What does it take to build one of the strongest and most well-known franchises in South Africa? Is it mastering the art of consistency, the use of pure beef patties to make ‘real burgers’ served with hand-cut chips and exclusive sauce or the guidance of a strong leadership team? Steers has combined all of these to become the 522-store strong fast food franchise it is today.
Val Bourdos, managing executive, Steers believes the brand’s vision of creating and offering customers the ‘perfect burger’ is what has made it so successful over the years. She says Steers has always stayed true to its unique taste and maintained a unique selling proposition. For the last 15 years, Steers has won the award for the best burgers and for the last 13 years, the best chips in Johannesburg.
Apart from that, Bourdos says that Steers’ leadership team are good brand custodians and understand branding. ìWe have had some odd requests in the past for things like hot dogs, but the brand has stayed focused. We have to sacrifice some things, but we can’t be all things to everybody.î With marketing and operations expertise the team has seen the growth and development of the brand, she adds.
Where it All Started
With a vision to start a family run business that would outlast the family, Steers founder, George Halamandaris introduced the first steakhouse concept to South Africa after spending five years in the US identifying new ways of serving food. In 1957, Seven Steer was registered as a private company, followed by the registration of Black Steer and Steers in the early 60s.
The first ever Steers store was opened in 1970 by George’s son, John Halamandaris, in Jeppe, Johannesburg. John later joined forces with his four cousins, Panagiotis, Theofanis, Periklis and Charalambous Halamandaris. The early 80s saw the opening of a fourth Steers in Sandton City, which attracted interest from would-be franchisees. The other stores included Yeoville and Bellevue with a central kitchen in Johannesburg.
In 1983, Steers launched a new franchise programme. The owners placed a single advertisement in a local newspaper inviting franchisees to apply, and since then Steers has never had a shortage of prospective franchisees seeking to buy into the franchise. Within two years there were more than 15 outlets opened, and this number grew to 250 stores ten years later. By the end of the 90s Steers started expanding beyond South Africa’s borders, with outlets in Swaziland, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Mauritius, Zambia, Tanzania and Ivory Coast.
Steers Holdings listed on the stock exchange in 1994, but in 2001 Steers Holdings changed its name to Famous Brands to more accurately reflect the diversity of the group’s brand portfolio, although Steers remained the icon brand within the group.
The Franchise ‘Marriage’
ìA profitable and happy franchisee makes a profitable and happy franchisor,î says Bourdos, explaining that this is a philosophy at Steers. She attributes the strength of Steers’ growth to its franchising model. Believing in the potential franchising offers, Bourdos says it is a true partnership. ìThe franchisor conceptualises the brand while the franchisee sets up, manages and runs the store. If they don’t work in sync the company won’t be successful. The partners are interdependent.î She adds that there is a need to respect each other’s roles.
Bourdos says franchising is ideal for someone who wants a business opportunity that they don’t have to think through themselves. ìWith franchising the formula is already outlined for you.î She says it allows the young entrepreneur to invest in a business when they can’t do it alone. ìThe cost of entry is lower and there is lower risk. In the food game, it is a great model if run properly,î she explains.
Steers is 100% franchised, so there are no company-owned stores in the group. Bourdos explains that Steers believes franchised stores are more successful. ìIt’s the best formula because we could never run the stores as well as franchisees do.î An owner operator, says Bourdos, looks after their investment. ìUnlike in the corporate world, you can’t just send out an instruction, you actually have to convince the franchisee of a new plan. They have invested their money in the business, so their commitment is far greater,î she explains.
Becoming a Franchisee
If you are interested in partnering with Steers by becoming a franchisee, you need business acumen and the willingness to put some time and thought into your application. Steers has a specific process for prospective franchisees that starts with filling out an application available from the Steers website. Applicants are required to submit their personal details along with a business plan of about two to three pages. The business plan, explains Bourdos, communicates the franchisee’s objective. They need to explain what they plan to do if they do get a store.
This process separates the serious prospects from those who are just browsing. Bourdos says Steers often receives enquiries from prospective franchisees who want to know more about buying a franchise, but she says many of them don’t actually go through the application process.
Once the application is processed, the prospective franchisee is interviewed. Bourdos says the perception that franchisees need to have previous experience in the food industry is not true. ìOur franchisees include ex-headmasters, corporate executives and really experienced professionals who are fed up with corporate life.
She says Steers looks for entrepreneurs who can work independently and know the responsibilities involved in running their own business. During the interview they will be assessed to determine whether or not they possess good business acumen and relate to the brand. Steers also looks at interpersonal skills to assess whether or not a candidate is a ‘Steers person’ who will fit into the culture. ìWe generally find the right people, but sometimes we do make mistakes.
According to Bourdos, Steers engages with black entrepreneurs as a priority. Up to 25% of our franchisee network comprises black entrepreneurs, and we are very proud of this,î she adds.
Improving the Chance of Success
To give prospective franchisees a good indication of what it takes to own a Steers franchise, full training has to be completed before the franchise agreement is signed. This, explains Bourdos, exposes them to the long hours and lets them get their hands dirty. ìThey really have to love the brand, she quips.
Steers insists that its franchises are owner operated, but Bourdos says that at the same time it is possible for multiple-store owners to employ managers. ìThe success rate of a franchise is higher if the owner is involved in the business. They don’t perform as well if this is not the case.
