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Bringing township flavour to the ‘burbs

‘Culture is learned. Our strategy was to become a custodian of culture’: founder of Mash Braai House, Ngwato Mashilwane.

TUMISANG NDLOVU: In this week’s SME Corner we speak to Ngwato Mashilwane, the founder of Mash Braai House. Good afternoon and welcome.

NGWATO MASHILWANE: Thanks so much, Tumi, for inviting us.

TUMISANG NDLOVU: For people who don’t know what Mash Braai House is, tell us about your business?

NGWATO MASHILWANE: Mash is a lifestyle restaurant based in Fourways and in Comaro, but what we basically are is … a restaurantised version of a shisa nyama. We do traditional African food and we also do meat on the braai. So from the hotpots it’s different types of traditional foods and from the braai it’s the different cuts of meat, as well as fish. All of them are served standard with either pap, dumplings or samp, and they come with three veggies, which will be chakalaka, spinach and pumpkin.

TUMISANG NDLOVU: Now why take this model, that is quite popular, and make it into a restaurant setting that is more relaxed, more comfortable? How did that come about?

NGWATO MASHILWANE: A part of it was an observation of what happens around; it was a need or a market that I saw. If you observe on a Sunday, everyone drives into the nearest township or the nearest location to have nice shisa nyama and traditional food, and then in the evening there’s a convoy back into the suburbs. So the whole stragey was to bring township flavour into modern upmarket suburbs but presented in such a way that it’s appealing to our customers. So the whole strategy was to create an experience out of the food, the music, the look and feel of the space, the interior, as well as the general ambiance.

Food is part of our culture; it’s part of our history; it’s part of our heritage and the strategy was to preserve our history and our culture and our heritage. Culture is not anything that you are born with – culture is learned and as Mash our strategy was to become a custodian of culture but also embrace other people from different cultural backgrounds.

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TUMISANG NDLOVU: I’m interested in the traditional food element. For quite a few people who I know – and who cook these foods – supply and consistency becomes an issue. How do you get it right, because the prep, the look, the feel, the taste of the food is fresh and almost every day you can drive to Mash and you will find what you are looking for?

NGWATO MASHILWANE: You need to realise, Tumi, that we cater for your higher LSMs, seven and upwards, and these are people who know what they want and they know the quality of the food. They fly all over the world, they have different palates and they dine in the most upmarket restaurants. The strategy here was we wanted to create a place where people can get in touch with the simpler side of life: so you walk into Mash and you order a plate of food that you grew up on and that you understand. But what we’ve done is we’ve taken a giant leap from how this food was traditionally prepared. So back in the day it was just minimal spices – yes we have our own traditional secrets that we throw in there – but the whole idea was consistency, consistency, consistency.

TUMISANG NDLOVU: Now the response – it’s been huge. Tell us about that?

NGWATO MASHILWANE: The response has been unbelievable; we opened doors in 2013. What happened was I started negotiating for the space or the location where we were in Bryanston, in 2012 and the owner of that building was not prepared to give the space until I offered to pay my rent for 2013 upfront. So I paid my rent upfront for 2013 and they gave me the shop, then we started with renovations. We were done in three months and had to wait for the liquor licence. So between January 2013 and September 2013 we were not trading at all, while we waited for a liquor licence. Our licence was awarded on September 23 2013, there was never any time to advertise or market Mash at all. It was the day before Heritage Day and we just sent out messages and opened the next day….

TUMISANG NDLOVU: What a lovely coincidence.

NGWATO MASHILWANE: I know, and we have been trading ever since. We’ve been trading non-stop and with no form of marketing or advertising. Yes, … now that we are ready and growing the brand, yes, we’ve invested in systems and processes.

But it has grown predominantly out of pure word of mouth. The most important thing was building that relationship with customers. Business is about relationships: you invest in relationships and that’s what we did.

The challenge was just securing the comfort of customers, just believing in this new brand and once that was done what followed was just to continue to build the relationship, penetrate the black middle class, while at the same time retaining the existing customers.

TUMISANG NDLOVU: And the change of venue, did that hurt in any way?

NGWATO MASHILWANE: Not at all. It was quite a risky move but I took a decision to move it because the venue in Bryanston was quite small. The problem was I was getting a sense that it was starting to hurt the brand, because the shop was small, always packed and people drive in, see it’s packed and drive out. I still miss the vibe but it’s all about growth. Fourways is bigger, it’s better and we have an open patio seating area and a cigar lounge. So the move didn’t hurt the brand at all; if anything, it has done wonders for the brand.

TUMISANG NDLOVU: Totally amazing. Any plans of opening more branches?

NGWATO MASHILWANE: Yes, the second one has opened in the south, Comaro Crossing, which we opened on September 2. The third one will open in Midrand now in December and in February next year we will be opening in Zambia and soon after that in Mozambique.

TUMISANG NDLOVU: That is amazing news! How excited are you guys?

NGWATO MASHILWANE: I am excited! it’s growth, it’s expansion and that’s what business is about. Mash is an African brand, so the strategy was to master the local environment and once we have done that then move outside the province and beyond the province into other countries. You only need to look at Zambia: it’s an hour-45-minute flight from Joburg; Cape Town is about two hours or so. So you just need to see the other African countries as provinces.

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TUMISANG NDLOVU: How did you get it right? For somebody who’s listening out there and says ‘I’ve been struggling; I’m trying and I want to get to that level’, what boxes does one need to tick?

NGWATO MASHILWANE: It’s quite a difficult one. Like I said, business is about capital: capital as in money, capital as in social capital or relationships. You need to invest in capital and once you invest in capital and grow your money, building those relationships, you have more than levelled the playing field.

But the most important thing is to be hungry and I’m not sure how to define that level of hunger, but you have to be passionate about what you do. The business will not run itself – you have to be there; you have to get your hands dirty. It’s like someone saying they want to become a musician: there are so many musicians out there but you need to understand the ins and outs of your industry and the economic activities around your industry, the politics and so on. So you need to understand it holistically.

TUMISANG NDLOVU: We wish you all the best and thank you so much for giving us your time.

NGWATO MASHILWANE: Thank you so much, Tumi.

TUMISANG NDLOVU: That was the founder of Mash Braai House, Ngwato Mashilwane, in this week’s SME Corner.

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Instagram: mashbraaihouse

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