Emilia de Sousa is small, but tough. She’s had to be. Founding “Old Fashioned” Fish And Chips, South Africa’s biggest fish & chips franchise, has been a struggle every step of the way. It has been a long and painful road from a tiny corner shop in the east of Johannesburg to 350 stores in South Africa and millions of rands.
It all began when the South American-born de Sousa started helping her uncle in his corner shop as a teenager. De Sousa was from a family of immigrants who came to South Africa from Curaçao Island, on the coast of Venezuela.
The little fish and chips shop taught de Sousa the basics: discipline and hard work. She worked behind the till, mixed the batter, peeled the potatoes, fried the fish and fed her dreams.
“You know when I had this shop, every single day people used to ask me ‘Why don’t you franchise? Can I buy this one?’ and I had this thing in my mind, [that one day] I will franchise because there were so many people [asking for it]”.
She began franchising the business in 2005, after opening her first store 10 years earlier; shortly after the release of Nelson Mandela, when many people were packing up and leaving, fearing new leadership under a new government, de Sousa embraced the change and even attended Madiba’s first birthday in freedom, following his release from Robben Island.
“…When Nelson Mandela came out [of prison] I actually met [him]. I met him at Sacred Heart College… Now I think I should have taken a photo,” she laughs.
At the time when many were skeptical about the incoming government and scared for their safety, she stuck to her adopted country.
“I was never frightened. I have got this thing that ‘when it’s your time, it’s your time. It doesn’t matter where you are’. And this is such a beautiful country we’ve got, I’ve travelled a lot and this country is still the most beautiful country to me,” says de Sousa.
It is a beautiful country, but it was also harsh on young de Sousa. To complicate matters she was a mother at 16.
“As a single mom for 27 years, I [have] also started my life tough. I had to bring up three kids on my own. I never got a cent from maintenance or anything like that. I’m the type of person [who says] ‘Don’t just sit down and cry about it. Do something’.
“I’ll never forget I went to court for maintenance and the [female] prosecutor turned around and told me, ‘You must pay your husband maintenance, he says he is not working’. I turned around and said ‘What a lie… Cheers my friend. Never see me again’. The tears were running down my face I couldn’t believe what she had said to me,” says de Sousa.
Following her divorce, the young mother had begun selling second-hand clothes to make ends meet and it worked out well. Soon she was back to the original plan, opening up her own fish and chips shop like she had once done with her uncle, selling quality food at low prices.
“I don’t believe in ripping people off, if you look around [in a mall], say they are selling their handbags for three or 2,000 [but] nobody is in the shop. But if they had cheaper bags, that are still good [quality], there would be more people in the shop… It’s the same with food, but some people just want to make money.”
One of her problems in the early days was making money.
“I did have very hard times [starting] the business and I used to work hard [trying] to put money together… I remember I went and borrowed money and these people charged me about five times more and I paid them back… I paid them all that money,” says de Sousa.
As the money problems were solved, grim, violent, reality visited her business. A gang of robbers sneaked into her shop and attacked her.
“When I got to work the door was closed, they were waiting inside for me because I had the money. There were three of them, the first one pulled out the gun, the second one ran with the money and the third one stabbed me in the back and just missed my heart,” says De Sousa.
De Sousa almost bled to death, but somehow survived. Through it all, she vowed that there was no time for tears.
When it comes to business, she claims she has the magic touch. A food lover, she says she has never failed in any business that she has started.
Her son Nicholas, Operations and Marketing Director, agrees.
“She might not have our degrees and all that but she can do everything that we do and she does it much better than we do. And I’ve met the likes of the Gordon Ramseys and Richard Bransons, but still, when I look at men like that, and I look at my mom I swear they’ve got nothing on her,” he says.
The next step is to make her business a world-wide brand. Surely, a woman who survived poverty, cheated death, negotiated loan sharks and loneliness would be odds on favorite to do anything.