When Karen Short was 23 years old and living in London, she sent her mother a letter. “She still has it to this day. In it, I tell her that I know exactly what I want to do with my life and that I am coming back to South Africa to open a catering company like no other,” she says.
These turned out to be prophetic words; Karen came back in 1993, started By Word of Mouth Catering and is today the established voice of authority and the leading creative mind in the local industry. She has catered for presidents, royals and celebrities, including Bill Clinton, George Bush, Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Prince Andrew, Princess Anne and Angelina Jolie. But the journey of a thousand mouthfuls started with one small bite. “I came back from the UK and had nothing really except R200 and my red Citi Golf that my father wisely refused to let me sell when I left to go overseas. I was staying with my parents’ friends in Bryanston and I started cooking out of a friend’s kitchen. He’d go to work during the day, and I’d use his kitchen,” she remembers.
Carving a niche
But in spite of her humble beginnings, Karen had big ideas. Those were the days when catering consisted of sad soggy sandwiches and sausage rolls. “You couldn’t get sundried tomatoes or pesto in this country. Putting flowers on a plate was a wild out-there idea,” she relates. With her Prue Leith School of Cooking qualification and experience working for many different catering companies overseas, Karen knew that she could create a niche for herself in the South African market by providing clients with beautifully presented, interesting and tasty food.
Beyond limited resources
However, big ideas are often hindered by small budgets and Karen battled to get off the ground. “I was a one-man band. I remember not having enough money to put petrol in my car, so I walked to the shops to buy sugar. For my first job, my cheque for the chicken bounced!” she laughs. For the business to work, she needed a big job and the first one she got was for MTN Sports.
When asked about her sales strategy, Karen laughs that she didn’t have one: “I sat on the floor with the Yellow Pages and I made extensive use of contacts and friends. I had a friend at MTN and that’s how I landed that client. Then someone else I had met at a ski resort overseas worked for IBM and I landed a huge event there, catering for more than 1 000 people over three days. I was very lucky to have some great people who gave me a chance.” However, being given a chance is one thing. Delivering the goods that impress your clients is another and at this, Karen excelled. ‘It’s all about creativity,” she says, “I think what has made us successful is that we’ve kept reinventing the wheel. And it’s not just new ideas about food – it’s also about knowing what’s fresh from a function and hiring point of view.” Her fresh, new approach to food hit its mark. Word got around and By Word of Mouth got off the ground.
For a couple of years, things went along swimmingly and the business grew steadily. Karen rented and then bought a house in Parkview, eventually adding an industrial kitchen. But as she points out, operational management had never been her strong point. “In retrospect, I wish I had done some sort of business qualification because I didn’t even know what a credit and debit was when I started. Fortunately, I was surrounded by great people who could teach me. And I learned very quickly that the best thing you can do for your business is to hire excellent people who are highly skilled in the things that aren’t your competency,” she says.
The rapid growth meant that more and more of Karen’s time was taken up running the business instead of doing what she loved. “I was no longer enjoying it. Instead of doing food and design I was meeting people about their salaries and performance appraisals,” she says. Not coping, she says she was ready to sell the business. It was then that her husband, Adrian, who had left his job at Dimension Data, came on board to help out. It didn’t take him long to become suspicious about the financial management. “We were due for an audit and I thought some things looked very suspect, so I asked a friend of mine from Dimension Data, Andrew Wilson, to take a look,” he remembers.What they discovered was that the bookkeeper had been robbing the business for 18 months, stealing half a million rand. “I don’t think there was any way I would ever have picked it up,” says Karen. Recognising that Karen needed help, and realising the enormous value inherent in the business, both Andrew Wilson and Adrian Short became partners.
Taking the business to the next level
Adrian says: “I think what Karen did really well was to build an incredible brand that people associated with professionalism, quality and service. It was new and unique and ahead of the curve when it came to new ideas. She had become a trendsetter. So she had really done all the groundwork; she had created a successful catering company. But she was struggling with the operational side of things, so all Andrew and I did was to help her migrate it to the next level. And we freed her up to do what she was best at.”
