by Michele Alexander

Don’t be chicken to succeed

For George Sombonos, founder of the Chicken Licken chain, the sky is not the limit

George Sombonos
GEORGE 5_opt1.jpeg

It was a waiter who told George Sombonos the classic fable, “Chicken Licken”. It is a story about a chicken who believed the sky had fallen after an acorn had dropped on its head. This was the inspiration for the name of Sombonos’ chain of drive-through restaurants.

He has fought tooth and nail to keep his trademark name despite several legal challenges. “I think it’s the best name you could ever get for a chicken chain. I used to sit in bed wondering if I had to change it ... ‘Chicken Nicken’, ‘Chicken Picken’, but nothing sounded like ‘Chicken Licken’,” he relates.

What started out as one shop in 1978 has now grown to 235 outlets over 31 years; Chicken Licken is one of the oldest homegrown brands in South Africa, with an annual turnover in excess of R1.3-billion. The business has increased fourfold in 10 years, and Sombonos predicts that it will be turning over R3-billion in about eight years’ time.

He is a married man with a 33-year-old daughter, Chantal, who is next in line to take over this family-owned business.

However, it is well-known that Sombonos is also married to Chicken Licken. It is perhaps this commitment that is the secret to his rag-to-riches story.

He is the son of a poor Greek tea room owner. His apprenticeship in his father’s business began as a schoolchild, when he was expected to work in the family shop during school holidays. His father, who once suffered the humiliation of bankruptcy, was an extremely hard taskmaster when George began officially working for him in 1968 at his roadside diner called the Dairy Den.

His relationship with his father was turbulent. “He was a difficult man to please,” he says. “I worked long shifts and would barely make it home, falling asleep in my clothes at 01h30. Twice a week I got up at 05h00 to pick up vegetables at the market. My father would pour water on me to wake me up.”

George would have a short break in the afternoon and went back to work until his shift ended again in the early hours of the morning.

He always dreamt of creating a chicken take-away franchise, but others laughed at his idea.

In 1972, his father had a heart attack and at the age of 23, Sombonos took over management of the Dairy Den.

That same year, his father gave him a ticket to the United States, provided he would visit his aunt in Greece on the way back. This experience became the catalyst for his dream. He visited as many restaurants as he could, including McDonald’s and Wendy’s.

While in Waco, Texas, Sombonos tasted the best chicken ever. He invited the owner of the restaurant for dinner and asked him if he could buy the recipe. He took a huge risk, negotiating to pay his last $1 000 for a list of ingredients he had not even tested.

Back home, however, it met all his expectations and he has kept this recipe top-secret to this day. “I haven’t even told my wife!” exclaims Sombonos. “I will eventually tell my daughter which safe deposit box has the recipe.”

He has a secrecy agreement with Robertsons, which has been his loyal supplier from day one; he also ensures his product is Halaal-certified.

Sombonos believes, however, that if someone did manage to crack the secret code, it would not affect Chicken Licken. “Once you build a brand, even if someone tries to imitate you, they will fail against a strong brand and trademark.”

After his trip to the US, he secretly mixed the new recipe under his bed and swapped it for the existing chicken coating at his father’s business.

Sombonos quietly started making internal changes and, in 1975, at the height of the apartheid era, he circumvented legislation by serving black people in their cars – building a strong reputation among “anyone who was someone in Soweto”. Legendary soccer players, the cast of Ipi Tombi, Winnie Mandela and Tokyo Sexwale have all patronised his business.

Sombonos does not put his growth strategy down to marketing foresight. “I did it by fluke,” he admits.

Sales began to increase exponentially. In 1978, when he asked his father for a share of 5% of the profits, his father replied: “You and me, we don’t share.” So Sombonos continued working for a meagre wage.

In 1980, the lease for Dairy Den came up for renegotiation while Sombonos’ father was in Greece. Sombonos signed a new lease – in his own name. “When I signed it, my wife told me we’re going to be killed (by his father),” 
he recalls.

Upon his return, his father refused to speak to him for three months.

But one day Sombonos received a call from his father. “He asked me, ‘What does it feel like to be the boss?’

