Chris BishopBy Chris Bishop|November 1, 2020|7 Minutes|In Billionaire Tomorrow

The Business Born Of A Golden Goose On Life Support

He was the chef who went to bed dreaming of the gold price, these days he has one preoccupation as he drives the roads of Johannesburg – survival. Millions of businesses across South Africa hang on with him in the dark days of the COVID-19 lockdown, if they are lucky.

The falling gold price and COVID-19 haven’t been kind to South African catering entrepreneur Clinton Verhoog and they very nearly killed off his business. Verhoog started out with his catering company Chairman’s Choice, in 2007, making millions serving executives from breakfast to dinner at corporate events. The smaller gatherings covered the costs and the corporate gala dinners, of more than 200 people, delivered the profits.           

In its early days, when the business was based in a humble Johannesburg coffee shop, a stroke of luck opened the way to a golden opportunity. The coffee shop happened to be just over the road from the grand headquarters of Gold Fields, in Sandton, Johannesburg, one of the world’s largest gold producers. To this day, it mines two million ounces of gold-a-year and turns over around $250 million-a-year.

Verhoog decided to apply for a tender, at the headquarters over the road, to run the Gold Fields canteen. It proved successful and led to many other catering jobs at the gold miner. In its heyday, the company was turning over R7 million-a-year, a fortune for a small operation. Gold Fields paid a healthy retainer and made up 50% of the catering company’s revenue.   

“The gold price was going up and the company wasn’t afraid to spend,” recalls Verhoog, a decade later,“ I was probably the only chef in the world who watched the gold price!”

Yet the gold price tumbled killing softly the golden goose that was the Gold Fields contract. Strikes at Gold Fields didn’t help and forced the company to cut back; by2013, the contract with The Chairman’s Choice was over.

Verhoog kept the business on its feet and this year, despite a sluggish economy, was looking forward to turning over R1.2 million in March and April to make up for a slow start to 2020.        

The lockdown of South Africa due to COVID-19 stopped Verhoogs’s business in its tracks. Overnight company revenue dropped to zero. He had to lay off two of his six staff and cut every cost he could find.      

In March, Verhoog felt he could hang on only for three to four months. He wasn’t alone, in South Africa COVID-19 in 2020 nearly five million small businesses were driven to the brink by the lockdown in a country that was to record the continent’s highest number of cases in the pandemic. The South African economy contracted and lost more than three million jobs – more than the population of Botswana.      

“There is no income at all. We were in a very difficult position before the lockdown. If we don’t get anything in the next two or three months we are done,” says Verhoog at the time.

Remarkably, nearly six months later, Verhoog has hung on and managed to survive. The saving of his business has been built around delivering meals to people at home in the lockdown. It is hard graft for  Verhoog who hits the road in Johannesburg every day and drives at least 150 km to deliver food – several times a day he has to go through COVID-19 temperature and security checks on the way to his customers.

“Now, it is just a question of surviving, if we can do that we have done more than many companies in our position. We are fighting every month. It could be worse I could own a restaurant those guys are really taking strain.”

Luckily, many friends and family stood by him, in tough times, buying meals for a few hundred Rand-a- time- many have orders from Monday to Friday. It is a far cry from the glittering corporate balls he hosted of yore.         

“We have still got our heads above water,” says Verhoog from his Johannesburg home, “There has been quite a big uptake friends and family. In the first month of lockdown, we turned over about R100,000, which was amazing considering what we were doing. It is very slow, but we feel extremely busy.”    

“We deliver to take the stress of dinner out for people. It is fun: there are familiar favourites like chicken schnitzel there are huge orders for that. We tried to do something a bit weird like an Asian stir fry vibe, but that didn’t go down too well. On Fridays, we do southern fried chicken and we get massive orders.”

Verhoog, who admits he will be lucky to turnover R2 million, in 2020, was hoping to celebrate his 40th birthday in style this year, but COVID-19 has put paid to that.

“It is a shame, but I am just going to have to wait until I am 41 and have a really big party!”