HR with heart

2011-07-13 00:00

“WE’RE here to bring ­happiness,” says Richard Griffin, the man behind Madame Zingara — Theatre of Dreams. “What a job we have.”

Described as a “dinner cirque extravaganza”, Madame Zingara is housed in an antique mirror tent, a voluptuous affair of wood and canvas, decorated with mirrors and stained glass.

Diners are ranged around a central circular stage showcasing a variety of acts, from aerial to musical, with contortionists and power roller skaters in between.

The costumed waiters are also part of the show— delivering the different courses with military precision to the over 400 diners in between performances.

The theatre employs over 100 people and another 200 work in the non-travelling restaurants that comprise the Zingara Group in Cape Town: The Sidewalk Café, Café Mozart, Café Paradiso and The Bombay Bicycle Club.

I was chatting with Griffin on a windy afternoon, the tent moving and creaking around us like a ship on the high seas. The stage was empty, the tables bare, the lights dimmed. Madame Zingara without her make-up.

Madame Zingara began life in 2001, as a restaurant in the centre of Cape Town. “We had seven properties interlinked, and developed them one by one,” says Griffin. “In the end it became like a maze, you could get lost.”

In 2006, just after a major ­refurbishment, tragedy struck, and the restaurant burnt down. Phoenix-like, Madame Zingara rose from the ashes as the Theatre of Dreams, (she’s since managed another ­reincarnation after being liquidated, following a United Kingdom tour that fell victim to the credit crunch of 2009 that saw the backers pull out).

Prior to the fire, Griffin had been keeping an eye on spiegeltent ­(mirror tent) dinner theatre in ­Germany. “It’s big there around Christmas time,” he says. “There are seventeen tents on the traditional circuit. In winter, they are used for dinner-theatre, and in summer they go on to the festival and carnival circuit where they are turned into dance halls.”

“But in Germany it’s all about the chef, it’s not about the show — that happens at the side somewhere. It’s very posh, very staid, and very expensive.”

Griffin teamed up with the Klessen family and brought a tent to South Africa, and in the process broke the mould, bringing the show centre stage, without losing sight of superb food. “The Germans come to study us now,” he says. “They are amazed at what we can do at a third of the price.”

Madame Zingara first began her travels in 2007. “We started with snake dancers, the Blue Lady — it was a freak show,” says Griffin. “In some ways we are still a freak show. We are carnie people plus fine dining.”

A feature of Madame Zingara is the low staff turnover, particularly noticeable at a time when employees are said to change jobs every one or two years. This employee stability appears to be connected to Griffin’s unusual hiring policy: “Madame Zingara is a great home for waifs and strays,” he says. “If you’ve got a tattoo, maybe fallen a couple of times in your life, then you are our kind of being.

“With ‘alternative’ staff, you have got an opportunity to experiment. Our members of staff are assertive. They are not drones.”

One of those assertive staff members is ex-Maritzburger Lloyd Smith. “I started off behind the bar in Stagecoach and at a bar on the deck at Hilton Quarry, then went to Cape Town where my brother was working for Madame Zingara.”

Smith is now in charge of just about everything in the mirror tent. “I’m the stock bar manager, I work the floors, I manage the retail stock, in fact all the stock on site.”

“Lloyd’s an Excel junkie,” chips in Griffin. Probably a work junkie as well. “Working for Madame Zingara comes with a 17-hour-a-day job description,” says Griffin. “It requires staff loyalty on an extreme other level. Yet people stay. No one is leaving. If we have staff theft, it’s maybe once a year. Sickness seems to be non­existent. So is absenteeism.

“Are ‘alternative’ staff difficult? Yes. High maintenance? Yes. They cost a bit more, but you get a lot more in return. We can’t open resturants fast enough — they all want to be managers.”

The word zingara is Italian for gypsy, and the sense of a close — and nomadic — community is a feature of Madame Zingara. “We eat, shop, and work together, make babies, get married, the couple list is humongous,” says Griffin. “We all go through the good times, the bad times, together. Yes, we do fire people — but you can reapply in three months’ time if you want to, whatever you did.

“Don’t get me wrong, we are strict, we have to be, we are running a ­military organisation here. But do staff feel loved? Yes. If your khaya burns down, are your family there for you? Yes.”

This seemingly free-wheeling approach is underpinned with the usual employment checks and ­balances (“We have an HR manager”), but this is tempered with ­something that goes the extra mile: “We also have a heart manager — we have technical HR for the rules and ­regulations, and a heart manager for what you are as a person. We also have a psychiatrist and a doctor on our payroll.”

Griffin has recently introduced “Our ­Daily ­Credos” to staff — brief affirmative statements on matters such as family, service, accountability and pride. “We recite these every morning, and in the evening just before the show,” says Griffin.

The credo for community reads: “By being part of this family, I ­acknowledge my community each and every day. My presence allows us to contribute to the upliftment and development of our country and community. We acknowledge others’ needs, and give with kindness and love.”

The credos grew out of Griffin’s concern about hospitality in South Africa. “It’s a blessing to be of service,” he says. “But we are getting into a grunt-and-point mentality here. In South Africa we are giving the manual, but not the spirit. But the manual is not working — it appeals to the brain but not the heart. I built up Madame Zingara because I couldn’t work in hotels again — there has to be a better way of managing ­people.”

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