Sticky Fingers: Entrepreneur inspires students to get their hands dirty
Being an entrepreneur means making the most of every opportunity, and making use of every resource at your disposal – and always being on the lookout for new challenges. That was the story told at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) Entrepreneurship Initiative's 15 April 2014 talk, delivered by Bongani Magama Tungamirai, owner of the popular Sticky Fingers restaurants.
“A few years ago I was sitting in lecture theatres myself,” he said. “As an entrepreneur, I'm grateful for moments like this, that validate the hard work and late hours.”
The 32-year-old Bongani's post-high-school career got off to a shaky start. His father sent him to college in the US, but he dropped out and got a job at a restaurant. He started as a dishwasher, moved to the tills, to grilling. to bussing (wiping the tables), and eventually started waiting – but something was missing.
“Eventually I realised I needed a degree to get anywhere in this world. So I called up my dad, and he gave me a chance to study – in South Africa, where it was cheaper than the US.”
Bongani was accepted at the University of Cape Town and tried to do a good job – his father was paying for everything. But in his second year, his dad died, and the family was fighting for his assets. Bongani had to make a plan.
Food came to his rescue. “Students were on campus at all hours, and the library was open to 10pm – but most of the good places closed by 5pm. I figured everybody selling food at night would make a killing.”
He had a snackwich maker in his res room, and took his remaining money and bought polony and butter and garlic butter. He plugged in the snackwich machine close to the library, along with a menu, a kettle and teabags, coffee and a little bit of milk.
It proved to be popular, and soon Bongani was able to upgrade to a two-plate sandwich maker, and then to four plates. He got hold of Mozoe – a popular juice in Zimbabwe – from Johannesburg and distributed it to other tuckshops on campus.
“As an entrepreneur, you always have to be aware of what you've done, and what other opportunities there are. You have to keep your eyes open.”
After graduation, he got a job as a hedge fund evaluator, figuring out the value of investments. It paid well, but sitting in meetings wasn't for him. “If my soul was chalk on a chalkboard, every day it was being rubbed out a little,” he remarked.
Luckily, the company began hosting Friday get-to-know-your-colleagues sessions, during which they were allowed to sell to one another. Bongani, ever the entrepreneur, got into the spirit of it. He tried selling his girlfriend's jewellery – no luck. Mozoe – didn't sell. But kitchen hot dogs and sandwiches and the like did – and once again he was in the food business.
“My experience in the US and at UCT had gravitated me towards food,” he explained. “It's not what I specialised in, but it's somehow always worked for me.”
His food sold out Friday after Friday. Eventually people started asking why he wasn't just selling food full-time – so he decided to do just that, aiming to create an American grill in Cape Town.
He then drove past a little shop in Observatory, Cape Town, called Sticky Fingers. “I saw an American flag and thought someone had made my ideas real before I could. So I spoke to them, and it turned out they'd launched just three days ago.”
So Bongani started negotiating, and after a month he bought the business. A month later, Sticky Fingers closed down – for one day - to get a TV for the FIFA World Cup. The new Sticky Fingers was launched on 18 June 2010.
The award-winning Sticky Fingers ribs were a happy accident. “I didn't know how to make ribs, but at some point I'd worked as a waiter at the Hussar Grill, and I asked one of my old friends to teach me. He told me how to do the preparation, and to put it in for one hour. I left it in for two by mistake, but I didn't have money to rebuy – so I served the overcooked ribs. The customers loved it – and so our rib style was born.”
Soon people from all over were coming to taste the ribs, and people raved about the relaxed environment and comfy booths. So Bongani kept pushing himself, trying to differentiate his restaurant, trying out new foods like burgers and pizzas and all kinds of new meals with different toppings.
“That's one of the advantages of not being franchised,” he noted. “ You don't have to stick to other people's limits, and you can create and develop your own brand. If you're genuine, people will see that and will want to support you.”
Sticky Fingers has grown from strength to strength, opening a second location in 2013 and a third in 2014. And Bongani has big plans for the brand. One day, he said, it could compete with the greats of South African fast food, like Spur and Wimpy. All it takes is drive, vision, and hard work.