The patience to start your own business

Lexi Monzeglio opened the first Lexi’s Healthy Eatery in Sandton in 2018. Within a year, she’s expanded to three branches. But her entrepreneurial journey wasn’t straightforward. Much like the concept of her plant-based restaurant, her success came very organically. finweek sat down with her at her newest restaurant in Rosebank Mall. 

You’re not a chef by training. How did your food journey start?

After finishing my graphic design degree, I started a job in the marketing department of a financial services group. I wanted to eventually become a creative director or start my own agency, because I always loved art and design. 

I hated being at a desk, so one of the outlets I had in my first year of working was starting a food blog. I couldn’t cook at all. One of the only things I could make was brownies. So I ate out a lot, had tonnes of brownies and ended up gaining a bit of weight. My mother even told me I looked like a little bubble! That was the start of me becoming more health conscious. It wasn’t revolutionary; I started making very small changes to my diet and shared some of the recipes I was using on my blog. 

The more I cooked, the more I realised it’s another form of creative outlet and I loved using unusual flavour combinations.

How did it develop from creative outlet to more?

I changed jobs nearly once a year. I gained quite a bit of varied experience and moved up quite quickly as I moved companies. I didn’t have a BCom degree, so I did a project management course at Wits and used that to leverage me into a position as marketing manager, where I could manage events and the marketing team. I loved it because I didn’t have to be at a desk all day. 

All along my food blog had been ticking over. By this time, I loved food and I was also doing freelance food styling and recipe development. The more I did this, the more I thought, “I should do this”. 

Years ago, a friend of mine and I thought of opening a little restaurant together, but it was a pipedream. At the time we thought we’d need to save about R200 000 to make it happen. In hindsight that wouldn’t even have paid for the kitchen.  

So, a restaurant was always at the back of my mind, but it was a total dream.

How did you move into the restaurant space?

Through my freelance work, I started getting more restaurant clients, working on their social media strategy and also getting to know the kitchen processes. By that point I had also – not consciously – effectively gone vegan. I am more comfortable with the term plant-based now as I am far from a perfect vegan. 

All these things just kind of came together and I eventually started working for a start-up meal kit company. I developed over 100 recipes for them. But I realised this was also not what I wanted to do – it wasn’t creative and the recipes I was developing were not exclusively plant-based.   

So, I quit. I had no plan. I had enough money to get me to the end of that month.

Where did you go from there?

I started a food stall. I didn’t know how else to pursue this dream. Because I had no money, this was a cheap way to figure out if I really wanted to do it. The response was great. The stall didn’t make lots of money, but it got the food out there. The amount of work required was insane. It was exhausting, but I loved it and it gave me a lot of insight into the food world.I also ran a number of vegan pop-ups in Joburg. One of my clients at the time was Licorish Bistro and they were brave enough to let me take over the kitchen for my first pop-up restaurant. We were full every day, made a killing and the response was really good. It was the first time I worked in a kitchen. Getting the food out and chatting to people was the happiest I had ever been.

Is that how Lexi’s was conceptualised?

One morning, at Licorish, a customer requested a vegan breakfast. Nobody had a clue what to do so I made him quinoa porridge and a smoothie. He was blown away and immediately wanted to know, “What I was doing with my brand”. “What brand?”, I thought. I was just one person, kind of going with the flow. He offered to help me draw up a business plan. It was something that I could have done on my own, but it always seemed impossible, so I never did it. He coaxed it out of me and before I knew it, I had a fully formed idea for Lexi’s Healthy Eatery. Everything I had been doing up until that point had amalgamated into this one mess of skills that seemed like nothing at the time. But, in hindsight, I was actually learning how to make that pipedream happen.

And then you opened Lexi’s?

Not quite. I found a space in Linden and was looking for a financial partner. At the time my proposal was ridiculous – I was offering a financial backer 15%. If I were an investor, I wouldn’t have accepted that either.So, I decided to do it by myself. When the bank wasn’t very keen on giving me a business loan, I planned to make it happen for much less and just do it through a personal loan.Looking back, I would have crippled myself on the interest alone. My dad has a bit of money, but he wasn’t entirely in the position to take a risk like that, especially on someone who had changed jobs so many times already! Now he’s incredibly proud.Everything was ready to go. I had designed the interior, had a builder ready to start, suppliers etc. But the lease fell through. I wanted some stability, so I started looking for jobs and planned to just carry on with the food stall on the side.

Why didn’t you give up the dream?

I got a call from my now business partner, Ezio Nichele. He had gotten my details through a mutual friend. He was planning to open a vegan restaurant and needed a vegan chef. Initially, I wasn’t sure about the idea, but I met up with him and it turned out that he had known my uncle for 15 years, and had even worked with him for a while, which already gave us a bit of a connection.

He had a concept already, but I was so sure Lexi’s was the right idea for Joburg that I convinced him we should do that instead. 

And that’s how we partnered. We went in 50/50 – me with IP equity and Ezio with the financial capital. 

Your slogan is ‘Eat more plants’. Can you explain your menu?

My vision was to encourage healthy eating. To create a plant-based menu that is accessible and affordable in South Africa. Overseas everyone is doing it. South Africa is almost there, but not quite, specifically not Joburg. 

The few vegan cafés or restaurants that have been around for a while in Joburg have definitely started rippling waves of change, but I think Joburgers are starting to get more serious about their diets and realising sustainability is important, so there’s a bigger gap now. 

Vegan isn’t our only pillar. That’s why our menu works, because we still make a burger and fish, which makes it accessible.

You’ve opened three restaurants in just over a year. Why do you think Lexi’s has been so successful?

We’ve been really lucky in the combination of our skillsets; Ezio from an operational point of view, and me on the food and design side. Lexi’s Healthy Eatery works because the partnership works – and when we apply our different skills to the business, we always consult each other.

Obviously, being the ‘first’ to launch something like this really helped us in terms of building quick success – people are ready and keen for something fresh and different. We also made sure not to position ourselves as strictly vegan – it appeals to a bigger market because people just want to eat healthier and more consciously. In fact, only about 10% to 15% of our clients are even vegan. 

Plans for the future?

Our target is to have five restaurants in the short term – anything from six months to three years from now. This will help us to get a central kitchen on its own premises. We also want to look at starting a retail line that would include our sauces, maybe patties and falafels as well. I also really want to open up an express Lexi’s. One thing I have noticed is that if you don’t force things too much and continue pursuing your goals, things will happen organically.

What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?

One of the things you’ve got to be is impatient and patient at the same time. Keep applying yourself and think that it’s going to happen tomorrow but be okay if it doesn’t. That’s kind of how it was for me. And it was hard because it didn’t happen, but it kind of did in little ways. Only when you’re on the other side and you look back do you realise that those little steps were actually steps. Also, I think the one thing that causes failure is that people think that when it’s your passion it’s going to be easy. It’s not. It’s very seldom easy, even when you love it. But loving it makes it easier.

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Photo Courtesy: Lexi Monzeglio is the founder of Lexi’s Healthy Eatery. (Image: supplied)

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