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Brad Armitage, Rui Esteves, &Union

The Beer Moguls

by Andy Davis / 16.03.2011

As Capitalism is our inescapable paradigm, entrepreneurialism is the buzz word, the blueprint for our young nation’s development. You can sit around and wait for the man to swap out your time for a steady, yet consistent flow of crumbs (and for many, the man never picks up the phone). Or you could take an idea, a little chutzpah, roll it up with some some sweat and elbow grease. Forge it in the fire of experience and ingenuity; long nights, overdrafts, stress, insecurity and pain… you need to be both stupid and stubborn. You persist in the face of overwhelming odds, all the signs tell you to quit, and then, one day, you rub your bleary eyes and whoops! You have a business. Brad Armitage and Rui Esteves, know the drill. At the Design Indaba, last month, these snappy dressing, local entrepreneurial wunderkinds were invited to talk about how to turn your creative venture into a money-making machine. Kah-ching! They should know, they came up with a little concept called Vida e Caffe, sold it when it was time to go corporate and roll out the franchises and ploughed the money into a new concept. A gourmet beer and meat shop called &Union. Locking their sites on the sure-fire African tradition of chisa nyama, phuza ibiya. It’s really spaza shop fare with an uptown twist. Chuck in the gourmet, the imported artisanal luxury beer, the finest cuts of pork and beef, and watch the aspirational set roll in. In so doing they pretty much invigorated South Africa’s micro brewing industry.

Mahala: But before &Union and Vida e Caffé, back in the day, it started with a smoothie and sandwich shop in Durban called, Fressh. How did you get together and decide to open that place?

Brad Armitage: First Andy, can we just check that this thing isn’t going to damn us to Mahala-hell ! You guys have a way of blowing things out of control, and the last thing we need is to be portrayed as a bunch of lager louts trying to pry people away from their productivity, and into a bloated life of beer dependence. Last thing we need is some disgruntled internet socialist, with an axe to grind about anything and everything, filling our inbox with hate mail.

And so to answer your question… London

We were busy with our “military service” in London, like most Saffers. We saw a whole bunch of new, and crazy things, and thought, “hey, that would work in Durbs!” So we tweaked, twisted and “gained” a few ideas from the juice bar/coffee movement that was kicking in there in the late 90’s. Added some freshly baked bagels and bang! Fressh.

What happened to that place?

We sold it off to some guys that where involved with the News Cafe around the corner. They subsequently killed it. Dead. Which is a shame, cause we think it may have been a few years ahead of itself.

How did you come across the Vida idea?

We refined the Fressh concept. Simplified, and focussed on one thing – great espresso. The rest would have to complement that single thing. Moved to Cape Town. Discovered Kloof Street. Made a few friends with other people that were craving a decent shot of coffee, and that was that.

Who did the branding and concept?

We have always been very proud of the fact that we handle all branding and marketing internally. We used a PR company for a press release once – and never again. We’re too fussy.

&Union

Was your aim always to grow it into a big national chain and then sell?

Our aim was to do something world-class. If you walked in there, as a South African consumer, you need to be both proud to take a foreign mate, and blown away at the consistency of the product, the atmosphere, and the service. The national chain thing was inevitable, as soon as people started becoming more demanding of their coffee.

How’d you get from coffee to beer and meat?

Little older, and perhaps looking for a meatier challenge. The fact was (and still is) that having one company control the beer market is not a healthy thing for consumers. We got frustrated with the lack of options, and the fact that we were being force-fed mass produced, sub-par beer.
And after all, its beer!

Do you think &Union would be more successful if the beer was cheaper?

No. I think we would be out of business. The typical system of beer manufacturing does not have the consumer’s best interests at heart. It is all about the middle-men, the marketing campaigns, the parties and yachts and the girls in bikinis. Don’t get me wrong – those are all cool. But we as the consume pay for all of that, instead of what is in the bottle. Brewers & Union has gone about this completely the “wrong” way. We want the beer to be the best – and the rest must find a way of supporting. Our beer is expensive, but we have cut away all the rot, gone to the best producers in the world, and that kind of quality costs.

The beauty is that we can rant and rave all day about the inherint quaility of the beer – but the real “sales pitch” is in the taste. We dare you – drink our beer against “the other stuff”. Then tell us if it is better to drink “better” or “cheaper”…

Why not brew your beer in South Africa?

We just may do. For now though, we are very happy with our breweries and the high standards they produce to.

What’s more important branding or distribution?

Hand and glove Andy – they are both hugely important, and equally as challenging.

What is your brand philosophy?

Rather drink less, but of a higher quality.