This set the business on its second growth spurt and diversification into allied sectors. Adrian explains the thinking behind this strategy: “The catering division was the backbone of the company, but I had to consider what would happen to the business if something happened to Karen. I certainly can’t cook! So I wanted to build other lines of business that could stand on their own but that were also symbiotic in nature and could feed off each other.” When Adrian joined, the business was still in the Parkview premises and needed room to grow. “We put in an offer on a Parktown property and it was only then that we realised it included what is now Hazeldene Hall,” says Karen. The Sir Herbert Baker national monument was dilapidated and needed some work.“We thought we’d do it up and use it as a meeting and tasting room, but in the end, because it’s a national monument, we had to hire a heritage consultant for an entire year to oversee the renovations, and we spent so much money on it that we realised we needed to do something more with it,” says Karen. Bearing in mind that many of her clients battled to find suitable venues in Johannesburg, she opened Hazeldene Hall as an upmarket By Word of Mouth venue for events, weddings, exhibitions, launches and corporate functions. By Word of Mouth Hiring, Floral Design and Sports Suites, which caters to the corporate boxes at the big sporting stadiums, followed.
Implementing sound systems
After the experience with the bookkeeper and recognising the need for tighter controls, Adrian set about implementing a number of important systems. “When I joined, there was one diary. The receptionist would need it, then the kitchen, then the events coordinators. So one of the first things we did was to put the diary onto the computer system,” he explains. Realising that the business wasn’t capitalising on the number of leads it was receiving, he also implemented a software system to feed leads to the relevant divisions within the business through a centralised automated e-mail system. “Logistics is everything in this business,” says Adrian, “and systems, coupled with great people, were the key to ensuring that all our events ran smoothly.”
Setting the benchmark
While service excellence has always been a cornerstone of By Word of Mouth’s offering, Adrian recognised the need to formalise it. “After every function, we do a performance appraisal where we phone the client and ask them to rate the food, the function, the coordinator – everything. We don’t accept anything under eight out of 10,” he explains, adding that the system has been enormously valuable in helping them to understand where they are going wrong and what they are doing well.
Hiring the right people
Maintaining a track record of excellent service means having the right people. As Karen points out, there is a worldwide shortage of chefs, particularly in South Africa, and the business faces the constant challenge of having staff poached. “We’re always on the lookout for hot young chefs,” she says, explaining that she would like to start training chefs to help meet the business’s staffing needs. Adrian adds: “We also have to accept that in this industry, talent moves around a lot and chefs are mobile, so people are going to leave. Equally important are our other people, the coordinators and support staff. We recognise that our key resource is good people and we make a lot of effort to take care of them.”
Advice to aspirant entrepreneurs in the catering sector
- People often over-capitalise in this industry and then go out of business. There are peaks and lows in this business; it’s very seasonal, so you can’t rush out and spend lots of money thinking that you’ll be busy for the whole year.
- Focus on building relationships and a clientele base first before you set up costly business infrastructure.
- Passion is what separates great caterers from average ones. You either have it or you don’t, but it’s critical to creating a successful company.
- This business might sound glamorous, but behind the scenes it’s hard work. You cannot underestimate how long the hours are and that this is a very hands-on business. You need to be there to oversee everything. Things go wrong at 2am and you have to fix them. You’ll also be working when other people are playing – during weekends and holidays.
- Surround yourself with experts – don’t hire a bookkeeper, hire a great accountant. Get a labour lawyer to help you with your hiring and firing issues. Don’t scrimp on these important skills.
- There are no short cuts; you have to go through the fire to become steel.
Resources I found helpful
- My husband and his business knowledge
- Travelling overseas to visit other catering companies to see what they were doing
- Studying magazines to keep up with the latest trends