Sombonos learned the trade running his father’s roadhouse – the Dairy Den, in Johannesburg’s southern suburbs. He describes it as “the apprenticeship of hell”. His father was a hard taskmaster, giving nothing away – even to his only son. When George asked for 5% of the profits his father replied: “We don’t share. If you don’t like it, go. I will get your cousin up from Bloemfontein to replace you.”
When KFC opened in SA in 1972 and built an outlet across the road from the Dairy Den, Sombonos noticed the KFC closed every night at 9pm and was making a fortune. By contrast, he worked until after midnight, often fighting off drunks and robbers at 1am. He countered by offering patrolling policemen free coffee, which guaranteed a few squad cars around his restaurant every night but did nothing for his late-night hours.
He needed to get into chicken. In 1972 he visited the United States, where he absorbed everything he could about fast food, reading trade journals and trying out recipes. Then one day in Texas “I tasted the best chicken ever”. He persuaded the owner to sell him the recipe for US$5 000. “I didn’t have that kind of money but eventually I paid him my last $1 000 in travellers’ cheques for something I hadn’t even tested. It was a huge leap of faith. He could have sold me a salt-and-pepper mix.”
Rather too modestly, Sombonos credits that kind of luck with a big role in his success. However, rather like Gary Player he concedes the harder he works the luckier he gets.
Back home, Sombonos mixed the recipe under his bed and secretly swapped it for the existing basting at the roadhouse. Turnover quadrupled in four years. One day his uncle said to his father: “Your chicken tastes fantastic. What have you done to it?” His father replied: “That little bastard must have done something – I’ll kill him.”
Today, he puts his R53m annual marketing budget in the hands of Net#work BBDO – which, ironically, used to handle Nando’s.
After 10 years handling the brand, Net#work has done much to position it as a soul food. Initially a largely black-appeal food, it’s been expanding for six years into CBDs and traditionally white areas – not only to tap the white market but to also continue to serve the black market in its new stamping grounds.
At 62 – or indeed at any age – Sombonos doesn’t plan on retiring, though his daughter Chantal, 33, is his succession plan as she takes more control. He originally wanted to call the business “Golden Fried Chicken” but – another stroke of luck – the registrar rejected the name. A waiter suggested Chicken Licken. The rest, as we’ve seen, is history.