TALKING HEADS: Nando's leads the chicken run in the US
EXPATRIATES in New York have become adept at finding places to go to get their favourite South African staples, such as Mrs Ball's Chutney from Madiba Restaurant in Brooklyn or biltong from Braaitime in New Jersey. But when it comes to Nando's, an extra special effort - one that includes a four-hour car drive (or two-hour express train ride if you're really hungry) - is required.
The Nando's restaurants in Washington DC and the neighbouring state of Maryland have seen their fair share of South Africans pass through their doors. They've also seen a steady flow of locals. With three new stores opening in the past few months, it seems Americans are loving the flavour as much as South Africans do. And MD Burton Heiss says there's more to come.
Since Nando's first opened in South Africa in 1987, it has grown in popularity so much that it now spans more than 900 stores in 24 countries. In 2008, the company decided to branch out into the US, picking Washington DC as its first location because of it being "a strong urban job centre with suburban hubs", says Heiss. It helped that, as an international hotspot, DC provided a base of people who were already familiar with the brand from other countries.
Heiss, a born-and-bred Californian, has been with Nando's for more than two years, after he was head-hunted in 2009. He admits he didn't know much about the brand before he flew from Los Angeles, where he had been living, to DC to meet the head honchos. "But when I walked into the 18th Street store that day, I immediately loved the brand," he says, when we meet at the company's first US outlet, in downtown DC's Chinatown. "The whole experience of being there was different, quirky, cool, unique."
Americans got their first taste of the brand in its first outlet on 7th Street in Washington DC in July 2008. The success of this opening led to the second opening in April 2009 on 18th Street, and two more followed soon after, in nearby Maryland. The outlets have been based on the restaurant model used in the UK but, as Heiss explains, they borrow heavily from the African design and decor seen in the South African stores.
In August last year, the first of three more branches in Maryland opened - in Gaithersburg's Washingtonian Centre, followed by Bethesda Row in October and National Harbor in November. Heiss believes these new outlets are a clear affirmation of the company's commitment to growth in the US.
This growth is in line with the company's five-year aim of having 25 restaurants in the US by the end of 2015. Heiss says Nando's wants to capitalise on its strength.
"Our like-for-like sales are in the double digits. So from a sales standpoint, we are very strong." he says. At the moment, it is trying to source and lock in market number two. "The long term is as big as you can dream."
And what of New York as a location? It's a question many in the Big Apple have been asking during the years Nando's has been operating in the US.
That, it seems, remains to be seen. "The challenges are the same anywhere you go, but in Manhattan they are mostly around cost. The real estate is close to double and it's a union city so the construction costs are doubled too. For the price of one store in New York, we can open 10 in another metropolitan area." But don't count it out completely. "It will probably be in the next phase, in market two, or possibly three or four ."
However this path and journey of growth goes, it's one of the aspects that first attracted Heiss to the company.
"There's been an incredible alignment of values and philosophies on how to run a business. From the start, it went fairly quickly. It has been a good fit for me and for the company too, I like to think," he says.
Heiss believes the core of this is the relationship Nando's has with its customers: "So many companies want to talk about the value they place on the brand rather than the business, but Nando's actually walks the walk and does what it says. It follows up on what it believes."
In that vein, the philanthropic arm of the brand is something else that resonates with Heiss.
At a Unite Against Malaria event in New York in August last year, he talked intently with Kingsley Holgate, one of the initiative's ambassadors. Nando's has been active in its support, especially in assisting Holgate on his 2010 expedition to deliver malaria nets to 12 African countries.
Heiss believes in the Nando's approach towards these initiatives: "I don't know that you can go into a community, expect to benefit from it and not say how can we put back. "
He says the company is always looking for different ways to be involved and create lasting change, whether it is aligning with people such as Holgate or helping to promote a South African band playing in Washington DC. "We're just trying to be part of the community where we can."
The larger community of Americans in general have also responded well to a brand that has its roots in the southern part of Johannesburg. Even if they don't always know that's where it comes from or, for that matter, what peri-peri actually is. "It's a favourite question for South Africans to ask Americans: what do you think of our country?" says Heiss, when I ask him what Americans make of the South African delight.
"It's a phenomenal brand, it truly is. But at the end of the day, it's all about the chicken. And the chicken is great! Americans have absolutely embraced it without knowing that it comes from South Africa specifically or that it has a Portuguese influence.
"They come in and say it's a beautiful space, the food tastes great and there's a good energy, so they have responded incredibly favourably," he says.
That said, there are noticeable touches of Africa in the US stores, whether it is Nelson Mandela's smile beaming down from a picture on the wall or South African band Freshlyground playing on the sound system.
"Africa resonates with Americans. There's an intrigue there so we want to stay true to that and aim for our design to communicate some of that."
But there are some differences and they come in the form of items on the menu one wouldn't find at stores outside the US, such as a chicken wrap with chilli jam and yoghurt sauce.
"That's a huge seller," says Heiss. And his personal go-to Nando's meal? "Ah, that's easy. Quarter chicken, breast, rice and peas. Everyone has their favourite but it's mostly chicken on the bone in the peri-peri sauce that's the most popular. It's all about the chicken!"
Indeed it is all about the chicken - even if you're not South African.
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