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And so we continue to build

The story of a business reinvention, driven by a sense of purpose

by Matthew Havinga (Pr.Sci.Nat)
Managing Director Fabulous Food and Riverside Country Estate
https://www.fabulousfood.co.za/
https://www.riversidecountryestate.co.za/

7 minute read

Riverside Country Estate began with one-part dream, two parts opportunity, and 3 parts ignorance. Kind of like the recipe for making concrete or perhaps the beginnings of a French souffle.

This venture was brand new and was not built off an existing business, it had no staff, no equipment and we had no prior experience, this was the 3 parts ignorance.  My wife and I, with the invaluable support and backing from her parents took a leap of faith. Our background was that of a BSc microbiologist, two teachers and a Lawyer. We were clearly going to have to reinvent ourselves!

Work began in earnest in early 2012 with a deadline already in sight as we had our first client who perhaps believed in us more than we did at that stage and had booked their wedding for the November of that same year. Apart from the idyllic location on the banks of the Blesbokspruit wetland, the residential property needed a great deal of modification to make it suitable as a wedding and conference venue. This is where the building started, using a local informal builder from the surrounding community and my experiential knowledge of building we began demolishing, modifying and remodeling the property.

People questioned the wisdom of us taking on a venture like this and using a local builder instead of a well-known contractor to take on this challenge. At that point we were in it and decided to go with our decision and follow our passion. The builder, John Mahlangu, recruited the people he trusted and knew including his son Nathi and a few of his friends to help him with this job. John said that it was important for his son to realise that it takes hard work to earn a living and therefore gave him arguably the toughest job on any building site and that is the job of “daga” mixer. Mixing concrete and mortar is no joke and we all pitched in to get things going. I was here that I began to see things emerge that I would not otherwise have seen, I began to see how years of experience and on the job improvisation could hold its own and in some respects outweigh the remote control, office bound expert that sits behind a computer and uses modeling and a computer to try solve on site problems.

We were able as a team to start developing problem solving skills, not that we as individuals did not have these skills but like all teams, individual problem solving is not what is required sometimes. Often solving an organisational or business challenge is not about an individual solution but rather a collaborative effort where one can draw on different ideas and experiences to solve a unique challenge or problem.

Working as part of the team we were able to share our dreams and ideas around what we were building and why. What seemed like arbitrary sharing and chatting soon began to nurture a sense of purpose in the team. As the months went by and the venue started taking shape the couple that had booked the venue came by to see the progress and they were introduced to the team. I introduced the building crew, not as the builders but as the team that was going to make their dream wedding come true. From that moment on the need to manage time, output and performance seemed to fade away as the team became invested in achieving something else other than just the task at hand.

It was here that some of the crew became interested in what it was that we were building and what the business was about. John’s son, Nathi began to show a particular interest …

As the deadline drew near, we worked feverishly into the nights to complete the long to do list as well as to try to plan the upcoming wedding. This was multitasking on another level. In hindsight it was just what we needed, the pressure spurred us on to achieve what other teams and even contractors would not have been able to pull off without incurring some serious budget overruns and paying exorbitant rates. It also left no time for us to dwell on the ever-increasing sense of panic as we were thrust into pulling off something none of us had done before.  Each of us were grappling with our own to-do list and were secretly terrified whether we were going to be able to pull it off. When we were not on site, we were studying decor ideas and reading up on banqueting and cooking for crowds.

The cement trowels were soon replaced by paint brushes and brooms. By now we had built up a very close working relationship with the building team, particularly the youngsters who seemed spurred on by the excitement of being part of something more than just a build, the painting, cleaning, decorating and furnishing was all brand new and exciting. One thing led to another and no sooner had they kicked off their boots, they were being given waistcoats and were hanging decor, fairy lights and rolling out the red carpet. They had gone from the lowest rung job on the building site to polished shoes, a waistcoat, and a bowtie.

The smiles, the pride and the sense of achievement we saw in those young men made every blister, every back-breaking moment, every setback and challenge vanish into thin air and left us with a lump in our throats. They shared in a sense of achievement, they were proud of what we had become, we literally had built a business and here they were standing, nervous and scared, but proud of what they had achieved.

