The story of Ocean Basket is one that reads like a script for a block-buster movie, and at the heart of the narrative are four partners: Fats Lazarides, his brother George, George Nichas, and Pedro De Sambento.
Like a coming-of-age story, Ocean Basket came from humble beginnings, faced incredible odds and, through the circumstances that forged its principles of simplicity and value, the business has grown into a
nationally loved brand that’s also growing internationally.
While the official story of the first Ocean Basket begins in April 1995, the back story begins much earlier, shaping the restaurant we know today. Fats Lazarides started out his 20s working for Costa Tomazos, running the Squires Loft restaurant.
He then side-stepped, becoming a shop-fitter. In his late 20s, Lazarides returned to the food industry, opening, selling and losing a number of restaurants, cafés and fast food outlets in what he describes as “a Greek catastrophe.”
Lazarides had learnt a number of hard lessons. At 35, he was working as a store man for Spar where he and his future partner George Nichas – who worked at the fish counter – would speak daily about restaurants and business.
The two, and Fats’ brother George, decided it would be great to open an affordable good old fish and chip store, and it all hinged on this: “If we find a site, we’ll open a shop.”
In 1995 the search began for a site and Fats’ wife, Maritsa, found one in Menlyn Park, a sizeable mall for its day. But at number 40 in the queue they faced tough odds landing it. Fats sat down with the centre manager at the time, Jurie Hausman, and sold him the idea of good value fish and chips (and unique to the first store was a 50/50 split as a fresh fish deli).
“Jurie was sold and he said ‘how quickly can you get to the leasing office?’ I was there in an hour,” Fats recalls. “The head of leasing gave me a five page lease.
I had experienced so much failure prior to this that I was shaking as I gave the lease to our attorney, Cleo Artemides. I asked him if I should be worried about surety. Cleo replied, ‘The only thing they can take is your shoes!’” Despite the head of leasing’s insisting they come back the next day, Fats had a signed and secured lease by the end of the day.
“I was so worried it would slip through my fingers that I made sure everything was done that day. I like to call it ‘productive paranoia’,” he laughs.
On 12 April 1995, Fats opened the doors of the very first Ocean Basket, costing R180 000 to set up and facing the unheard of rental of R16 900 for 80m2, excluding operation costs. The head of leasing was also adamant about protecting her tenants in the centre, so she imposed severe restrictions on the business.
“Our menu was very restricted: we couldn’t sell salads or desserts, we could only have one white wine, one red wine, and a selection of softdrinks on offer. As for our food, we were basically limited to hake, kingklip, sole, prawns, line fish and oysters. Our trading hours were also hamstrung to not past 7pm daily and not past 3pm on Sundays.”
While for some this would have been the end of the business, the restrictions worked in Ocean Basket’s favour. “We realised that our strategy had to be good value, high volume. To achieve this we let our customers bring their own salads, desserts, wines and extras while they enjoyed our R9,99 fish and chips.
And even with the restrictions our six tables were permanently full, orders were flying, and there was always a queue out the door. We paid for the shop in six months flat and things continued this way for five years.”
Within a year they opened their first franchise with friend Donald Smith in the Colonnade. “Our second store was deliberately placed in a mall as our strategy was high volume, high rent.”
Free of the restrictions of the first store, this store had a liquor licence, desserts and salads. They also focused on more of a restaurant feel and did away with the fresh fish deli.
“When we decided to franchise we made the right move by choosing our franchise team carefully and having a solid franchise agreement in place – even if it was originally only five pages. In 1997 we also gave our partner, Pedro De Sambento, a cheque book and good blessings and sent him off to develop the Cape Town area. By 2000 Ocean Basket had grown to 50 outlets, 15 of which were franchised, the rest were company owned with a 30% – 50% operating share with partner investors. “Shopping centres were now also approaching us asking us to set up.”
At face value come 2000, Ocean Basket appeared to be the darling of franchising to the general public, but behind the scenes things were far from it: “We were bleeding, there were fires appearing everywhere, theft, anarchy. Basically all hell had broken loose. We had lost control because it was too difficult to grow and manage a brand as well as so many restaurants,” Fats explains.
“The partners and I knew a change in direction was in order and made a unanimous decision to go 100% franchise. We set about a quick-fire sale of all our crown jewels at a discount price, and within two years we’d sold off all our company businesses. And have never owned one since.” “We realised we had to change our strategy and focus, so the focus then fell on location – the best sites only.”
After righting the ship on the national front, Ocean Basket headed to Singapore in the mid-2000s. “That didn’t go well,” Fats recalls. “We were two South Africans who went over with open hearts and there were two Singaporeans with a cunning plan.
We showed them everything, got them set up, trained them and, before we realised it, Ocean Basket had been stolen from under our noses. We eventually got bought out but it was a big lesson to learn.”
From that first international debacle, the international franchise model changed and Ocean Basket has successfully expanded into Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, Nigeria, the UAE, Mauritius, Cyprus and Zimbabwe (until its economic collapse). “We now have 160 stores, 14 of which are outside South Africa’s borders.”
Expanding internationally has its challenges though, Fats explains. “You have to be aware of your markets and adapt the menu without losing your core values. For example, Cyprus loves octopus on the menu, South Africans won’t touch it, and Europe hates calamari steak.”
To make the expansion a success, Ocean Basket embraced a philosophy of partnership. “We’re not just going to hand over a master licence and hope things work. We’re very tactile: we send over our chef to train their chef, and we look at local customs and how they can be incorporated. Our aim is to keep things as simple and neat as possible.”
“It’s our belief that South Africa can accommodate another 200 stores before we hit a ceiling. Our aim is to make this happen over the next ten years,” says Fats. “We want to grow sustainably and maintain the brand. This means focusing on franchising and distribution.” They’re also putting a lot of energy into expanding their international footprint. “We’re now looking for international players who can be master licencees or become franchisees.”
Fats takes pride in knowing that his franchise model is simple and easy to run: “I have friends with a number of franchises and they always say that Ocean Basket is the one that is the most easy to run because everything is taken care of on our side. When things are looked after, the franchisee can focus on customer attention which is one of our core values.”
Ocean Basket prides itself on being a place for the whole family. This philosophy encompasses the two brothers – Fats and George – in partnership, franchisees bringing their families to their branches to enjoy the atmosphere, but also extends into some of Ocean Basket’s most popular products.
Since day one, Fats’ mother, Liza Lazarides, has provided Ocean Basket with its baklava and kataifi desserts, and tarama and tzatziki dips. While she doesn’t produce for all 160 stores around the country, she operates more than a kitchen hobby, contributing to Ocean Basket’s 240 000 portions of baklava, 25 000 portions of kataifi, and 30 000 servings of dip a year.
At 78, Liza Lazarides’ entrepreneurial spirit is cause for admiration as she shows no sign of slowing down or handing over the reins of her business. Running an industrial-grade kitchen in her home and employing six staff, every single product is made with the care and attention that comes with ‘motherly love’.