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Manny’s Fish Shop is one of those small businesses in my neighbourhood that I’ve been meaning to visit for a long time. Last week, I finally discovered what I had been missing.  I popped in for a piece of hake – soft, tender, layered, moist, delicious!  Why, I wondered, is all the hake I buy not like this?  I decided to wheedle the secret out of the owner, whose name is … you guessed it, Manny (no secrets there!)

As it turns out, I didn’t have to fish too long for the Secret of the Scrumptious Hake because Manny was only too happy to share it.  The difference, according to Manny, lies in its freshness.  Manny sources fresh hake every day (mainly from Hout Bay).  His working day revolves around it.  If the hake arrives at 16h00, he’ll probably be hard at work until 23h00 that evening preparing the fish for the next day.  The dry, powdery texture that you may encounter in other fish outlets usually results from the hake having been frozen – a big no-no for Manny.

Ah, I thought.  I have the Holy Grail.  I too can open a fish and chips shop.

Eeek…slow down there, Suburban Stroller.  As I kept talking to Manny, I realised that there may be more to the success of the business than just the freshness of the hake.

You see, the fish and chips business is in Manny’s blood.  And that is not just because he is Portuguese.  His parents had a fish and chips shop in Belville, and he and his brother opened a fish shop in Kuils River some years back.  And although immediately before opening Manny’s Fish Shop in March 2014 he’d been in the dangerous goods transport business, he could not stay away from destiny (and passion) for too long.

When a franchise fish shop in Imam Haron Road Claremont shut down, Manny saw the opportunity.  He understood the game.  He knew the trade and how to process fish.  And so he could just walk in and start – a massive advantage.

Even so, it took him 2 to 2½ years to get the business on its feet.  Under current economic conditions, it isn’t easy because people don’t go out to eat as much as they used to.  He built his clientele from scratch, focusing on the quality of the fish and chips that is offered.  And that is what Manny and his staff pride themselves on – by keeping it fresh, they believed the customers would come back.

And this has proved right.  Regular customers constitute about 70% of his clientele.  Many of his customers come from local businesses and the surrounding neighbourhoods of Harfield Village and Lynfrae.  And he counts among his regulars some really high profile political figures. Manny’s Fish Shop was recently voted number 1 for Fish and Chips on the Best Thing Ever facebook page.

He has also seen light in the darkness that sometimes befalls us.  He has equipped the business to cope well under loadshedding.  A generator keeps the lights and till going, and he has two gas fryers for the fish and chips.  In advance of scheduled loadshedding, he blanches the chips so that they are easier and quicker to fry.  As a consequence, loadshedding periods are some of his busiest times – although it is not without inconvenience.  The generator does not provide enough power for the extractor fans, so the heat in the kitchen during these times is really excessive.

Another ingredient to the success of the business is simply putting in the effort.  Manny has been at his shop, Monday to Saturday, for the past 6 years, without leave.  The business is open six days a week, and only closes for public holidays on Christmas, New Years Day and Good Friday.  He says he is getting to the point where he needs a break (although if it had been me, that point would have been reached several years previously).  He is training someone who will be able to stand in for him for two or three weeks.

I asked Manny what his advice would be for people wanting to start their own business.  First and foremost, he said, do your homework.  Make sure you have the right location – do some local surveys, look around, watch the public. What is the need?  Does your idea match it?  Have a business plan…if you don’t have one, you will lose all the money you put in. Part of the preparation is also having enough capital to carry you for at least a year.  In that time, you shouldn’t expect to take anything out of the business, because whatever you take out will have to be ploughed back in.

In light of the above, I wondered what made him think he’d be able to make it when his predecessor at the location hadn’t made it.  He said a key differentiator had been that the previous owner had run a franchise.  The franchise requires royalties.  There are also limitations on the suppliers from who you can purchase.  Then the franchise still adds their mark-up.  Being independent, Manny can look for competitive prices and suppliers, without having to ask anyone else’s permission.  This allows him to run his business more competitively.

With all the hard work, according to Manny it is still worth having his own business.  You have the opportunity to make more money than in salaried employment, and there is a whole lot of fulfilment in the bigger range of responsibilities which come with your own business.  Every day brings its own challenges which you must step up to meet, rather than the tendency to fall into a comfort zone when you are working for a boss. 

In addition, Manny loves the fact that he meets new people daily, and that he builds relationships with his regulars.  After tasting his fish, I will be becoming one of them!

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