finweek

The food stall that could

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The MY PLACE Group, which owns market food stall brands Sovlaking Delicious and the Mussel Monger & Oyster Bar, started operating last year. Since then MasterChef Australia’s George Calombaris has enjoyed the group’s food and in September of this year MY PLACE made it into the top six small Western Cape businesses of the Sage One & Cape Talk Small Business Awards. We caught up with founder Kyle Dods.

Kyle Dods is no stranger to running successful small businesses, having run a small construction company and then entering the stretch tent industry, exporting Bedouin tents and the like. The latter saw him and his business partner doing really well, but when Dods relocated to Saldanha Bay on the West Coast, he and his business partner split.

“Because I had run larger small businesses, I was looking for the next big project. I had trained as a chef. My firm belief is that you have to have a skill – no matter what it may be – that you can always fall back onto. It’s like having a savings account,” explains Dods.

So with this skill and the notion of a big project in mind, Dods started toying with the idea of starting a franchise coffee shop brand and calling it MY PLACE.

“I developed an idea that was really cool, and I found a location, but it just didn’t want to work… It wasn’t naturally going through the motions,” admits Dods.

It was in 2015 that Dods’ life partner, Mart-Mari Wicht, who is operations manager at Blue Bay Lodge & Resort in Saldanha, requested a favour that would spark a food revolution in Dods’ life. 

Wicht was running a market at the lodge and realised that she would be short of traders, and asked Dods whether he would be willing to run a food stall on the day.

He did. With R800 he bought ingredients to make souvlaki (a popular Greek fast food) and made a R3 000 return.

For Dods, this was unexpected and Wicht encouraged him to “go for it”.

But really, a food stall? “I was in this phase of thinking that I need to go into the bigger business market.”

But he traded again and made even more, bringing to life the Sovlaking Delicious food stall.

“Eventually I had to start looking for a location. The first market that would accept us was in Hermanus, which is a three-hour drive from Saldanha.”

For Dods, the logistics of operating a food stall at a market is challenging in terms of actually getting there, setting up, trading, cleaning up, packing up and driving back.

But the first trip in his Bantam bakkie to Hermanus proved lucrative and the stall became a regular fixture at the market, with market-goers loving the product.

The recipe for rave reviews

“Within two months, people were specifically coming to our stall on the recommendation of customers that had tried the food,” says Dods.  Even visiting Joburg tourists would come to the stall, saying they had heard of them, according to Dods. 

The traction was unbelievable and about five months after trading started in Hermanus, Dods decided to take Sovlaking Delicious to the Root 44 market in Stellenbosch.

The waiting list for vendors to find a spot at this “supersized market”, as Dods describes it, is a year. However, Dods hustled, and was at the head office “every second day” to book a spot.

After a month of perseverance Sovlaking Delicious was in, trading every Saturday and Sunday from 10:00 to 16:00.

Sovlaking Delicious grew into a business with a permanent staff contingent of seven and a few months after moving to Root 44, became the third-largest food stall “in terms of ability to turnover product”, says Dods.

By refining their systems, Dods realised that the potential to make money really lay in the ability to make one product really well and in large volumes, without compromising on quality.

“It got to the point where we could make a fresh souvlaki in 45 seconds – from baking the bread in front of customers, to filling it.”

Although Dods knew that they were providing an excellent product, he doesn’t think this was the sole reason for making such an impressive dent at the market. “Your product may be great, but people are not necessarily going to buy into it. I think our trick was that we really tried to sell, and entertain people. And we ran a very clean and slick operation.”

Then once market-goers tasted the product, they became return customers. “And they would drive to consume it regularly – every second weekend we would have regulars driving from far to enjoy the food. They were addicted.”

Expanding the menu

Saldanha is of course famous for its exquisite oysters and mussels, and Dods thought that this represented a unique opportunity to expand the MY PLACE Group with another brand. So in December 2015, the Mussel Monger & Oyster Bar opened.

However, the take-off of the second stall wasn’t as rapid as with Sovlaking Delicious. “We thought that by implementing the same sort of model it should work, but it didn’t take off straight away… But we stuck to our guns, maintained the strategy of good service, efficiency and a good product.”

Says Dods: “MY PLACE went from being the initial idea to becoming an administrative company that owns these two brands.”

The last 15 months have certainly been phenomenal.

“What’s interesting (which I discovered through MY PLACE and my past business experience) is that a lot of people have this idea that in order to start a business you need to have R150 000 to R200 000 in capital. What I have learnt out of this is that something as small as just starting a market food stall can turn out to be the most successful thing. All you’ve got to do is just do it.”

With all this success, where to next?

For Dods, it is important to perfect the models that are currently running at Root 44. Once that perfection is reached, it will be the right time to scale, according to him.

In this vein, MY PLACE has turned down a number of offers for expansion because although they would be able to, it would be at the cost of the long-term success since they would be trying to expand while still refining and perfecting the business model. 

They are in talks to move to two seven-day permanent markets in the Western Cape – or food emporiums, as Dods puts it.

As for moving out of the province? That decision is still too far ahead, according to him.

“A lot of people have this ‘infinity goal’. We are looking at where we want this thing to go. How much money do we want to make? How successful do I want to be?”

For him, a scalable model would be four franchises of each of the two brands in the Western Cape, whereby they would find locations that replicate the Root 44 market in terms of demographics and audience. “If that works – great… It’s really up to ourselves to keep making it happen.”

This is a shortened version of an article that originally appeared in the 15 September edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here

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