Kelly, 29, is the proud co-owner of the Full Stop Cafe, a 250-seater restaurant with a mostly Mediterranean menu in Parktown North, Johannesburg. “I basically sacrificed my twenties,” he says as he described the hard work that he had to put into his rise from waiter to owner.
Kelly’s story is also one of mentorship, partnership and some risk-taking, all mixed in with a little luck. He was fortunate to have started at a restaurant owned by an entrepreneur with impeccable integrity.
It often happens, says Kelly, that a restaurant owner would promise up-and-coming managers some shares or ownership in the future as a way of motivating them, only to retract it later. In the case of Craig O’Reilly, who owned the Full Stop Cafe when it was still based in Parkhurst, he not only kept to his promise, but took Kelly under his wing and mentored him on all aspects of restaurant management and ownership.
Once he knew that the restaurant trade was his passion, Kelly studied part-time at the International Hotel School while working at the Full Stop Cafe. In his last year of study, Kelly started managing at the Full Stop Cafe, and it was through O’Reilly’s day-to-day mentorship that he honed his skills.
By 2011, the restaurant needed a face-lift. Kelly identified the property on 7th Avenue, Parktown North, and persuaded O’Reilly to buy the house and relocate the Full Stop Cafe. The risk was that the location was not a known restaurant destination, and they did not know whether the Full Stop Cafe would be strong enough to be a destination in its own right. But the move went well, revitalising the Full Stop Cafe and adding new clients to its already substantial following.
Kelly says the former residential premises lend the Full Stop Cafe a homely, relaxed atmosphere that is unique among Johannesburg restaurants. “Where others try to get customers out as soon as possible, we encourage them to stay as long as possible,” he says.
Shortly after the successful move, O’Reilly announced that he was ready to sell the restaurant, and Kelly approached his friend from childhood, Scott Grant, to come in as partner. They raised some of the finance for the purchase from their families, and O’Reilly agreed that part of the purchase be paid off over a five-year period, during which he would still be available as advisor to the two young restaurateurs.
They also managed to raise finance from Business Partners Limited, the leading small-business finance house in South Africa, after the banks, nervous of the restaurant industry, declined their applications. The loan helped with cash flow by taking some of the pressure off repaying the balance of the purchase price to O’Reilly.
Kelly says even though he has had the opportunity to work on every aspect of the restaurant trade as an employee, it remains quite a different experience as an owner. “There is a whole lot of things happening in the background of a business that you are not normally aware of,” he says.
As manager, his focus was mostly on the operations – the kitchen, the clients and the tables. Now, knowing that he and Grant are ultimately responsible for the cash flow and administration as well certainly adds an edge to the experience.
He finds the uncertainties and fluctuations of the restaurant trade difficult, but it also the reason why he would never swap it for a corporate job. Things constantly change, he says, and he finds the creativity that goes into keeping up with those changes particularly satisfying.
In order to keep things fresh, the two partners regularly swap their operational roles, with one taking care of the kitchen and the other managing the waiters and beverages. They share responsibilities as administrative and financial managers.
The future for the Full Stop Cafe looks bright. For now, Kelly and Grant are keen on consolidating and growing their customer base before contemplating further expansion. Whether it is another move, a second branch or a new brand, the story of the Full Stop Cafe seems likely to end with an exclamation mark.