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Spur founder’s taste for life – a searing back story

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Spur Steak Ranches is so much part of the South African landscape, it’s difficult to imagine life without it. So many South Africans have celebrated special moments – especially with kids – in those horseshoe booths beneath the gaze of the Native American chief.

But did you ever wonder how this South African success story began, and did you know that the founder is a Jewish entrepreneur who lost family members in the Holocaust?

Allen Ambor’s new autobiography finally puts this iconic franchise’s evolution into words. Aptly titled A Taste for Life: How the Spur legend was born, it begins with a bang, literally, as he describes almost losing his life on a cliffside in the Karoo. In many ways it was this moment that spurred him to make an impact in the world and grab opportunity with both hands. Ironically, he later describes how holding so many hot plates at Spur meant that his fingerprints were worn away. If anything, this anecdote shows how Ambor threw himself into even the most menial tasks as he built an empire.

The only child of two German immigrants, Ambor’s father lost three siblings and both parents in the Holocaust. Most of his mother’s family survived, except for her sister. “When I was old enough to understand, or at least old enough to listen, my mother told me a story that has stayed with me for life,” he writes. Describing a train making its way through the French countryside on its way to Auschwitz, he writes about the moment a woman slipped her baby through a slat, with a note attached. “The story had the quality of a fable, a biblical parable. It made me think of Pharoah’s daughter finding the baby Moses in the bulrushes. But this wasn’t a fable.”

The woman was his aunt, Judith, who perished with her husband at Auschwitz. Miraculously, the baby, his cousin Jossie, was found and survived. Growing up in Johannesburg’s Highlands North, Ambor had a carefree childhood. But these losses, along with the miracle of his cousin’s survival, weaved their way into his family’s outlook. As he writes about how he tried to find his place in the world, Ambor carries this history and eventually channels it into a dream that makes a major impact. One thriving restaurant wasn’t enough for this go-getter, who conceptualised franchising so that his business could reach all corners of the country.

The autobiography is a rock-and-roll ride through an eventful life and career, delving not only into how Spur became a household name, but how the brand was built with Ambor’s blood, sweat, and tears and the backing of so many people who believed in it. There are stories behind the iconic wooden menus, the beautiful stained glass batik designs, the Indian chief logo, and the flames and food at the centre of it all. Ambor’s passion for people, perfection, and excellence shine through, offering a riveting handbook for anyone wanting to follow in his footsteps.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from his home in Cape Town, Ambor says he decided to write the book “to leave a record of how tough it was” and to record his journey to success with all its ups and downs. He hopes readers will gain life and business lessons at a time when everyone needs a little inspiration.

For him, the “secret ingredient” that made Spur such a runaway success was simply “enthusiasm”. This emerges as Ambor takes the reader behind the scenes of Spur’s humble beginnings. At its essence was joy and delight, which permeated every aspect of the business. And when so many people are cynical, his almost childlike enthusiasm for creating his dream steakhouse may just be the boost that everyone needs to keep going towards their goals.

Along with all the highs there are some lows, and Ambor doesn’t flinch from exploring them. He devotes a chapter to coming to terms with the recent suicide of former Spur Chief Executive Pierre van Tonder, and to the showdown at Texamo Spur, when an argument between two parents caught on camera quickly degenerated into accusations and boycotts. Through it all, Ambor shows that positivity, hope, and connecting with people are key to resolving crises and conflicts.

Ambor has also always understood that nostalgia is a powerful force that drives people to seek out a warm environment that feels like home, and this is what he created for generations of South Africans when they think of Spur. Ambor’s advice to young entrepreneurs in South Africa today is to “be determined. Try to work in a field that excites and fulfils you. Keep your spirits up and your head down, and keep working towards your goals. If you feel useful and fulfilled, you are blessed.”

If going to a restaurant is a distant memory from before COVID-19, Ambor’s book is the ideal avenue for enjoying it from the sidelines. He describes the restaurant as a “theatre”, and the book allows the reader to be both backstage and in the audience of a carefully choreographed dance. There are lights, there are performances, and there’s a lot of action. Amidst the excitement is Ambor – as calm and clear as the yoga instructor that he has since become – describing how it all came together to create a sensation for the senses. It’s a quintessential South African story that we can all be proud of and aspire to emulate.

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