What the hell is an artisan?

When people say ARTISANAL we tend to agree – Art can be anal. But that is not what you are asking is it? Artisan means produced with care, to the point that only the highest levels of quality willl be accepted. Produced slowly, with no short-cuts, additives, preservatives – in fact it pretty much means old skool (with a “k”).

&Union

Will you ever make big cash catering to niche markets?

Big cash is a relative term – big cash, to one of the giants of SA beer, is out of the question for us.
Our vision is far more humble (cough). We do believe that South Africa is on the brink of a beer revolution – one that is being led by the consumer, not by big business. As people become more discerning, so their tolerance for rubbish gets less and less, and they demand more from their products. Guys like Jack Black Beer, Darling Brew, Napier, and us are at the start of something big. But we won’t get there on our own – we need the people.

What advice would you give to young South African entrepreneurs?

Learn some patience. Just like Uncle Axl sang… Just a little patience.

What’s the next big thing? Either for you, or in the world in general.

A golf course estate up the West Coast for ex-Middle Eastern and African dictators. Think Soho House meets Mav’s meets a Freemason conference. Serving only beer from other “dictator-like” breweries.

Do you believe in capitalism… or are you guys just biding your time being fabulous while waiting for the revolution?

Revolution my comrade! You are asking this to South Africans – come on! What do those terms mean to us nowadays? They have lost their gravitas. Do yourself a favour and check out Umair Haque’s The Generation M Manifesto. We need a bit of that action in SA.

Do you ever feel guilty supplying premium meat and beer to the rich?

Yes. Then we have a sip… and a bite… and we can’t remember what the questions was… Please repeat.

Do you operate mainly on gut-feel when coming to market with a new concept/idea or do you do loads of back-end research, business and scenario planning?

Intuition, a set of nuts, and a very personal approach to “research” usually does the trick.

What have your experiences in retail taught you about South Africa?

Get used to the word “no”. Learn to use the word “no”. And get ready to wait.

**Check out their talk at the Design Indaba.
**Definitely check Brad’s clothing fetish at Maketh Man.

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RESPONSES (26)
  1. Disgruntled Internet Socialist says:

    Excuse me, why is mahala sucking &Union’s cock?

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  2. Steven says:

    Nice one lads… We are proud

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  3. chicken braai pack says:

    “finest cuts of pork and beef”, my ass! I had a pork prego there a few weeks back and the damn thing was inedible – and horribly overpriced.

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  4. Classy says:

    at least they have been successful once already and are in the process of doing it again.

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  5. matt says:

    Jack Black Beer…Like sucking on a piece of charcoal really terrible beer.

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  6. Happy says:

    Finally, an informational piece on Mahala and not just some mindless prattling! This is good, I would like to see more of the same.

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  7. Beerlover says:

    Not only do these cats do good things with good beer (expensive as it may be) but they support unknown musos and established bands alike with their free wednesday gigs. Good people these.

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  8. Angry communist says:

    Mahala really does know how to waste their time on absolute bullshit articles. These guys literally only cater for the rich kids of Cape Town running from Kloof St to Clifton, or the complete idiot hipsters who waste their well earned rental cheques on a night out to &Union. Vida Cafe was the only company these guys made bucks off, &Union is just a complete failure. But their beer is good though, I won’t lie.

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  9. AT says:

    like this a lot. whether you dig the guys and their businesses or not, you gotta give them credit where it’s due. and there’s no debating that they nailed the coffee market in sa, and are making waves (in cape town at least) with &union. and they clearly love every minute of it. rather than slate them, or the article, i reckon there’s plenty to be taken away from this interview and their success story; would’ve been great to dig a little deeper into their business models and approach, although probably not the right forum for that. nice one.

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  10. Nissim says:

    Nice place, great staff, superb beer… just a pity the taste of the beer gets ruined by the wafts of singeing carcass coming from the braai.

    What a pity is that they will never become powerful or threatening enough to challenge the big boys’ hegemony.

    It is a pleasure to see South Africans enjoying real beer for once.

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  11. Dplanet says:

    I’m not sure &Union is that expensive, especially the Bucket O’ Love (R100 for 3x .5L beers). Practically giving it away!

    It’s not like there’s a shortage of cheap places to buy beer in Cape Town if that’s your thing.

    Viva &Union! Viva Brad & Rui!

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  12. Mathew says:

    These guys, there beer and establishment are the business man!

    Free live shows every Wednesday?? If you want real beer pay for it! Otherwise go have another shitty mass produced sab…

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  13. YsterHart says:

    That Generation M Manifesto is worth a read. Pinch of salt obviously, but still.