With a little help from some hired staff and a crash course here and there, we managed to pull it off and our first wedding was a success, even if the paint was still wet in one or two spots 🙂

Since then Riverside Country Estate has grown in leaps and bounds adding on features, an open-air terrace, a 700m2 (350pax) hall and an open-air Chapel, we expanded the kitchen and built storerooms. We have planted over 350 trees and have hosted corporate functions, team building events, banquets, craft markets, 100’s of weddings, private functions and celebrations.

Nathi too has grown from those early days and is now our Front of House manager, in charge of  the bars, all front of house staff, decor and set up crew and is in charge of managing the clients front of house experience.

The beginning of this year was no different, we had a full calendar and were booked right through to December and into 2021. And then we all know what happened, Covid-9 !

In a very short space of time what promised to be one of our most successful years became a nightmare. Fear, confusion, cancelations, refunds, lockdown, despair, panic.  We were all facing personal fears regarding our health and safety, we had concerns around how we would survive financially. It soon became very clear that our industry was going to be amongst the worst affected and possibly faced the most protracted road to ‘normality’ and recovery.  Businesses and people soon began to become innovative and whilst this was encouraging it was also depressing in that it felt like we just could not (were not allowed) to do anything. Reinventing yourself is a daunting task and being able to do this in a very short space of time is just not possible sometimes. We did what had worked for us in the past, we turned to each other, the team that had built this business. We made a fundamental commitment that we had built this business together and that come what may we would stay together! We would not be letting anyone go, we would figure something out. Like many others we began chatting via the new virtual meeting platforms and tried to make sense of what was happening and what the future held for us as a business. It felt as if everything we had built had been taken away from us.

It was then that I realised that this was not true. I realised that as a team we had built more than just buildings and structures and a business, we had built trust, honesty, friendships and a family! We had built our own individual skill set, and we had built a collective and creative skillset. We were ready to make sacrifices and do what it takes to use what we have to create something new. We did not need to reinvent ourselves we just needed to focus on what we had as a team to create something that was needed, something that made sense for others, something that represents our passion, our drive and our sense of pride in being part of people’s lives.

Armed with this we started a new business called Fabulous Food preparing high quality, convenient, homestyle frozen meals. Particularly now people wanting to limit their exposure and heed the calls to stay at home, work from home and just limit their interactions in general, this presents them with an ideal solution. We chose this model in that this process ensures that produce can be sourced, cooked and then flash frozen to not only lock in the taste and retain the nutritional value of the meals but also to negate the challenges of contamination and spoilage that can occur when dealing with and delivering warm food. We had the skills, the equipment and the knowhow to make this happen. All it needed was hard work and determination and willingness to succeed against the odds and this we also knew we had ! These changes even ignited new passions and opportunities, our once pastry chef Tamaryn  Guild is now the proud manager of the online store and is managing the sourcing, ordering and distribution of our product and is doing an outstanding job and has expanded her knowledge and skillset.

Fabulous Food is now a stand-alone brand with its own website and online store that was built inhouse. It delivers to the East Rand, Johannesburg and even Pretoria and is receiving wonderful feedback and reviews.

This business has given the team hope, it has once again shown us that together we have what it takes. We have also made the decision to use this quiet time to continue adding to physical infrastructure. John with a small crew is building an addition to our outdoor venue.  This small project is there not just to keep food on the table for a few people but is there as motivation for us all and is a reminder that we will continue and that growing our business does not have to stop. This pandemic and surviving it is not just a physical battle, it is a mental one.

As a team we have built a culture and a work ethic that can be described in the following hashtags

#WorkForIt

Success does not just happen, it takes hard work but when it happens, having worked for it makes it so worthwhile and the sense of achievement is empowering.

#OneDay

This for us represents dreams, it is there to remind us also that these are achieved one day at a time, that if we have a bad day, its ok, it’s just one day but it can equally be a good day to be cherished and remembered.

#WeBuild

Building is positive, it’s creative, it is collaborative, it requires work, dedication and patience.  Whether it’s building and creating someone’s dreams or event, building a  business, a team,  or empowering people, it is a process, setbacks and challenges are inevitable but seeing the bigger picture and believing in the dream make it possible.

This is our sense of purpose and instead of giving up, instead of getting depressed and looking for who or what to blame, WE choose something different … And so we continue to build!

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