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What food start-up dreams are made of…

Slogging it out at markets, a passion for food and the odd night in a police station prepare this chef for his casual dining business. We chat to co-founder of Sumting Fresh, Andrew Leeuw, about his food journey.

TUMISANG NDLOVU: In this week’s SME Corner with Moneyweb we speak to Andrew Leeuw, the co-founder of Sumting Fresh. Tell us about your business.

ANDREW LEEUW: The business started in 2009. I was working at the Melrose Arch Hotel as a chef de partie and then I became a sous chef. But I’d had this dream all my life of opening a restaurant. At that stage the recession had started and I got demoted and felt down. I had a couple of drinks with my brother and he said, “Why don’t you just do your own thing?” I had been a chef at that stage for about nine years and so that sounded easy. I agreed I should try my own business. I originally thought about doing a vegetable store and something else, but the name “Sumting Fresh” came up. My mother provided the name.

Months later I bumped into Hezron Louw. Hezron and I had met previously in a taxi and for months after we spoke only about food. I bumped into him and asked him what he did and he said he was working at a bank. He had studied accounting and hated his job. I said I was working at a restaurant, which is what I loved, but I didn’t really like working there. So I said, “Why don’t you quit your job?” and we agreed to quit our jobs. We first chilled for a long time until we came up with the right idea. We got a concession trailer, put a coffee machine inside it and then we put it on the streets of Joburg at Arts on Main on June 24 2012. So five years ago we did that and the rest, as they say, is still to be done.

Hezron Louw (left) and Andrew Leeuw (right). Picture: Supplied

TUMISANG NDLOVU: Wonderful. Why the food route?  You spoke about your experience as a chef. Talk us through that journey of becoming a professional before you even start getting into the food business.

ANDREW LEEUW: This was in 1999, while at school, watching the Food Channel on DStv, I saw Jamie Oliver. At that time he was called the Naked Chef, and he was this cool kid doing everything he wanted to do. He was on a Vespa bike, he was playing in a band, and it touched me. So when I finished school in 2000 I pursued the cooking side and started working in a restaurant, peeling potatoes and so on. But then one day

I saw Jamie Oliver drive a Maserati and I thought this is what I want to do. I want to be a chef. If he can drive a Maserati then I definitely can drive a Maserati.

So I quit my job and my boss was very supportive of the career choice I had made. They gave me a big farewell and I went to North West to start my life as a chef. From day one until today it hasn’t been easy. I couldn’t chop. When you see it on TV it’s easy, but when it comes to reality it took a lot of years for me to get to that point. I paid my dues. I worked under a lot of good head chefs and I did all the hard work, and I never once thought of having a restaurant within this journey. I thought, yes, my dream was to have a restaurant but I knew I had to work hard towards it. So I learnt my trade, I found my style and then only 13 years after that I had my own business.

So I had to learn. I worked everywhere in Joburg, then in North West, Limpopo, in KwaZulu-Natal – you name it. I’ve slept in police stations because I couldn’t get accommodation. I moved to Swaziland. It was hard but every minute was worth it because this is what I want to do, I love food, I love people, I love flavours. So being a chef is like a passport, it allows you to move around and meet so many people. Over the years I have met hundreds of people and most of them are very good friends today.

Street food is quick, easy and fresh

Picture: Supplied

TUMISANG NDLOVU: Let’s talk about your style. What can one expect at Sumting Fresh?

ANDREW LEEUW: Sumting Fresh is a gourmet street-food company, so we do anything from Asian, American to European. We also do ice cream. So we do what is trendy and what is on the streets of South Africa. That’s what we’re doing right now. Ironically, when I was younger that’s what I had wanted to do – I wanted to eat food. I eat food all the time. But you follow the Michelin Star, à la carte and classical trend stuff. It’s the base for everything, but I actually wanted to do street food from a young age.

With where we are right now it allows us to do those types of things because people are into casual dining. People are not really into sitting down. Yes, you want to go to a restaurant once in a while but that’s not an every-single-day thing. You want to have good food, you want to have it quick, you want to have it easy and you want to have it fresh.

