Putting your heart on a plate: Meet the restaurant entrepreneur who says he can’t cook

Monwabisi Thethe describes himself as compulsively competitive because he grew up
always vying for the attention of his busy school-headmaster father. From sporting hero to academic
achiever and now to mentor, entrepreneur and business maverick, Bisi talks about success in the
hospitality game and the need for stories.

A day in the life of Monwabisi Thethe is, he says, like a game drive on safari. Out there, in the
wilderness, you just never know what you are going to spot.

“It’s an adventure, like the Wild West. Maybe you will see a lion, or a hyena, who knows?” he says.
“One thing you do know, the day will never turn out the way you think it will.”

Monwabisi, or Bisi, as he is affectionately known, owns several restaurants and franchises along with
a busy blue-chip advertising agency. His typical day, therefore, starts with the usual business stock-
in-trade: figures, deadlines, ordering stock, checking venues, confirming upcoming events and
activities. But after the basics, anything goes.

“I have a finance and marketing background,” he says, “but what I love most about the hospitality
industry is that it is full of love and passion. You get to be the Picasso of food and beverage. No day
is ever the same. It’s a roller-coaster: one day you are busy, the next day you are quiet: you meet all
kinds of people and you deal with every single possible kind of challenge. I could never, ever be in a
world where life is predictable, and every day is the same.”

Bisi believes that the password for success is ‘improvisation’. He cheerfully admits that he cannot
cook to save his life, and that he does not drink any of the wines and spirits from the wine routes
that he so lovingly talks about as being one of South Africa’s major tourism drawcards. He believes,
instead, that any career or profession will flourish under huge dollops of enthusiasm, improvisation,
and lateral thinking.

“During the COVID lockdown we all had to ‘pivot’,” he says. “That P-word that everybody hates, but
that everyone uses, because that is exactly what we had to do. We had to pivot, and to improvise.
We realised that people were no longer going out to restaurants, so we offered to come and cook in
their homes. Even now, older people have got used to staying at home, the older crowd are no
longer coming out again at night like the younger people, so we are still offering to go into people’s
homes and cook for them.”

The new trend in hospitality, post-COVID, he believes, is all about relationships.
“After two years of people cooking at home, the experience of going out is all about the relationship
with the service provider. People follow chefs, they follow brands, they follow the experience. So
we must put a value on what we do.”

“In this country we don’t realise how much value we add, as people, to our hospitality experience.
We under-estimate ourselves. As a people, we are not good at telling our stories. But that is what
makes hospitality memorable. The food might be good (and we do have good food), the wine might
be good, the setting might be good. But what people will remember, is the overall experience… the
stories we have told them about ourselves.

“If you go into a little bistro in France, the sommelier will tell you a story about the wine. The owner
might tell you about his reason for specialising in his signature dishes. In South Africa, we have so
many stories to tell, people come here for those stories. Tourism and hospitality is about finding
those stories. It is those stories that will change an ordinary experience into a great experience.”


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