Obituary: George Sombonos, chicken king who served across the colour bar

04 December 2016 - 19:21 By CHRIS BARRON

George Sombonos, who has died in Johannesburg at the age of 67, started Chicken Licken after bringing back a magic spice recipe from the US.

In 1972 his father, who owned a roadhouse south of Johannesburg, sent him to the US to do research. This involved tasting 12 hamburgers and 20 pieces of chicken every day until one day in Waco, Texas, he took a bite of the best chicken he'd ever tasted in his life.

He invited the owner of the chicken outlet to dinner and pestered him for the recipe. Eventually he agreed to sell it for $5,000, but Sombonos only had $1,000 in traveller's cheques and had to settle for a different, untested recipe.

When he got home he secretly mixed up a batch of the coating, hiding it under his bed before swapping it with the one used at his father's roadhouse. It proved so popular that he replaced the recipe being used at the roadhouse and over the next four years turnover grew from R25,000 a month to R200,000.

But when he asked for 5% of the profits his father threatened to replace him with his cousin. Two years later, in 1980, while his father was in Greece, he renegotiated the roadhouse lease and signed it in his own name. His father didn't speak to him for three months but they reconciled shortly before his death later that year.

In 1981 Sombonos was on the brink of launching a company called Golden Fried Chicken when one of his waiters suggested that he name it Chicken Licken.

It did so well that in 1982, after he had opened franchises in Soweto and Alexandra, KFC took him to court for trademark infringement, arguing that Chicken Licken sounded too much like the KFC slogan "It's finger lickin' good". The judge didn't agree.

The transition from shopkeeper to company executive wasn't easy. He had to learn about phones, hire a receptionist and operate the switchboard. He didn't have an accountant.

He used various ruses to hide the fact that, at that stage, Chicken Licken was little more than a one-man operation. Callers who were put through to Mike in marketing or Peter the accountant never knew that they were talking to Sombonos.

The company's first ads were made for R10,000 and flighted on Bop TV because Sombonos couldn't afford a slot on SABC.

By 1986 Sombonos was doing well enough to hire an ad agency, which suggested using Joe Mafela who was acting in a popular TV comedy series at the time. There was no budget for a studio shoot so the ad was filmed in Chicken Licken's Booysens outlet.

There was no music either. After a few drinks Mafela started tinkling on a piano and came up with what became the popular jingle: "S'good, good, good, S'good, it's nice." It was used until 1998.

Sombonos, the son of Greek immigrants who came to South Africa during World War 2, was born in 1949. By the age of seven he was serving customers in his father's cafe on Saturdays. By the age of 11 he knew the difference between a close corporation and a private limited company, and he knew not to answer the phone when the bank manager was calling.

After matriculating at Potchefstroom Boys High in 1966 he worked full-time at his father's roadhouse, the Dairy Den. By the age of 23 he was running it on his own after his father had a heart attack.

In 1975 he ignored apartheid by serving black customers in their cars. From then on black people were his most loyal customers and the backbone of his success.

Among his earliest customers were Winnie Mandela and Tokyo Sexwale, and Kaizer Chiefs' Kaizer Motaung and his players.

Chicken Licken was classified a township brand, earning it the loyalty of millions of customers. But after 1994 many of them moved out of the townships to the suburbs.

Falling sales prompted him to follow those customers and, despite the opposition of landlords who feared a preponderance of black customers would drive down property values, he opened franchises in the suburbs.

But the outlets began to attract whites too once they realised that the quality of his chicken was not affected by the colour of his clientele. Or his staff, who were mainly black.

By 2013, 259 Chicken Licken was selling more than 400,000 chickens and five million hot wings a month. An important element of his success was keeping abreast of changing tastes, which he did without spending money on market research. Like his father his idea of market research was a trip to the US every few years.

Sombonos, who had cancer, is survived by his wife Dolores and daughter Chantal, who he groomed to take over as CEO.