#LearningCurve | Chef Dickson has recipe for success

At the age of 13, after entering a cooking competition in his home town of Makhanda (Grahamstown) and following two years of job-hopping in a number of London’s most successful restaurants, businessman and chef Dean Dickson, 48, said he knew that cooking was his passion.
Can you give me some background on yourself and how and when the business was started?
When I entered a cooking competition at the age of 13, I knew cooking was my passion.
In 1990, when I joined the army in my hometown, I hoped to be a driver but unfortunately I was a bad driver.
In 1995, I left SA for the UK to follow my passion and for many years I job-hopped – I worked in 125 different institutions and restaurants – and that really shaped my skills.
I came back to SA in 2002 and in 2003 I started the Imagination Cooking School, which was a great start for my business and created a lot of exposure for me.
What is your core service?
It is catering for every kind of event.
What makes your business unique? We always look for the better. We are constantly following the trends, new concepts and new ideas and I think that’s what makes us unique.
If someone wanted to copy your business model, how would they start?
It is very difficult to copy in this kind of business. The best way to make it is to find a mentor that can teach you the ins and outs for a year or two.
What are some of the biggest inhibitors your business faced before even getting off the ground?
Economic climate and not having enough staff, with so much work . . . it was really a challenge.
What are some of your biggest challenges in day-to-day business operations and your particular industry?
Long hours. You start at 4am and finish at 1am. You actually don’t have time of your own or to spend quality time with the family. There is no time for sleep, and one needs stamina for this kind of business.
How do you measure or define success in your business?
Imagination Food Design has attained an amazing client base over the past ten years and catered for some of Port Elizabeth’s landmark events including the launch of the new Sanral building at Baywest Mall in 2017, the opening of the Motor Museum and the Paint Shop [at] VWSA, various awards, events, dealer awards and vehicle launches and the VW Uitenhage opening of the auto pavilion.
[We also did the] Radisson Hotel pre-opening for the clients and investors and also the ABSA Bank opening launch of the new corporate bank offices in Park Drive [plus] various corporate events over the years.
[We did] catering for the All Blacks rugby team during their tour to SA and are also catering for the Ironman main event – 1,800 [at a] sit-down meal, and many more.
But the great success was to cater for the Celine Dion concert 2009 and also cater for the 100 years celebration of Nelson Mandela at Mvezo.
It was amazing to be able to cater for the icons in the world.
What kind of advertising do you do?
I advertise online and I am always active with my website, social media and SEO (search engine optimisation).
What is your target market?
Anyone is my target market.
How important is social media and an online presence for your business?
Very important, I’m constantly on Facebook. I always upload pictures and post about events I’ve catered at.
How many people do you employ?
I only have one employee. When I have to cater for events, I normally go to cooking schools in Port Elizabeth and take casuals from there.
How did you acquire funding for the business?
I used my savings from London. I sold my property there when I came back to SA and started my business.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your business journey so far?
In God we trust – but people have to pay cash. What have been the greatest challenge running your business in a city like PE? Competition– there are so many restaurants and catering businesses in Port Elizabeth.
What do you think are the three key traits of a successful entrepreneur?
Don’t give credit, produce high standards and be consistent.
How do you motivate staff?
By inspiring them, teaching them new stuff and always showing a positive attitude at work.
What do you wish people knew about your industry?
It is a tough industry. So many people romanticise it with an idea of owning a restaurant. It is beyond that, with great responsibility.
There is so much work to be done and you work irregular hours and actually do not have time for yourself.

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