The magician behind the magic of Zingara

Richard Griffin, the mastermind behind Madame Zingara

How do you create a business out of nothing? And create jobs for hundreds of talented people? And get rave reviews around the world for being a truly South African enterprise? The answer: You use magic.

Leadership magazine caught up with Richard Griffin, the extraordinarily energetic magician who not only conjured up the Madame Zingara experience, but is running five restaurants, a retail outlet and a ‘fashionable’ laundry in Cape Town, while touring Johannesburg with his troupe of extraordinarily talented performers and planning the most outlandishly memorable dining experience yet imagined on this continent.

Where he is now is a far-flung world from the starting point of running away from home at aged 16. But perhaps it’s not so far. Richard has always lived the dreams inside his head.

The wildly extravagant experience that he is giving South Africa is something no textbook could offer. And because there is no textbook, like all natural leaders he set out on a voyage of fun, to entertain his own whims, court calamity, face disaster and rise as a phoenix from the ashes, literally.

To just survive in the world you have to find some way to earn money. For young Richard the first cash-in-pocket came from working in the back of restaurants: in the kitchen, scrubbing pots, washing piles of dishes and cleaning the floors. A good starting point.

That restless spirit that catapulted him out into the world gave an intense hunger to just go out and see the world. “I am the epitome of a travel bum. Just send me anywhere”, he confesses in the interview we had on the balcony of his iconic restaurant, Café Paradiso, in Kloof Street. But with his choice location looking up to the grandeur of Table Mountain filling the sky above us, I seriously doubt if anyone could find a more spectacular location anywhere else in the world.

You have the mammoth Theatre of Dreams, five restaurants, two other businesses and your own staff of around 350 people. How do you manage it all?

It grew. The most important factor is discipline. And fun. I expect it from myself. From each person. Performing their role to exacting principles. I hire people, to start with, for their unique skills. Then they are given the opportunity to expand. I have learnt a lot along the way. By age 20 I was running a kitchen. By 30 I was captured by the wonderful owners of the Mount Grace in the Magaliesberg, who taught me the values of old-school methods, attention to detail, taste and service, and those principles of dedication and living and working to disciplined rules became embedded in me. It’s these qualities that I pass on to my staff and expect the best results, every day. And time spent in London preparing cordon bleu in a five-star establishment added to the experience. The business is run the Richard way: know your own skills, know the people you hire, know the people you serve, your guests, your supply chain; do good business; have values that stem from a good soul and work hard.

You have also worked in restaurants in Sydney, Australia.

Sydney’s people are warm. And Australia has it so easy. But they are so comfortable. There is no bite in them. They call it, ‘The Lucky Country’ – 200 years of peace and prosperity and never a battle on their home soil. Africa is raw. You feel it the moment you arrive. This is the Wild West. It’s exciting. I had to 

come home.

Who would you have run the country?

The CEO of Woolworths.

You are a great example of one person creating wealth out of thin air. Any advice to young entrepreneurs reading this article?

Look at debt. Kill it immediately. Train people to be great. Pay well. Don’t work for the summer – work to be strong in winter, the bad times, the low times; challenge what you have achieved and don’t get into a rut because ruts get deeper. Grow all the time. Train well, step out of the way. It’s all a journey – not a destination. You will be wealthy.

Do you have a big staff turnover?”

No. That’s half our secret. We are a family. Most restaurants have a high staff turnover. We once had a high dropout – 40% of our staff were leaving each month. The cost of replacing them was exhausting – finding new recruits, training them and getting the desired results. So, we sat on the floor, opened some red wine, a few bottles more, and resolved that staff were our main assets.

Now most people stay on for years if they can. Some, like the performers, are contracted for specific periods. But I like to let people expand and explore their talents where they can. The old mantra applies: Be firm. Be fair. Have fun.

I remember your restaurant, or more to the point, the entertainment palace in Loop Street where a girl, with an enormous python wrapped around her, danced her way through the tables then sat on my lap. (I recall little else from that night.) But soon after, the place burnt down. How did you cope?

I knew any success would have to start with myself. No one else was going to help. I needed to look after my staff, pay off my creditors, refocus, re-energise and start all over again. We all believed we could do it again, somehow, somewhere while that burnt out shell was a closed door.

Is that when you started the Madame Zingara Theatre of Dreams experience?

Yes. I found a Belgian family who owned this amazing mirrored tent. We did a deal, set it up in the Foreshore between the elevated freeways and went for broke.

That has become your hallmark. Audiences revel in the experience – good food, snappy service and the incredible talent performing in front of them on the central stage. Where do you find the acts?

All over the world. Mongolian gymnasts, contortionists from Kazakhstan, comedians from Bulgaria. We find incredible talent in the most unusual places.

South Africa also has a wealth of amazing talent, including our crowd stopper of powerfully voiced divas billed as ‘The Specifics’. I search the internet. They send their acts online. I always look for people with agents.

You now have five restaurants; this one (Café Paradiso), The Sidewalk Cafe, The Bombay Bicycle Club, Café Manhattan and Café Mozart. With all this under your belt, what’s next?

Johannesburg’s on the cards. They are wonderful people and hungry for what we give. We never work to a formula or franchise rules – every place is unique. The Theatre of Dreams is now in Gauteng.

In Cape Town there is something wild and exotically new on the cards: a five-storey building, a phoenix rising from the ashes in Loop Street. It’s to be known as ‘Shake Your Honey Mumbai’.

Inside is a giant elephant. Our set designers are making it up in India, we’ll ship it out and assemble it here. It will be an awesome experience. A cavernous room. There will be dining on different levels with superb food. And seating for six people inside the elephant! It is not a restaurant, but an experience, a world that is designed to assault your senses and keeping you guessing with every visit.

Elephants are the only currency that work here and, with elephants in hand, you realise you have justwalked out of South Africa and straight onto the streets of India. ‘Shake Your Honey Mumbai’ will breathe new life into this heritage site.

Royston Lamond


Tent inside final. hi rez.jpg
comments powered by Disqus


This edition

Issue 403


Leadership_Mag "life won’t wait as Africa seeks to re-define itself as a more prosperous and hopeful place in which to do business… 3 days - reply - retweet - favorite

Leadership_Mag The pressure is now on Ramaphosa to deliver and maintain a parliamentary majority in five years #Agriculture… 4 days - reply - retweet - favorite

Leadership_Mag “If You Think Education Is Expensive, Try Ignorance “from Derek Bok – President of Harvard University, March 1978.… 5 days - reply - retweet - favorite