Meet the original soul man

Maryanne Maina

Maryanne Maina

In the late 1960's, there were no fast food outlets where you could buy hot wings and this was George Sombonos inspiration to start his fried chicken business.

From mixing the secret Chicken Licken recipe under his bed, Sombonos has grown Chicken Licken into a R600-million a year franchise in a fiercely competitive market.

Sombonos says: "I mixed the spices under my bed at home and swapped the chicken recipe at my father's roadhouse for my new one and our turnover shot up from R25000 a month to R200000 a month.

Sombonos practically grew up behind the counter of his father's cafe where he picked up the business acumen he has applied into making Chicken Licken a success.

"At the age of seven, I was already serving customers on Saturday mornings in my father's cafe. By age 11 I knew the difference between a closed corporation and a (Pty) Limited."

Six years later, in 1981, Sombonos took over the roadhouse and was going to call it Golden Fried Chicken - until a waiter came up with a better name - Chicken Licken.

Because the first shop was on the road to Soweto, many of his clients were black.

Sombonos's courage in serving blacks in their cars, in contravention of the apartheid legislation in 1975, earned him the loyalty of the millions of customers he has today.

"Even Winnie Mandela and Tokyo Sexwale used to come to our restaurant. So it was a logical step to expand our business to black areas," says Sombonos.

"I got my chicken making formula from the US. "

The first franchises Sombonos gave away in a desperate effort to expand were in Soweto and Alexandra. In 1985, he started selling franchises at R3000, but helped every franchisee to get going by giving them R15000 worth of stock.

"As a result, I didn't make much money," he says.

But Chicken Licken has since grown to 220 stores countrywide - 210 are franchised, and ten are company owned. Fifty percent of the franchises are black-owned.

Each store employs about 20 people and customers are roughly 60percent black and 40 percent white. George is confident that by 2010, Chicken Licken will be a billion rand business.