Training for new franchisees is very detailed, says Bourdos. She explains that franchisees go through the Famous Brands training institute which trains franchisees for all the brands. Here they receive training on financial, safety, hygiene, first aid, customer service and labour relations, which takes a full week. From here franchisees receive specific Steers training which involves actual practical experience in a Steers store. Bourdos says they learn everything about operating a store, including working the cash desk, making burgers, packaging, stock control and point of sale training. A franchisee cannot open unless they have been trained, she adds.
The Right Location, the Right Franchisee
Steers receives applications both from franchisees who are interested in a new location for a Steers outlet and those who want to buy existing franchises. According to Bourdos about 15 to 20 new stores are opened every year.
We always advise applicants that the opportunity for them to enter is mainly through change of hand.î Steers franchises change ownership on about 30 to 35 outlets in a year. Post recession, Bourdos says there was an increase in the number of franchises being sold as the existing owners couldn’t afford to run their businesses. ìWhat we usually see is that when a store isn’t performing well the franchisee is distanced from the business. When a new owner comes in, the business improves, she adds.
When we get an application we won’t talk about plans for a site, but rather focus on the business. When a new site is available we will check our database for applicants who are in that area,î explains Bourdos. If an applicant highlights an available site, she says that they are not guaranteed that they will be the franchisee of that site if they are not the right profile, but there have been cases where the franchisees fitted.
Bourdos says that there are multiple owners of Steers franchises. Interested franchisees are given a second store if they have a good success rate.
Finding What Works
To strengthen the franchisor/franchisee relationship, Steers has a franchise council with a representative from each region. The council is useful for the franchisor to bounce decisions off of and either get endorsement on a decision or feedback from the franchisees who have insight into the operations of the outlets.
Bourdos explains that Steers works with the council and relooks the menu on a biannual basis. We look at what is selling well,î she says. Within its network, there are 70 Halaal stores which only differ from other stores in that they don’t feature any pork on their menus and all product must be Halaal.
Bourdos explains that a few years ago franchisees were given the option to drop fried chicken, sandwiches and breakfasts from their menus as these weren’t ideal. Some of the transient outlets (those located on the national highways) opted to keep these items as they did work in these locations. She says that these two factors could see some differences in the menus offered at stores, but that on the whole the Steers menu was quite consistent, with the main focus being on burgers.
One of the major challenges Steers faced in the past was when the economy was down it saw a drop in sales in some areas. Bourdos says there was a need to look at how to manage this. The franchisor had to advise on what to do. Where stores’ profitability was being impacted, the franchisor stepped in to study the business and identify where cost savings could be achieved.
The Quest for the Perfect Burger
Steers continuously runs thorough training programmes for its staff, including special sessions on the back of house, front of house and what is called ‘hot shots training’ which is when someone is trained up to be a trainer in their outlet. Various campaigns are also run to constantly improve operations. For example, a specialist on staff communication will be called in to assist managers in communicating with their staff.
Each year, Bourdos says, there is a specific focus on one aspect of the business. This year the focus is on creating the perfect burger. Training has been centred on how to grill the perfect patty. The aim is to refresh the skills and knowledge of those preparing the patties. Furthermore, there is also a drive to upsell. Bourdos says staff are encouraged to upsell customers by asking if they would like additional cheese or beverages with their orders.
Steers’ marketing efforts position the brand in line with this vision. Bourdos explains that everything is about creating desire for the perfect burger. The brand is aiming to make its marketing messages real and local.
The rebirth of the ‘Real Burger’
For the fifth time in its 50 year history, Steers is rebranding. In the early 60s the brand had a cowboy theme making use of a lot of leather. Since then the brand has gone through various phases, including the introduction of a brighter orange and purple in the 80s. The brand has continued to evolve throughout the years, but the new look and positioning of the brand is “really revolutionary” says Bourdos. The focus has been totally shifted to the product – ‘Real Burgers’. The pay-off line has changed from ‘Real food, made real good’ to ‘Real Burgers’ to signify this shift.
All newly-built Steers franchises, of which Rosebank was the first, will feature exposed kitchens allowing customers to watch their food being grilled. Bourdos says that creates transparency as well as allowing for more interaction with staff. A number of new standards have been introduced to encourage this, including a hand cleaning routine which happens every 30 minutes. Staff need to spray their hands with disinfectant, clap their hands and then call out “hands clean.”
New-look drive-throughs will also be introduced, and are a totally new take on the drive-through concept. Large glass windows will make it possible for customers to watch their food being prepared.
With the aim of appealing to a more youthful market, the purple used in the Steers branding has been toned down and a more neutral palette introduced. The flame behind the Steers name has also changed to be more of a graphic representation of a flame.
According to Bourdos, the new look was developed responsibly to keep the costs down for franchisees. She says franchisees also have options to lower their revamp costs. For example, if their current floor is still in good condition, they can leave it as is. They can also keep their old tables and chairs, just changing the tops to the new materials.
Making the Changes
Bourdos says it will take between five and seven years for the brand to change the entire network as not all the franchises can change at the same time. Some franchisees, says Bourdos have asked to revamp their outlets before the stipulated time in their agreements.
Buying a franchise
Depending on the size of a site, franchisees can expect to pay from R1,1 million (excluding VAT). There is also a joining fee of R123 500 which needs to be paid immediately. The joining fee covers the cost of training, the drawing up of plans and access to a project manager to set up the store. If a franchisee is buying an existing store this fee will be lower.
To invest in a Steers franchise, you will need at least 50% of the investment to be your own money, while the remaining 50% can be financed. Steers has a relationship with local banks and can facilitate finance for franchisees.