“‘No’, I said, ‘it’s nice.’

“He said, ‘Now I know you will look after it because you have fought for it’.”

Sombonos eventually made peace with his father, who died three months later. “In some ways, I’m grateful he gave me such a hard time. It made me become better and I almost feared nothing,” he says.

“When I went to court (in later years) with KFC, someone asked me: ‘Aren’t you scared?’ I said it can’t be worse than my father!”

Sombonos gave away his first franchise in 1982 to a customer who owned a garage in Zola, Soweto. His next franchises were in Vosloorus, Wynberg and Lenasia.

He did not have an architect, and his sign writer drew up plans for the layout and exterior of the early Chicken Licken outlets.

Sombonos had eight franchises up and running when he came into direct conflict with his competition KFC, which took him to court, claiming the Chicken Licken name was too close to the KFC slogan: “Finger Lickin’ Good”. He was tied up in litigation for two years before finally winning his case. Ironically, the publicity from the case helped Chicken Licken begin franchising in earnest.

Loyalty has been fundamental to Sombonos’ success. He says that when many of his customers moved into the suburbs, so did Chicken Licken. It has gone from a township brand to a mainstream brand.

The challenge now is choosing the right places to open new franchises. His long-term aim is to grow in the Eastern and Western Cape.

Sombonos has built long-term loyal relationships with his suppliers such as Rainbow Chicken and Robertsons. “I was the first customer of the supplier of my cooking equipment, who now has a very large business. So we have built relationships that are now worth a fortune,” he points out.

He still takes an interest in the details of his franchises, constantly looking for innovative procedures and systems. “When you control a franchise, it has to be a tight ship. It is not a democracy – it’s dictatorial. It has to be that way to ensure standards do not vary. Everything has to be precise. We even have a mayonnaise colour chart to ensure it is exactly the same at every franchise. We even tell them where to buy matches!” says Sombonos with a chuckle.

The menu changes in May each year with the help of consultants in the US, so Chicken Licken’s menu is at the same standard as any of its international counterparts. Sombonos still regularly visits America for inspiration.

Even though he is chief executive, he is very hands-on at his franchises. “I believe you need to lead by example,” he says. “I go into restaurants and pick up papers off the floor and clean tables. Then you see the cashiers and security guards doing the same thing. I believe you should treat people the way you would like to be treated.”

This has ensured staff loyalty and continuity. Many have been with him from day one, including a chip fryer who now trains all staff in the franchises. If one of the outlets breaks a sales record, Sombonos buys a cheesecake and delivers it himself with a personal message. “It makes my store manager and staff feel cared for.”

He goes to work every day at 07h30 and opens the office himself. “Your staff see you setting an example. I’m not this big shot who goes for lunches and has cocktail parties on the premises. My father used to say that when you are at work, you have to respect the shop because it gives us a living.”

Sombonos has built up a culture of profit share at Chicken Licken. “You can’t win the battle without the troops, so it’s important to incentivise them with profit share,” he says.

His succession plan is his daughter. He believes he has a great management team, most of whom are under the age of 40, and they are all on a profit share scheme. “Fifteen percent of the business’s profits go to the heads of departments, which they get on a six-monthly basis on top of their salary and a 13th cheque. I want my daughter to inherit a business where profit sharing is institutionalised and there is a good team surrounding her,” says Sombonos.

Chantal started working at Chicken Licken 10 years ago after completing her degree. Sombonos says his relationship with her is completely different from the one he had with his father.

“From the time she was four, we took her everywhere with us. I was very involved with her school activities. When she was at university in Stellenbosch, she called every Wednesday and asked to speak to me. One of the operators commented, ‘She never wants to speak to her mother!’. That’s the type of relationship we have.”

His philosophy about leadership is simple: “Lead by example. Never regard yourself as a big shot. Money comes and goes. If you can hang onto it, you can regard yourself as very lucky. It’s about relationships with the people around you.”

For now, Sombonos sees himself remaining very involved in the business for several years. “I will leave at the R3-billion mark – that way I know ‘they’ can’t mess it up anymore,” he says with a smile. 
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