It was a small, raw, white-tiled Mexican cantina squeezed at the end of a triangular T-junction in New York’s Lower East Side; a scruffy flat-ironed cantina that would easily have been missed if Christa Ansell, a traveling chartered accountant, hadn’t walked past it.
“I love going to places that are little holes in the wall. I am not good with food chains and I don’t like to go to places that are really hyped up about. In New York it’s easy to do that because there are a lot of blogs, there are a lot of magazines. There are so many hidden places you can find walking along,” says Ansell.
It took a snack from this cantina in 2006 to give Ansell the idea to change her life and open her own Mexican restaurant, Perron, in Johannesburg, South Africa.
“It left a little something that said ‘gee I wish we had something like that in South Africa’…It wasn’t the Mexican like I have had [in South Africa], which is nachos with ridiculous amounts of cheese on it or things that are over fried, a generally tasty but incredibly unhealthy meal. There it was with incredible flavors with beautiful fresh coriander and nice margaritas [she is a big fan of tequila as well],” she says.
Ansell’s Perron is a far cry from the street diner in the heart of New York. It is in Illovo, in the well-groomed suburbs of Sandton in Johannesburg; a hip and trendy explosion of pink and green walls, paintings of Frida Kahlo [Mexican artist], and a bar ringed by feathered lampshades with more brands of tequila than are good for you in one night.
“A lot of Joburg is really monochrome and neutral and swish and easy on the eye. I wanted to make this the ‘wake up you’re in a different place and get some life into you’. Mexico has such a rich history and we turn [their restaurants] into swinging bar doors and tumble weeds and sombreros,” she says.
“Mexican food is amazing because it has that whole street-vendor vibe. I love having a lot of tastes of things and having a lot of different flavors. It’s versatile. I have been a vegetarian for several years and it was frustrating to go to a restaurant and have only one option to eat – a mushroom risotto. Because that’s what I had and it killed me. When people get it right it’s amazing but if not it’s just stodgy rice. I wanted to do something that had more than just wild mushroom risotto on the menu.”
Ansell wears a bright red dress, a world away from the grey suits of the boardrooms of New York and London. It’s a dress that hints at her character. Apart from spending time eating out, the rebel at heart has danced at the bottom of the Guggenheim gallery in New York beneath paintings and hummed to classical music at the Museum of Modern Art across town.
Ansell has also backpacked across South America and Spain.
This restaurant was a baptism of fire that could make jalapenos cool. Ansell, who pulled into Africa after driving eight months down from London to Johannesburg with her husband, bought the lease in February 2014. The opening night, in May, was chaotic.
“Five minutes before everyone was coming, we were still drilling holes into the wall and putting up cacti and trying to get the staff all fully-trained. We painted everything ourselves. It was a hands-on thing. It was chaos,” she says.
“Being chartered accountants, we are controlled and orientated. I used to be very client-based in my former jobs meeting CEOs. I am used to long hours. I thought I was going to be fine and there can’t be challenges to working a restaurant. But you are dealing with a broader spectrum of people. Here you are dealing with waiters and waitresses who are younger, who have a different generational way of talking, and who you have to treat differently. You’ve got different cultural expectations. It’s a crazy melting pot of so many different walks of life and ways of looking at life.”
There was also the last-minute name change. They wanted to name it CabrÓn which means friends, but had to change it when they found out a diner in Cape Town had their original name.
“We thought lets register the website and then we found there was another site which had the same domain. So we went to the drawing board. Perron means cool in Mexican slang, or the man. This dude is one of the lucha libre fighters. I just loved him. And because a lot of the décor images are quite feminine I kind of thought it would be nice to have that yin and yang. That’s why we use the Perron man.”
Ansell’s restaurant uses 180 bottles of tequila a month, and 500 Jalapeno chillies a day.
What’s the hardest part of her day? “I think the nature of reviews is quite difficult. I am the kind of person that wants everyone to like me so when I read that someone doesn’t like the food I get quite upset. But it’s a challenge you have to overcome. Not everyone is going to like the kind of food that you are making. I have had a few Mexicans come in and say ‘oh but you are supposed to be authentic’ but we’re not trying to be authentic. We’re just bringing the Mexican stuff we like into Johannesburg.
“As children, my brother had this Mexican alter ego Veektor. We would pretend to have Spanish conversations. It came about that I was called ‘senorita’ by my colleagues. I had a car that had a number plate that was MXE so it was called the Mexican. I suppose you could say it has always been there in the background,” says Ansell.
