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A Tribute To Ben Filmalter (Founder Mugg & Bean and so many others)

My speech at the Memorial Service of Ben Filmalter

As I look around the room, I know exactly what Ben would say if he was here…

“Who the hell is watching the stores?”

There are some that say “you can judge a man by the company he keeps.” But, as I survey this rogues gallery of ex recovering caffeine addict waiters, disgruntled restaurant managers, drunken chefs, belligerent franchisees and long standing and suffering head office personnel, I am not certain that this is a fair reflection on Ben…

I prefer to judge a man by the people whose lives he has touched and influenced in a positive way. My friends, will painstakingly explain the strange version of Obsessive Compulsive Behavior that they are convinced I suffer from, or as they might explain OTHER PEOPLE have to suffer from, and it is this Obsessive Compulsive Behavior that led me to compile a list of all those people who had been so touched by Ben. I started with the thousands of waiters who had their first job at one of his 20 odd restaurants, some of whom some 20 years later have finally stopped waitering, the tens of thousands of kitchen staff whose families around the continent relied on him to help put bread on the table, (not to mention the occasional tea spoon or steak knife) the hundreds of franchisees and all their staff who are absolutely convinced they could have done this better without him and the millions of customers who have enjoyed his hospitality. Add to that family, a large circle of friends, one Porsche dealership and three casino operators and the list is almost complete.

July 1989, armed only with a sense of humour and an ability to adapt, I wandered into Tijuana 220, in Rosebank. I was seated in front of the commanding figure of Ben Filmalter, managing director of Linger Longer Group of Restaurants.

After 5 years in the insurance industry I had taken a very strange step in a very strange direction. I had decided at the age of 28 to learn to waiter for the first time in my life. Not an easy decision when your friends are doctors, lawyers and accountants.

I was to join a legion of men and women who would get their first break or their first opportunity working alongside the indefatigable Ben Filmalter

As I look around the room I see so many familiar faces. So many people that have worked with or for Mr Ben, as he was affectionately known to so many people.

From waiters and kitchen staff who got their first job in one of his many restaurants, to chefs who slaved in his kitchens, to franchisees who have built massive businesses thanks to his vision and guidance to thousands of suppliers and contractors that worked alongside him in the last forty years or so and of course those who just turned to him for guidance when things turned a little rough or a new idea that needed some refining… the list is endless.

It is hard to imagine the tens of thousands of lives this man has touched!

I took a moment after hearing of his passing to call and talk to a few people who worked with Ben to find out what it was really like to work for and with him

The overwhelming reply was “HARD”

Although I must say quite a few people said “FUCKING HARD!”

One person said “Ben who?” and I realised I had dialed the wrong number

It was never easy and it was never supposed to be easy.

  • Ben challenged everything, it was his way.
  • He challenged the people who worked with him to strive to be better
  • He challenged them to deliver more than they ever believed possible
  • He challenged his restaurant managers to serve more people with more flair than they had ever done before
  • He challenged his franchisees to make more money than they ever dreamed of
  • He challenged his suppliers to deliver more than they promised
  • He challenged the industry to find its niche and stand for something
  • He challenged the public to try different things from a spicy Cajun Étouffée to bistec de rancheros con quesadilla
  • He challenged everyone!

And everyone who took up his challenge walked away better for it, if not always smiling!

I was one of thousands who walked through that magic revolving door, you see very few people worked for Ben only once. We were like a band of brothers merrily singing the line from Hotel California “you can check out any time you like but you can never leave”

Ben infused in people a love for the industry, a love for hospitality, a love for food and a love for life. Although it is common knowledge that in his quest to instill in me a love for food, he failed miserably. One of the many reasons I was never allowed to choose the menu at any of the many Mugg & Bean conferences I organised.

We all have our own special memories of the big man, some were very specific and very personal but others were universal.

Anyone who worked for Ben in the “old days” will remember his passion for innovation. Nowadays he would have been diagnosed with ADHD and put on a hefty dose of Ritalin. What a loss that would have been to the industry and what a lesson it is to all of us not to stifle creativity in those around us.

Food glorious food! Ben’s love after Judi and the boys

You could live a lifetime in a meal with Ben, you could swap stories from the old days, hear a restaurateurs take on love, life, money and politics; roll with laughter till you felt the tears running down your cheeks, it was simply a celebration of life! I too have shared a few meals with Ben, and those of you who have had your plates raided in a similar fashion will understand what I am describing. Hands moving across the table at the speed of light, food just a blur as it is tasted, described, approved or rejected. Roars of laughter as someone shares an anecdote or a good joke, fellow diners moving their young children away in fear for their safety. Waiters scurrying around like chickens with their heads cut off because the poor owner warned them that Ben Filmalter was dining with us this evening. And all this BEFORE the main course has even arrived!

That same fear could be seen in the eyes of hundreds of designers who waited in front of him as he looked over an advert or a menu “I don’t know what I like, but this isn’t it!” was about as much guidance as you could expect to get.

BUT… on the other side of the coin, if you were able to please him, to deliver something exceptional and unexpected, you could leave his office or his company feeling like there was simply nothing you could not achieve.

Ben set exceptionally high standards for all those around him and that inevitably included himself.

His love for food was almost matched by his love for innovation and creativity and that was the one thing that almost drove his late brother John to the nut house. You could almost hear John saying “Ben, wait a second; let’s just finish one thing before we start another and who the hell is going to have to pay for this? Me again!”

