begins.”
Brought to you by Nedbank Franchising.