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This caterer’s recipe for success

Published 3 years ago
By Motlabana Monnakgotla

After her husband’s death, Popi Zolas abandoned her corporate career and took on a restaurant franchise, before immersing herself in the catering and confectionery business.


As a cost consultant working in the corporate space, Popi Zolas never thought she would one day be in the catering and baking business. But when life deals you rude surprises, you make plans to make the dough to live it down.

Her husband’s death in a car accident in 1997 resulted in her inheriting shares in the then popular Something Fishy restaurant in Johannesburg that her husband franchised.

After his death, she was thrown in the deep end and had to co-manage his business.

“I worked there for seven years together with a partner and we did phenomenally well but our visions were different and we had to buy each other out; he offered me more than [the amount] I was happy offer him. I exited the group in 2003,” she says.

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 Zolas rested for a while and went into franchise consulting, and then went on to research global eating trends in 2004. The same year, 180 Degrees Catering & Confectionery was born. She named the business after the standard temperature used for baking.

“This baby (180 degrees) is a very difficult baby, but it’s a very rewarding baby in the sense that people who start off as cleaners, end up in either the confectionery or catering department,” says Zolas.

It began as a restaurant in Bryanston, north of Johannesburg, employing 15 people, but has seen some changes over the years.

The initial idea was to create home-style, nutritionally balanced meals for families and corporate employees. Part of the concept was also to make high-end meals that would be convenient.

“I can’t say I was happy being in retail. In 2008, during the global recession, my intention was to franchise 180 Degrees but that never happened because banks stopped financing startups. My lease increased, after almost five years, to R150 ($11) per square meter. I didn’t want to sign a new lease because the cost was horrendous. They were upgrading the building, and we thought we have a substantial following of corporate clients, why not retain those clients and go to a small factory where it’s R29 ($2) per square meter.”

Unfortunately, the following year, Zolas had to retrench seven staff members but was able to retain the rest.

“We had retrenched because we had a limited number of corporate customers and we were going to service that group of customers with the intention of growth,” she says. 

That proved to be a successful strategy as she now employs 79 people at a factory in Wynberg, 12kms from their former Bryanston address.

When they moved into the factory, the business focused solely on corporate catering where food was being delivered to corporates; and business was steadily growing through word-of-mouth.

“If your product is not good, not wholesome, not tasty or without good presentation, you will never succeed, despite the marketing. And word-of-mouth is the most important thing in this industry.”

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Zolas elaborates on her recipe for success.

“I believe the product should speak for itself, customer service should be exceptionally important because our product is a very high-end product. We don’t use preservatives, we don’t use stabilizers and we don’t use enhancers in our products. We use real cream cheese, real butter, our product is a real wholesome creation, and we don’t substitute, I’m very fanatical about detail. We stand out because of that.

 “Now we are growing a very huge private customer base; either they collect or we have it delivered, and that started almost immediately because they see us delivering to corporates and would call and enquire for private functions and that is the spinoff from the corporate work that we do,” Zolas says.

The business reaches the far corners of Gauteng in South Africa. Zolas supplies to coffee shops, hotels, restaurants and caterers who are either short-staffed to produce a particular product or if their orders are too high.

“I keep mentioning growth because I never expected to be where we are now when we moved into this factory. I thought when I reached R1 million ($71,645) the business would be wow, and then you reach it and you think ‘what now’, and then it’s R1.5 million ($107,478) and you watch those figures every day and you’re excited and you’re thinking, ‘will I get to R2 million ($143,304)’ and then its ‘nah, not R2 million’. Now, the turnover is R3.5 million ($250,782). When I started in Bryanston, I was making around R300,000 ($21,495).”

Innocentia Malandisa, who has been working with the company for 15 years, is the only person Zolas trusts with quality control in the catering department.

Popi Zolas in her kitchen. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

“My child was six months when I started, this year she is turning 15. I have worked with Popi ever since and I don’t have complaints. We’ve had hiccups, up and downs, on and offs but we keep on going. I am the chef here and I’ve been chopping onions ever since [I started], even today and I’m enjoying it,” Malandisa says.

Because of the demands of her business, Zolas, 56, does not enjoy much of a social life, but her customers and staff such as Malandisa have more than filled in to become good friends.

There seems to be enough good food and goodwill going around.


The dos and don’ts of franchising

Ulrich Joubert, an independent economist in South Africa, says franchising has its benefits but there are complexities that businesses must consider.

“If you talk about franchisers, it gives people support and provides structure to people who are starting in business. We’ve seen in the past where people lose their jobs and have to do something to stay alive and survive. And so, many people go into franchise and if they have good support, then it helps become successful.”

He avers though that it’s hard work, and you have to be careful about how you do things to provide quality products customers will come back for time and again.

“Quality is of utmost importance and, therefore, skills development, and often if you want to break into the corporate environment, it takes a lot of time and effort to get into those environments.”

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