TUMISANG NDLOVU: Wow, how has the business been received?

ANDREW LEEUW: From when we started in 2012, like I said, it was a long journey, but 2012 was the hardest year. Even now, because we are working more and we are learning more, but now we know what we are about. So it’s been good, we started at Neighbourgoods Market. Fourways Farmers’ Market has been great to us over the past four years. We’ve done festivals – every festival you can think of – Oppikoppi, Lush Festival, you name it. We’ve done those festivals and our brand has just grown from strength to strength in all these festivals. So we’ve done multiple things in order for us to reach further, because we felt that we had to go to the people. That’s why we’ve done multiple things.

TUMISANG NDLOVU: As a chef how did you find the transition to doing business now – and you are fortunate because you have a partner who has an accounting background.

ANDREW LEEUW: Yes and no. When you are a chef all you think about is creativity, how to cook, your next ingredients, what’s in season, and your concern is never about the money or the budget, because that restrains you from a lot of things. So when you own a business you need to look at what you have and how is it going to work for you. That is a challenge. But I’m lucky in that. Like you say, I have a business partner who takes all that weight and he does the operations, he makes sure that everything is working day to day, so that I can make sure the food goes out in the way and the style I want.

So yes, having a business partner is something I would definitely recommend, but at the same time there are two personalities involved that you might not see, but at the end of the day you respect each other and what each person brings to the party. So it’s been easy for me to go from chef to business owner because I have a business partner who supports me.

Advice for entering the food industry

TUMISANG NDLOVU: How then would you advise someone looking to get into the food business? Off air we were talking about that. When people think about the hospitality industry they think it’s about washing dishes and cleaning up after people. How do you advise someone to go into the food business with passion and to make money?

ANDREW LEEUW: That’s the first thing you need – you need to have passion and you also need to have foresight. You’ve got to have vision, you have to see more than what people tell you it is, because at the end of the day you can never understand until you are in that situation. Food is creative, it’s a craft, it’s an art. So if you’re passionate about food it’s visual, it shows. When you see this beautiful plate in front of you it already tells you the journey you are going to go on. So it’s not about washing dishes and those things, those are myths to keep you away [laughing]…

TUMISANG NDLOVU: [Laughing] I don’t believe you.

ANDREW LEEUW: At the end of the day there are certain jobs for certain people. There are going to be people who wash dishes, but their job is not less important than that of another person who’s the executive chef. Everybody’s job is important.

If you are working from the bottom and you are washing dishes, I promise that you will grow, as long as you have it in you that you want to be a better person and you want to be a better chef.

You will learn from that because you are at a point where you are like a sponge, and everything you learn you absorb. If someone tells you to do this you learn how to do it. Tomorrow they say do it again, and you do it again and he sees how good you are. Eventually there will be someone who’s gone and you’re going to take that space. That’s when you can say I’m here, give me the chance and let me do it. So, if you’re going to start as a dishwasher, then take that opportunity to learn because tomorrow they are going to offer you a bursary or tomorrow you are going to work with the best chef in the world. Don’t forget that the best chefs in the world and the best restaurants in the world all have scullers. So it doesn’t matter if you are a sculler today you will go somewhere tomorrow.

Picture: Supplied

TUMISANG NDLOVU: Lastly, where to for Sumting Fresh, what can we expect in the near future?

ANDREW LEEUW: About six months ago we opened our first restaurant here in Grant Avenue, Norwood, Houghton. We also have our food truck that we’ll hopefully convert into a food bus. We also have products that we are coming out with, like sweet chilli, so there are a lot of good and positive things happening for Sumting Fresh. You can catch us at markets, festivals, at the Fourways Farmers’ Market and the Neighbourgoods Market every Saturday and Sunday. We’re at the restaurant in Norwood from Tuesdays to Sundays.

TUMISANG NDLOVU: It looks and smells amazing. Thank you so much for your time.

ANDREW LEEUW: Thank you for having me.

TUMISANG NDLOVU: That was Andrew Leeuw, the co-founder of Sumting Fresh, in this week’s SME Corner on Moneyweb.

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