The story behind an SA institution
IN an interview in 2005, financial journalist Bruce Whitfield asked the executive chairman of Spur Corporation, Allen Ambor, where the idea for Spur as a Western-themed steakhouse came from.
It was a good question, as for years the Halamandres family has claimed that Spur was started with the know-how of Steers and Famous Brands founder George Halamandres, a fact Allen refutes strongly to this day.
Allen told Whitfield: “There had been a couple of steakhouses in Johannesburg, where I grew up, that had that sort of feel about them. And I decided I wanted to go into that business and live in Cape Town where I had come on holiday. We came down here, but it took me a long time to find premises, two years; and another year-and-ahalf for them to be built.”
Max Rivkind, who was to become Allen’s partner, remembers the holiday that Allen referred to. “A couple of years after starting as waiters at Seven Steer, Arthur [Balaskas] met a Russian girl called Mina, and because she wanted to see her mother who was living in Cape Town, the four of us decided to go there on vacation.” Max says they ate at many steakhouses, “but nothing was as clean and family-friendly as the Steers back home where Allen and I worked”. The idea arose that they would set up business in the Mother City.
Allen says, however, that he got the idea for the steakhouse before that holiday, in 1962-63
In articles about Allen all you hear is ‘I’; people who helped him never received credit
already, when he went to Cape Town on holiday with his first wife, Reina.
He started looking at premises in 1963, and it was only in December of that year that he, Arthur, Mina and Max went on holiday, he says.
Once back in Johannesburg, recalls Max, he and Allen spoke to their friends Georgie and Arthur about plans to open a Steers in Cape Town. “The basis for opening was to sign a franchise agreement with them, but details weren’t discussed,” says Max.
The plan was that he and Allen would be 50/50 partners, but Allen says it never reached that point. Max initially dropped out of the venture and Allen only approached him 18 months later to become involved again.
“I did all the initial research,” says Allen. It took him two years and several trips to Cape Town to find a potential location in Newlands. Only because he then badly needed a partner, did he involve Max again — late in 1965. Max only accepted in December 1966, says Allen, “after I had done all the set-up work alone for almost three years”.
Allen had R4 000 capital in hand, and Max says he equalled that. He had some savings from working in the Seven Steer, and also took a loan of R2 000 from a close cousin, Philip Shulman, and another R2 000 from his father.
Allen got his franchise agreement from Arthur, as he was going to operate the franchise side of the business. Allen recalls that George got cold feet at that stage and discouraged him from signing the lease. “I was a 22-year-old going on 18 and [George] feared for me. But I had to do it, it was my dream and I had put two years into making it happen.”
Allen remembers that he was expecting a lot of help from the Halamandres family, and had an undertaking that nine people would come to Cape Town to help him open the business. But this never happened.
Max explains: “The burden on Arthur and Georgie to deliver was heavy and, in all fairness, they couldn’t deliver. Not because they didn’t want to, but because of logistics and manpower. They weren’t a franchisor in the true sense of the word. It was very early days still.”
“They never helped me when I was trying to find a suitable location,” says Allen. “I don’t want to sound like a martyr, but we could have gone bankrupt if we weren’t so tenacious. I was the leader of the whole thing and we were floundering.”
Allen says he had to sort out the manufacturing of all the equipment, as well as the shop fittings and décor. Finding reliable supplies took a lot of research, as did finding specialised equipment manufacturers, he says.
“Even though the design elements, art and logos were slightly different, the DNA was exactly that of the Steers. You would always know you were visiting the same group,” says Max.
Allen says the DNA was the same only up to a point, because the food items were different. “And the sauces were different, even though they were based on the same recipes.” He also believes that the design was substantially different.
The business was due to open in October 1967 and when Allen came back to Cape Town in August after spending some months in Johannesburg to work and save money, the two of them and friends of Allen’s, Tommy McClelland and his wife Lynn, “got the place together”, says Max. Stanley Adelson, who used to wait on tables with them at Seven Steer, was to help them as a casual waiter.
John Halamandres remembers that a problem arose regarding transporting the sauces from Seven Steer to Cape Town. “Back then logistics were much more complicated than today; railways and aeroplanes were expensive options, and to pre- serve the sauces was a problem.”
He says for this reason they gave Allen the sauce recipes, “which, in hindsight, was unfortunate”.
But Allen says he had had the recipes long before that, and the base materials available in Cape Town tasted different to those in Johannesburg. They had to refine and modify the recipes anyway. “It was nobody’s fault, it was just the circumstances,” says Max.
As for choosing a name for the restaurant, Allen says he bought the name Golden Spur from a coffee company.
Responding to Allen’s claim that he got no help in setting up his steakhouse, Barbara Halamandres says: “Allen certainly had help in Newlands. It was the first outlet in Cape Town so there was no way he had no help. I was there myself.”
Whatever the case, the Golden Spur was a great success and it still exists today.
The second Cape Town restaurant opened in Main Road in Sea Point on January 4 1968. Allen claims the Halamandres brothers arrived in Cape Town only the day before. “They called it Seven Spur because of the Seven Steer name, the mother of all the steakhouses. The restaurant was doing OK, but it wasn’t a huge success,” says John.
Because of the limited help they received with the Newlands restaurant, Allen and Max weren’t happy about paying franchise fees. The franchise fee dispute gave birth to a different deal in Sea Point. “We gave them equity and I was an equal owner with Allen in the second restaurant,” says Max.
George was the initiator and brains of the business in his restaurants, says Allen. “I got on well with him and used to pop in at his office in Johannesburg to say hello.” He admits that George was brilliant at retail, but says the Halamandres family didn’t know how to franchise. “They tried to implement it, but they didn’t know what it took to implement or look after the business.”
Allen says Max, as the accountant, decided to stop paying the franchise fees for Golden Spur after six months, and he was relieved about that.
“Business wasn’t doing great in Sea Point, so it was decided that I would run Sea Point and Allen would run Newlands,” says Max. But he says at this point a lot of conflict arose between him and Allen. “I was going to get married in January 1970, so I decided if he offered me a decent price, I would sell out completely. And after some bitter negotiations I did.”
Shortly afterwards, Allen also wanted to sell up. He says: “I wanted to sell for about 24 hours, because I was overworked. I worked all hours God made.”
By December 1969 it was the end of the road with Spur for Max, but not for the Halamandres family. Max moved to America.
It bothers Max that “in all the articles written about Allen all you hear is ‘I’; that people who helped him never received credit for anything other than ‘just being there’ ”.
Max believes that while Allen has denied or ignored it for years, they started Spur with the intellectual capital of George Halamandres. “The fact is, the revenue stream of Allen’s public company comes from the source of the river, and that was the Seven Steer in Highlands North.”
This is an edited excerpt from the book From Corner Café to JSE Giant — The Famous Brands Story by Carié Maas