‘I believed I would make it’

2007-12-10 00:00

FROM qualified electrical engineer to being the first black person to own an Italian restaurant in KwaZulu-Natal, Jabulani Mlambo (32) is taking advantage of all the opportunities available to him.

Mlambo, known to his friends as “Jabu”, is the ambitious, proud owner of the Primi Khaya Italian restaurant, which operates under the Primi Piatti international franchise brand, at Liberty Midlands Mall.

In an interview with The Witness last week, Mlambo said that hard work and lots of sacrifice were the keys to his success.

Since opening his restaurant in October 2006, Mlambo and his staff of 40 people have scooped several awards. They won an award in their first month of business for Best Customer Service at Liberty Midlands Mall and this was crowned in February 2007 with the coveted Best Newcomer of the Year award.

He was also one of seven finalists from 170 candidates, in the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business Emergent Young Black Business Owner award of the year.

Formerly from Pretoria and now based in Pietermaritzburg, Mlambo grew up in the Shoshanguve township was and only moved to KwaZulu-Natal when he got accepted at the University of Durban Westville to pursue a career in electrical engineering, directly after matric.

He was introduced to the concept of electrical engineering during his high school years at Jafta Mahlanga High, in Pretoria, where he attended Saturday classes.

“We visited engineering companies and worked for them during our holidays,” he said.

After successful completion of his degree, Mlambo began working at the Durban-Metro Electricity Department as an electrical engineer.

“I loved my job as an engineer, but I was always looking for franchise opportunities,” he said.

After a visit to Primi Piatti at the Gateway Shopping Centre in Durban, Mlambo said he was enticed by the “urban energy and vibe” of the restaurant.

He then conducted five months of extensive research, until he was granted the franchise.

To date, he said, the restaurant has been a “good challenge” for him, especially since Primi Piatti as an international brand, does not advertise via print or electronic media, and advertising is done via word-of-mouth.

In the first year of business he said there were many “ups and downs”, especially “getting people to accept me”.

“Even for me it was a culture shock — a black man running an Italian restaurant!” laughed Mlambo.

He said people were shocked when he left his high-paying job as an engineer to do six months of restaurant training, without a set monthly income.

So what's his special recipe for moving foward?

“To grow you need to start somewhere. Move out of your comfort zones. Sacrifices have to be made. I had to change my mindset,” he said.

He is also a Christian and attends the KwaMashu Christian Centre Church in Durban every Sunday.

“I receive much motivation from the ministry,” he said. In his spare time (when he finds some), he relaxes with his family or opts to watch a soccer match at the Absa Stadium, particularly when his favourite team — Mamelodi Sundowns — is playing.

A modest person and easy conversationalist, Mlambo is a perfectionist who will even get into the kitchen himself to keep in touch with the food side.

As a young child, his uncle, Ben Mohlala, a director at the Limpopo government, always reminded him that he would be the only person to blame if he did not make a success of his life.

His father is one of the people who has greatly influenced his life, said Mlambo. He described him as an “extremely hard worker”, who was employed as a production manager at Blue-Ribbon Bakery in Pretoria, and “even attended work when he was sick because he worried that people would not receive their bread”.

Mlambo added that his mother still works and is not a person who approves of “hand-outs”.

“Growing up I always believed deep inside of me that I would make it, that I would make a success of my life,” he said nostalgically. “Even when I entered competitions, as a child, I already believed that I was the only winner.”

This is a new series called 'Making It', which appears in The Witness and profiles successful young business people in KwaZulu-Natal.

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