A year and scores of food reviews later, Perron is flinging out burritos and chilli poppers.
“We opened on a Wednesday and from that Friday we have been basically fully booked. It’s been crazy. It started with two days in advance. Now, on weekends, you have to book a month in advance.”
A far cry from stodgy mushroom risotto.
Masai Ujiri’s dream of harnessing untapped African talent
The President of Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri, on his adoration for Africa as a continent filled with unlimited potential and talent.
The tall man in sport, Masai Ujiri, is a name in professional basketball far beyond the borders of Africa and his native Nigeria.
Born in England but having grown up in Zaria in Africa’s most populous country, Ujiri’s adoration for Africa sees him on the continent often, inspiring the youth.
“Africa is no more afraid. We are not afraid of anybody anymore. The continent is bold. The people are bold,” says Ujiri, when FORBES AFRICA meets him in Johannesburg in November at the Africa Investment Forum in which he participated.
The continent has a special place in his heart.
The President of the Toronto Raptors in the National Basketball Association (NBA), also founded Giants of Africa (GOA) in 2003, as a way of harnessing budding, untapped talent.
“As long as I am in a position where I am able to, we have to give the youth a chance. We have to pave a path for them and there is nothing I can’t do. I have to do everything, it is an obligation, I have to be an example for them by creating that pathway,” he says.
Ujiri, who started playing basketball at the age of 13, travels to Africa every August to visit the GOA camps across seven countries on the continent, training young boys and girls to be leaders in both sport and everyday life.
He says he draws inspiration from each and every country in Africa, and the feeling is inexplicable.
The history and culture are a constant reminder of his years growing up in Africa.
Whether it is in Kenya, where his mother was born, or the lasting friendships in Rwanda, Senegal or Nigeria, each country holds special memories.
Apart from the numerous trips in and out of the continent, 2018 granted Ujiri a rare once-in-a-lifetime moment.
This was in July when Barack Obama, the former president of the United States, visited Kenya, and with him, Ujiri opened a basketball court in the country.
Ujiri’s outreach program GOA launched it at the Sauti Kuu Foundation Sports, Resources and Vocational Centre in Alego; familiar ground for both leaders.
Managed by Auma Obama, Sauti Kuu, much like GOA, is focused on youth development.
“To spend that time with somebody that Africa means so much to, meant so much to me and so much to Auma. We are trying to inspire youth, we built a court that is going to impact the youth and that was special,” says Ujiri.
Being able to scout African talent is what is imperative for Ujiri, and it all comes down to building facilities to help the youth play basketball.
Ultimately, his dream for Africa is not only to see material wealth but for talent to go beyond what he has achieved.
“My dream is to have one of the youth become bigger than me, and bigger than everybody. People think I always dream of building this and doing that but I want one of these kids to take everything that they learn and do better in each and everything.
“I love the continent; I love the culture of different places. I am almost like Anthony Bourdain [the late American celebrity chef], that is how it really is with basketball, with the culture, the people and the food,” says Ujiri.
Staying true to his African roots, when we meet him, Ujiri speaks about his favorite yam and stew dish that he says reminds him of his childhood.
It’s such memories that see him taking the long-haul flight out of Toronto to Africa each year.
Brewing Success: Lessons From A Beer Baron
Canadian John Sleeman shares his entrepreneurial lessons with Africa.
cis not your typical textbook entrepreneur. His belief in what it takes to be an entrepreneur is so controversial that his advice is no longer welcome in MBA classes. The white-haired charismatic brewer, who re-established his family’s brewing business in 1988 as one of the most successful in Canada, offers sage advice to African entrepreneurs, although he has no plans to expand in Africa – yet.
Nonchalantly, in his automated beer manufacturing plant in Guelph, Canada, surrounded by people enjoying his craft beer, Sleeman says he believes entrepreneurs are born, not made. He argues that unless you are prepared to go bankrupt, work over 80 hours a week, lose your friends, face the prospect of divorce, put your house on mortgage and miss meeting friends for drinks on Fridays, then entrepreneurship is not for you.
He should know. This is the toll he took to restart his family business. It had lost its licence and was banned from the market for 50 years in 1933. This was for smuggling beer during the roaring 1920s by brokering deals with bootleggers and gangsters like Al Capone when prohibition set in in Canada.
Passionately, the beer baron, who plans to open a micro-distillery later this year, and is considering expanding his business in either the eastern or western parts of Canada, tells FORBES AFRICA: “If you want to be an entrepreneur, be very focused on what you want to achieve and don’t let people talk you out of it. If it is a dream, pursue it until you are successful.”
