Shisa nyamas in the townships are a dime-a-dozen.
However, standing head and shoulders above the others is Max’s Lifestyle, a popular traditional ‘shisa nyama‘ establishment, and the brainchild of entrepreneur, Max Mqadi.
In 2016, the shisa nyama, located in Umlazi, KwaZulu Natal, became the first to be included in Conde Nast Traveller magazine as one of the world’s best 207 restaurants.
The accolade lauded Max’s Lifestyle for both its food and its vibe.
The magazine describes Max’s as: “The best place to get braai, amazing South African–style grilled meat. Go on a Friday or Saturday night to hear local Kwaito music.”
The success of the business, according to the Umlazi-born entrepreneur who has been in business for 18 years, came from his almost obsessive pursuit to be unique and putting the customer at the centre of his business.
Welcome to Max’s Joint
The restaurant has come a long way from its humble beginnings as a one-room shack butchery and shisa nyama next to a taxi rank. Now, the business holds its own among some of the county’s most popular restaurants that include Sakhumzi on the famous Vilakazi Street in Soweto, Mzoli’s in Cape Town’s Gugulethu township and Eyadini in Umlazi.
Max’s Lifestyle boasts a unique township experience Mqadi describes as authentic, upmarket and trendy.
The restaurant has touched a chord with both locals and tourists alike who visit to enjoy the restaurant’s traditional meals featuring braai meat with traditional side dishes such as umxabhiso (tripe), amagwinya (fatkoeks) and ujeqe (steam bread).
The Customer at the Centre of Everything
From the smallest to the biggest details, Mqadi’s says his attention is always squarely focused on providing the best customer experience.
“When they [customers] go inside, our welcome, the smile, the food, has to be perfect. It says a lot to hire competent people who are educated in hospitality to make sure that customers are well taken care of. We make sure that we deliver. [Your] food comes to you the way that you want it,” Mqadi says.
Mqadi has chosen to do everything in-house, including slaughtering of the cows, to make sure the quality of the food is of the highest standard.
“We do the production of the food inside here. We prepare the boerewors here ourselves, we mix it ourselves. You can’t get it anywhere. We buy the cow, slaughter and prepare it ourselves. So that makes everything unique,” he says.
Mqadi’s insistence on being intimately involved with every aspect of his business has also been credited as one of the elements that give Max’s Lifestyle that unique touch.
“You will sometimes find him [Mqadi] at the braai stand doing his braaing for his patrons, writes a reviewer, Mbuso Mkhize, on the Famous Publishing website.
Harnessing Umlazi’s Unique Vibe
Max believes that Umlazi is one of the biggest reasons his business has seen the success that it has.
“You know, when you’re talking about Umlazi, it is the biggest township in KwaZulu-Natal. Here, we’re not even selling food, it’s the experience. We are selling the experience that comes with the area we’re in. When you come here, everything will be different, and everything will be unique. Secondly, people from Umlazi, are very warm, welcoming people. And what I did for Max’s Lifestyle as a brand, I tried to make it an institution more than the business.”
On a personal level, Mqadi says growing up in the township and his difficult childhood gave him his greatest asset – street smarts.
“You know that when you grow up in a difficult situation when you grow up going to school without food, when you are going to school without shoes, that thing alone can mean that you’re becoming trained in being streetwise. I’m not educated but I’m very streetwise and I have a passion to anything that I want to do. So I’m always making sure that I am the best and I must be unique.”
His philosophy for success is also grounded on three principles – compromise, sacrifice and discipline – lessons he says he learnt while struggling to make a living in the streets of Umlazi.
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The Dream To Grow Even Bigger
Being recognised as one of the best restaurants in the world, Mqadi’s says, has allowed people to see township businesses differently, but it has also given township entrepreneurs the licence to dream big, he says.
“The township is a very disadvantaged place, can you imagine what Max’s Lifestyle did in the township to be awarded this [accolade]. We didn’t win this award only for Max’s Lifestyle, through sweat and tears and hard work, but it was also for the township. It has led to people in the township thinking that we too can do something amazing.”
The accolade was also a deeply emotional accomplishment for Mqadi personally.
“The recognition makes me feel emotional because when I was starting the business, no one knew what I was hoping to achieve and I think I’ve achieved some of the things that I was hoping to achieve and I’m not done. There’s so much work still left to do,” he says.
His next goal is to build a boutique hotel in Umlazi.
“There’s a bigger plan that is coming,” he says. “There’s parts of Max’s Lifestyle that are going to be developed.”