Two taxi commuters who went on to become friends and tenacious business partners selling gourmet cuisine out of a food truck.
Look right, look left. You may well be sitting next to your future business partner.
That’s what happened to Hezron Louw, the Johannesburg-based co-founder of Sumting Fresh, on one of his taxi commutes years ago, and one that set him off on another journey altogether in a food truck.
“I met this guy in the taxi. And he was reading a magazine about cakes and we started talking about cakes. And every day for about two and half years, we would meet in the same taxi line and we would talk about food,” recounts Louw, when we meet him at Grant Avenue, a trendy street in the garden suburb of Norwood in Johannesburg.
This is where Sumting Fresh is rustling up and selling taste. The gourmet food company also sells out of a food truck at Johannesburg’s vibrant food markets.
The guy Louw met in the taxi, chef Andrew Leeuw, would go on to found Sumting Fresh with him in 2012. But before that, the friends-turned-business partners had hurdles and hiccups to overcome.
“We had 12 years apart in between before we saw each other again,” says Louw, the self-taught chef and media personality.
Louw and Leeuw grew up in the suburb of Ennerdale four blocks from each other but never met until the day destiny connected them at the taxi rank.
They were students at the time – Louw was studying for a BCom in accounting while Leeuw was studying to become a chef.
Though Louw dropped out of his course to work in the banking sector, Leeuw completed his studies and worked at resorts.
The common ground in their friendship was their deep, abiding love for food.
“One day, I was driving down the road with my brother and I see Andrew. I shout ‘hey my guy’, he shouts ‘hey my guy’. We had forgotten each other’s names,” he says.
They went to have a beer and three months later, Sumting Fresh was born with merely no capital.
“We had a trailer and we would use my brother’s VW Golf to pull it… We were situated at Becker Street in Midrand for about two years,” says Louw.
Armed with no market research, the risk-takers parked their vehicle there in the hope of one day luring enough clients and becoming successful.
Besides their love for gastronomy, all they had between them was R20,000 ($1, 366) and some pots and pans they received from family.
Reality kicked in soon after.
“Yho! It was dismal,” exclaims Louw.
They were selling lunch to middle-income employees for R35 – R50 ($2 – $3) per meal at the time, and their cost price was also as much. They weren’t making any profit.
“Here we were out on the streets selling expensive food at low prices. Our business was a complete loss. Sometimes we would split R175 ($12),” says Louw, reminiscing the cash-strapped days.
Fortunately, they had a support system at home including family members and partners.
“I was literally a working poor person. I was extremely poor!” says Louw.
Things got worse. Both co-founders had children and families to look after.
“The business was on its knees, we couldn’t afford milk, nappies [for the children]; we just couldn’t afford anything.”
But the ambition to succeed was strong.
“What was very fortunate was Andrew and I are very optimistic people. We always knew we wanted Sumting Fresh to work. Even though the situation was depressing and hard, when he was down, I would pick him up, when I was down, he would pick me up,” says Louw.
As they leaned on each other, they learned determination.
“The main reason our business is still around is persistence. We would knock on doors and we would insist on getting customers.
“What a lot of entrepreneurs always miss out on is that they always paint the perfect picture [of their business]. They go out and tell how great things are and how great their businesses are. Then people [potential investors] think ‘why do you need my help’?” says Louw.
Their fortunes changed after an encounter with South African entrepreneur Miles Kubheka, the founder of Vuyo’s selling modern African cuisine.
“He used to have a restaurant in Braamfontein. He was driving past, and tasted our chicken wings,” says Louw.
Kubheka was impressed and approached them to work for him. They kept declining.
“We would say ‘no, we can’t’, we are living our dream. He came every day for three months and offered us a job and money so we would quit Sumting Fresh… But this one day, we were so broke we couldn’t anymore,” says Louw.
They shut the trailer and became employees.
“It was great, there was fire and they would tell us at 1 o’clock, it’s lunchtime.”
It took just three days for them to quit because the feeling of working for someone was “strange”.
This time, their return to business would change their financial fortunes.
“Now you are charged up and you see what is possible… [working for Vuyo’s] was a motivation to push us,” he says. The pair continued to work for Kubheka at Fourways Farmers Market on Sundays, until the idea came to also sell on their own at the food market.
It took three months until they received approval to sell their fried chicken strips with cheese. They were soon shoveling money with a bucket yet it had a hole in it.
They made money at the market and lost it all at Becker’s Street during the week, until they decided to close the store. But this was the beginning of new ideas and business opportunities. They expanded to the Neighbourgoods Market, where they met customers from all spheres of life.
“Where we are from, where we started and what we planned for our business is completely different. We thought we would be street food giants. It took us so long to open our eyes and see that,” says Louw.
They took on corporate clients and yet again made the mistake of expanding when not ready.
“Chasing the money can cost you money… that is one thing we need to learn as entrepreneurs. Not every customer is your customer,” he says.
Sumting Fresh finally found its niche.
It now turns over R6 million ($410,033) annually compared to the R600 ($41) monthly profit seven years ago.
They have parked their food trailers at festivals such as the Bushfire Festival in Swaziland, the OppiKoppi music festival in South Africa, and cater for private parties and corporate companies, in addition to running the restaurant in Johannesburg.
Louw is currently one of the judges for the Standard Bank campaign, My Fearless Next, encouraging budding entrepreneurs to turn their side hustles into their main businesses.
The founders of Sumting Fresh have shown how good company and good food can eventually spice up the bottom line.