A business with wings

2011-06-25 09:41

George Sombonos is a proud man.

Thirty years ago he was selling Chicken Licken out of the boot of his car and now he owns 230 franchise outlets.

Having been associated with the low end of the market for most of three decades, franchise managing director and founder Sombonos intends to change tack.

“Our growth focus will be on the high-income markets of South ­Africa, like Sandton and Eastgate, because in South Africa we have a loyal customer base and a ­favourable TV presence,” says Sombonos.

Though Chicken Licken has managed to successfully set up ­operations in South Africa and Botswana, it has struggled to break into markets outside its home base.

However, Sombonos says the fried chicken fast food franchise’s growth strategy is focused on its home base.

“No, we are not going to other countries. We want to open more stores in Cape Town, Port ­Elizabeth, Bloemfontein and ­Pretoria, and have 400 stores in South Africa,” he says.

The franchisor tried going across the border, but returned with unhappy memories.

“We went to Zambia, but battled because the quality of the chicken is awful.

We continued in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Mauritius and in all the countries we battled.

“There were outlets in Swaziland, but we had to close shop after our franchisee operator committed suicide and his family could not look after the shops.

“We had one shop in Lesotho, but Maseru is a difficult place to trade. It was a horrible experience,” says Sombonos.

The local growth strategy is ­paying off.

“For instance, our Rivonia ­(Johannesburg) drive-thru outlet is attracting both black and white customers,” he says.

“The drive-thru is so busy that we were forced to install a mobile ordering system, which is used by our employees to take orders ­directly from cars to eliminate queues,” says Sombonos.

A 170m² Chicken Licken store costs R2.8 million and drive-thrus range between R3.5 million and R4 million.

“Drive-thrus are much more profitable than walk-in stores.”

Chicken Licken is also focusing on nurturing its employees so that they have the option of becoming managers.

The franchisor still operates for limited hours, while its competitor, burger-maker McDonald’s, is left to rake in most of the revenue generated from nocturnal customers.

Sombonos argues that Chicken Licken can’t set up 24-hour outlets because the franchisor does not have many drive-thrus.

“Perhaps if we had more drive-thrus we would extend the hours. But the strategy won’t be rolled out immediately,” he says.

Chicken Licken has struggled to attract the breakfast market.

“Fried chicken does not smell good in the morning,” he says.

“Before we sell breakfast burgers, we have to implement a strategy to sell chicken at night and in the early hours of the morning.”

Sombonos says though Chicken Licken only started selling wings in 1993, he was surprised when the sales shot up from 2006.

The sales are now 50% split ­between normal chicken portions and Hot Wings.

“Chicken companies used to put chicken wings in scrap-packs and give them away for free.

But now the companies sell the product in braai-packs and wings are now a ­serious business,” he says.

Chicken Licken plans to ­introduce a 90g Jumbo Hot Wing to add to the current 45g.

Sombonos says his business is addressing health concerns by ­frying chicken at an extremely high heat and using quality oil.

“Fried food can be made to be as healthy as possible by using clean, quality oil that does not have ­additives and trans fat,” he says.

“Our machines, which cook 72 pieces of chicken in 12 minutes, have filters at the bottom.

After every five cooks, the machines go on idle and drop the oil into a filter.

“After four minutes, the oil is pumped back into the machines and cooking resumes.”

Though Sombonos is happy about the growth of his business, he has an axe to grind with the local potato industry as his chips lack crispness.

“The potatoes in South Africa are not as good as in Europe and the US.

If you go to a pub in Ireland, for instance, you are going to find 13 different kinds of solid-quality potatoes,” he says.

“If the chicken or potato is not right, you cannot expect the end product to be different.

“The more solids a potato has, the better quality the chips.

The best potatoes have at least 32% solids, but in South Africa the ­potatoes have about 26% solids,” says Sombonos.

The “60-something” Sombonos brushes off speculation about his retirement.

“I am not retiring any time soon,” he chuckles.

“But in 10 years’ time, I will take a back seat and let my young team run the business.”

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