No wait, you couldn’t almost hear him say it, you could actually hear him scream it! What a remarkable team they made, the innovator and the accountant. Such opposites that fed each other so well. John would call the restaurants in the morning and ask “so did we make money last night?” and Ben would call a few minutes later and ask “so did we make friends last night”

The high standards and unrelenting drive for perfection where honed in those early days. Heaven forbid a lightbulb was out or a complaint was not adequately dealt with, a chef did not complete his food cost book or even worse you accidently answered “TIRED” when he asked you how you were on one of his late night visits. Of course you were allowed to be tired, you were expected to be tired… Ben just didn’t want to hear about it.

  • Linger Longer
  • Leipoldts
  • Scratch Daniels
  • Baccarat
  • Fat Franks
  • Tijuana 220
  • Rattlesnake Diner
  • Turtle Creek
  • Ruby’s
  • Brand 32 Coffee Shop
  • Genghis Jones
  • Mugg & Bean
  • Buchanins Carnival
  • Chalk & Cheese

I am pretty certain I missed a few along the way, but these are just some of the brands that Ben launched and each one illustrates the diversity and innovation that he brought to the South African restaurant industry.

In 1997 just as Mugg & Bean was in its infancy I was to leave the group to join the countless people who with Ben’s help and guidance were able to move on to bigger and better things. Although Ben would never take credit for anyone else’s success, you could physically see the joy he experienced when employees of his, stepped out into the big bright world to make a mark for themselves. It is not just the jobs he created, the opportunities he presented, it was a testament to his tough uncompromising style that so many people who have worked for him in one form or another have gone on to achieve so much in their own right. The way to repay him is to do the same for others, to help them create their own space and their own opportunities… let his legacy live on through your success.

Four years later I was to return to take up the position of Marketing Manager for the fledgling group.

The early days of Mugg & Bean where among the most exciting, hell raising, cheeky, risky and innovative times any of could have hoped to live through. The concept was built on chutzpah and borrowed money. Few people know just how broke Ben was at that stage and how close he must have come to shutting it all down… You would never have known it to look at him or to talk to him. With Judi by his side, I believe anything was possible and so did he.

He went about creating the concept, the characters and the non-negotiable s that would revolutionise an industry. Ben was to the coffee industry what Uber was to the taxi industry. He was the disruption that was needed. Never again would South African’s look at muffins, bottomless coffee or portion size in the same way they had before. Fellow restaurant owners who scoffed at his ideas were suddenly scrambling to play catch up with an emerging giant.

“Head Office” in those days was a bunch of mavericks sitting around second hand desks taking up half a floor of the old Leipolds restaurant in Braamfontien. The administration was handled by Marcel and her team in the section that was once Linger Longer. We shared space, we shared a vision and we shared a lot of laughs in those days. The car park was across the road and believe me we all knew what type of day we were in for by the way Big Bean slammed his car door! He would open the boot, take out his trusty old leather brief case, a packet of eat-sum-mores he had bought without Judi’s knowledge and make his way across the road. About halfway across after greeting the A Team who were inevitably eating pap and yama outside no matter the weather or the time of day, he would stop put everything in one hand and grab his belt to lift his pants. You could take poison on that one.

He would huff his way up the stairs, greet Emily on the way up and send her out for another box of biscuits that he would need shortly and so the day would begin.

Quick updates from each of us on our various portfolios. Answering calls from Franchisees all over the country and the occasional complaint from a customer. Then he would dedicate himself to the single task at hand and that was how we could possibly grow and improve the brand! Ben always said that our job was to make sure he had nothing to do all day except to sit around and dream up new ways we could all get rich.

It was not long before Mugg & Bean was a household name and the words “meet me at the Mugg” became a way of South African life. The logo evolved, the food offering increased but the concept of generosity and making everyone feel welcome continue to this day. It is a massive testament to the man that Mugg & Bean continues to lead the way and play such an important part in our daily lives. But to Ben’s credit he knew that Mugg & Bean was not a one man show, Mike Maree and William Bolton brought investment and a management style that was needed for the transition out of the mom and pop mold that had held back so many other franchises to date.

I know Ben would be the first to acknowledge the hundreds if not thousands of people that helped to grow the brand. From head office staff to the pioneer franchisees, from sculleries through the kitchen to the owners and the suppliers, his legend lives on through so many people. I am certain that if Ben had one wish for each of you out there it would be that you remember him for his passion, his love of family and friends, his faith, his generosity of spirit, his unwavering drive for perfection in all that he did, for his ability to nurture those around him, for his laugh that could be heard around the country and for the words he instilled in so many people “laissez les bon temps rouler” Let The Good Times Roll

Blessed with an unbelievable talent in the kitchen, an ability to create and structure dishes, masterful with people, well read, interesting, compassionate, a pleasure to spend an afternoon with, caring and loved by everyone… These are talents Ben wished he had, but, lucky for him he found them in his wife Judi! You Mrs Filmalter are the real glue that held this all together.

To Judi, Anthony, Adam, Lucinda, Gia, Anne and all the family, I wish you a long life and only wonderful memories of a man who touched so many of us. I have watched as the young Filmalter boys have grown into the Filmalter men. I have had a front row ticket to many of the shenanigans and misadventures. We have all shared laughs, a few tears and plenty of Jose Cuervo gold tequila.

I could tell you both to go out in the world and make your father proud but hey, I know Ben, he is already proud.

I could tell you to strive to be more like him, but looking at you three pees in a pod, I am not certain that is even possible.

Mr Ben, wherever you find yourself, I can only hope the lightbulbs are working, the coffee is hot and the food is exceptional. Otherwise right now, somebody, somewhere is getting a lecture and a lesson they will never forget!

In closing I would like to turn to the words of another, those of Waldo Emmerson who said

To laugh often and much;

To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;

To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;

To appreciate beauty; To find the best in others;

To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;

To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived;

This is to have succeeded.

Thank you Ben, for all you brought to our lives.

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mike [at] mikesaidwhat.co.za
+27 81 398 2190


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