He attributes his success to surrounding himself with the right people. They will make or break your business, says Sleeman. You should be ready to change your business model if the current one isn’t working, he adds.
In his own case, he did this after his colleague advised him that rather than opening up new breweries across Canada, he should buy existing ones that share Sleeman Breweries’ crazy passion for beer and authenticity.
Sleeman reckons you shouldn’t grow so big that you lose your entrepreneurial flair, first-mover advantage and risk-appetite, but you also shouldn’t remain so small that you get knocked out of business or get bought out by someone who does not see your vision and wants to dismantle you, as it almost happened to his business in 2006. If you do sell, reminisces Sleeman, sell to someone who sees your vision, like Sleeman Breweries did, when Japanese company Sapporo saved the Guelph-based firm from a hostile takeover.
But that’s history. Since then, Sapporo has helped fund research and development and training for the business, whose humble, down-to-earth founder is now taking it on its next spirited journey.
The Story Of The $3,000 Sneakers
South African artist Conor McCreedy on creating what could be the world’s most expensive sneakers.
A literally stumbled upon a business opportunity.
The renowned South African artist, who only paints in blue,was one day at work in his studio, in a 600-year-old, four-storeyed building in Zurich, when he accidentally spilled some of the monochromatic pigment on to his white sneakers.
Who knew it would lead to a designer line of expensive sneakers.
The artist, resident in Switzerland since 2014, now sells the limited edition sneakers for $3,000 a pair.
What helped that day was that the painting accident was shortly before a meeting with an art collector.
“This art dealer wanted some work for a private collection.I couldn’t get time to put my shoes on, so I went in my sneakers, and this guy just loved them… He opened up to me and said he likes the idea. ‘Try and take it further’, he said to me,” says McCreedy to FORBES AFRICA, on the phone from Switzerland.
After spending four months finalizing the collaboration with an established shoe company, Ludwig Reiter, the concept sprung to life.
A regular pair of their white sneakers sells for $685, but with a splash of McCreedy, it costs almost five times more.
“A lot of people can put paint on sneakers. We are not reinventing the world but putting the McCreedy blue on to a sneaker. It has a value chain,” he says.
Even before its launch mid-November, nine of the 200 limited edition sneakers had been sold to collectors from around the world.
“I love when people say that the splash looks like a kid’s.I actually like that, it has taken me 30 years to create that splash, that is a great story,” says McCreedy.
He adds the handcrafted sneaker will not only appeal to art lovers who are looking to collect, but even corporate titans and banking CEOs,and the uber-chic would want to wear it at cultural festivals.
In Switzerland, ultra-networth and high-networth-individuals are his customers.
“The beautiful part is that the sneakers are backed by my art, and compared to the art, they are relatively cheap,” says McCreedy.
The tranquillity and stability the artist associates with the color blue led to the creation of his own pigment known as ‘McCreedy blue’.
McCreedy has used it to create most of his paintings since 2011.
But building a career through art requires more than just mixing color on canvas.
“Art is always considered a luxury; don’t let anyone fool you when they say it is not luxurious. People don’t just buy art, it is a luxury creation… If Picasso was alive today, he would probably have his own app,” he says.
His art inspired him to create products, from candles to a coffee blend on sale on the ground floor of his studio.
The space is curated so it’s an alluring odyssey for customers.
White walls are adorned with original McCreedy blue paintings, showcasing the artist’s work for prospective buyers, collectors and dealers.
The ‘Essence of McCreedy blue’ forms part of the luxurious elements the artist wants to reinstate in the art world.
It took the artist three years in Zurich, one of the global centers for banking and finance, to convert an old bank building into an atelier and studio. “It’s showing how people view the world through the eyes of an artist. It is about being part of the journey and the experience. It is about feeling what luxury is like,” he says.
Staying true to his African roots, McCreedy draws inspiration from Botswana, Nigeria and South Africa, which he expresses through abstract images.
“I love African and South African art. It is really stimulating for me and as a growing artist, I like to collect whatever I can afford. One day, I will create my own museum and show what I have from different parts of the world,” says McCreedy. Open to exploring more markets, McCreedy wishes to collaborate with African artists. He would not have it any other way.
The world may present the artist with greater opportunities,but it cannot compete with the culture and the spirit of ubuntu [humanity]found in his country of birth, he explains.
“I miss good South African beer, I miss sitting on a Land Rover with no shirt on, drinking a beer. I miss the weather and the locals.”
But wherever McCreedy goes, he ensures his prized pair of sneakers is never too far away.
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