TLHOMPHO MOKOENA, OWNER OF THE WING REPUBLIC IN BRAAMFONTEIN, JOHANNESBURG, SAYS OPENING HIS EATERY WAS A CLASSIC CASE OF PREPARATION MEETING OPPORTUNITY
How did The Wing Republic come about? In August 2014, I was invited to the Locrate Market in Soweto. This was shortly after I’d left my Brand Manager gig at Metro FM for the National Film & Video Foundation and now had my weekends to myself. I searched the entire market for something meaty and spicy, but found nothing. Being an entrepreneur at heart, I identified this as an opportunity and told my mom about it. A few days later, she came home with a griller and the idea of selling chicken wings came to us.
How did the pop-up business grow from that one market? We made a decent turnover at the first few Locrate markets. A year later, we secured a spot at the annual DStv Delicious Music Festival and from then on, I made branding the business my priority. I’m a marketer before a foodie, so I understood that people buy into brands way before they buy into taste.
At what point did the idea of a restaurant occur to you? While I was still operating from pop-up markets and festivals, people would often ask if they could get our food elsewhere. I decided to take a leap of faith with a restaurant. Profitable as pop-ups are, banks and funding institutions deem them informal.
What has full-time entrepreneurship taught you about money? That every cent counts. I’ve reached the stage where I weigh portion sizes just to ensure I’m not short-changing myself! What sacrifices have you made along the way? In 2016, the business was making a decent turnover and I had a good job as a Senior Marketing Manager at the Small Enterprise Development Agency. I decided to spoil myself with a BMW. After all, I’d been driving my Golf 1 for seven years. Four months into driving this fancy car, I realised I wasn’t generating any money out of it. I was paying a monthly instalment of over R10 000 on a car into which I couldn’t load my stock and equipment for fear of damaging it. I had to pay a hefty bank penalty for returning it.
How pivotal was mentorship in your entrepreneurial journey?
Around the time that the idea of opening a restaurant started growing on me, I attended the 2016 Franchise Expo, where I met the keynote speaker, Greg Solomons, the CEO of McDonald’s SA. After I’d harassed his PA for months, he finally agreed to take me on as a mentee. Our conversations have taught me a lot about systems and bookkeeping. I initially wanted to have an extensive menu, but he made me aware of how that would slow down the kitchen. We recently added ribs, burgers, pasta and a breakfast menu, but the mainstay of our business is still chicken wings. What are your future plans for The Wing Republic? I’d love to open more stores in Johannesburg, expand to a few provinces and subsequently go the franchising route. I want people to crave our food offerings, so – unlike our competitors – I don’t want an outlet on every second corner.
How do you unwind? Downtime’s a rarity in my life, but when I get it, I like to spend it with my wife and three sons.