    Hey, too many of us cling to some form of permanent employment, leaving our personal projects for some fictional period when it will be ‘safe’ to do them, so I salute these guys whatever their agenda.

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  14. Itchy says:

    GO GO @UNION – Good stuff

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  15. Dan says:

    Great interview – thanks Andy.

    @ Brad & Rui – keep it up guys, fantastic beer and vibe. Correct me if im wrong but I heard something about your staff being largely ex-cons if thats true then props to that too.

    Can’t wait till you start brewing locally – would be awesome to bring some of the skills your overseas brewers have over and teach them to locals.

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  16. Rare.Golden.Collectables says:

    “Hey, too many of us cling to some form of permanent employment, leaving our personal projects for some fictional period when it will be ‘safe’ to do them,”

    So so true. Im one of those people

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  17. Bee says:

    Note to self: Need to do this when I’m next in CT. Love your vibes guys!

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  18. BM says:

    Nice. I like &Union, although I choose hours when the tragically coiffed are not jamming the place up with their fixie bikes and pointy shoes. The staff are top notch and many sourced from the crumbling empire of Vida, which begs the question why you didn’t ask these guys what they think of the current state of that creation? Better yet maybe get Grant Dutton to answer a few pertinent questions in your next market related piece Andy?

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  19. JM Koet$ee says:

    LOL @ ‘trafically coiffed’. Good one.

    I like B&U beer and can understand why it’s expensive (haven’t been able to afford any of their other beers). I feel the food’s pricy and the crowd pricky. A pity that the crowd doesn’t get the workerist tendencies in name and label design, and that the workers can’t afford these workerist tendencies.

    I wish I had more money to drink that beer more often. Can one buy it by the case at a lower price?

    Also, Vida-e on Kloof will always be pretentious, but I guess the pretentious peeps also want to drink good coffee. But still, if I’m somewhere in the CBD and have forgotten about Deluxe, I always have my coffee at Vida-e. It’s like the said man said: the place itself has an international feel, but it’s not pretentious in itself. And Vide-e in general still makes the best machiatto in town. And it doesn’t have a pretentious name like ‘Truth’, where a machiatto is turned out as a mini cappucino. Not the same thing. I’ve also drunk at Origin, blah blah. So, I know my coffee and I know pretentiousness or ‘gourmet’ taken to anal levels.

    So, I have time for what these two do.

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  20. Dplanet says:

    I go to &Union quite often and don’t consider myself ‘pricky’ – the people who go there seem quite normal to me (but I guess I would think that if I was a prick). The staff are super-friendly, cool and efficient. The music nights do have hipster tendencies (depending on the bands) but you can hardly complain when the music is free. Generally it’s a very relaxed place.

    I enjoy everything from scummy Irish sports bars to ghetto taverns – the only places I really can’t stand are generally in Camps Bay – these are the truly awful, pretentiously elitist bars. &Union is nothing like any of them, even if it is a bit more expensive than average.

    I can’t understand why people keep getting hung up about the price as though it’s everyone’s right to be able to afford anything they want. It’s not like &Union sell themselves as some kind of communist utopia, on a mission to nourish the world. At least you’re actually paying for the product, not an ‘attitude’.

    The Bucket O’ Love is R100 – that makes the beer 16% more expensive than your average Heineken. It definitely tastes at least 16% better. It’s much cheaper when you take it away too.

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  21. Agent S says:

    Biggie-up’s.

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  22. Dan says:

    WAKE UP YOU FOOLS!

    These guys are just marketing men! ‘Their’ beer is imported from Germany – 8,500 km away! All they do is stick their own labels on it.

    And they have the cheek to claim to be ‘supporting South Africa’s artisanal breweries’.

    It’s like me importing polar bear meat from Norway then claiming to be “revitalising South Africa’s sadly neglected polar bear meat industry”

    I admit that there’s a lack of decent beer in this country. But if you look around you can find some good, local stuff. Drink that. It’s LOADS cheaper and you’re not lining the pockets of a couple of spivs, one of whom likes to wear clothes with off centre zips.

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  23. Anonymous says:

    what about local breweries?
    Not some guys who import a product and try cover all the overhead costs of their trends?

    Andy just likes to do features on his successful friends.

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  24. Anonymous says:

    it’s like how the LMG always mentions Arnolds, The Shack and Mercury, in every issue.

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  25. Ralphie says:

    Ha ha check out all the haters

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  26. ray says:

    silly haters saying stupid comments …… unfortunately you cannot please everyone ……. the food compliments the beer so perfectly and the product itself is wonderfully refined … awesome job i can only hope to emulate your success one day

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