Why Did Mugg & Bean REALLY Become So Popular?

There aren’t many coffee franchises that can lay claim to the brand presence that Mugg & Bean has in South Africa. With over 260 restaurants, and represented in so many towns and cities, whether you are in Cape Town, Bloemfontein, Durban or Polokwane, you have a guarantee of a similar dining experience.

Mugg & Bean

From good food, bottomless cups of coffee, a relaxed and warm atmosphere, as well as generous portions of food, and large slices of cake. The coffee-themed franchise chain offers the ideal spot to meet up with family and friends to enjoy a delicious meal, a quick coffee, tasty treats & more.

Now the hundred thousand trillion rand question, “where does the Mugg & Bean story start?? and how did they grow from one initial offering in Cape Town to the multi-million rand success story they are today?

Let’s take it back to the early 1990s, when Ben Filmalter, and his wife, Judi, were on a trip to Chicago when they visited a little coffee shop on the South Side.

The shop had a remarkably friendly and generous feel about it, so the couple stayed for several hours enjoying the atmosphere and drinking bottomless cups of coffee. They also discussed the possibility of developing something with similar values for the South African market. At the time, Starbucks was making its presence felt in the US market, but the couple felt it would be a while before South Africans would accept the Starbucks concept.

On arriving home, the Filmalters carried on with their lives as usual, Ben as head of a multi-restaurant company, and Judi assisting in the detail of the various units.

Ben Filmalter, founder of Mugg & Bean

Filmalter was born in Vryburg in North West on the 8th of May 1949 and raised on his father’s farm until the age of five when his father died and the family, his mother and four siblings, moved to the East Rand.

He matriculated from Springs High School and went on to complete his military training in late 1960s. Following this, he entered the hospitality as a Chef’s apprentice in 1968 growing through the ranks and finishing his “Hotel Life” as the General Manager of one of Johannesburg’s Premier hotels in 1979.

It was during this apprenticeship phase that he met his wife Judi who was a pastry chef at one of the hotels he was managing in Stellenbosch. From then on they worked closely together in all his restaurant ventures, she being in charge of the kitchen

With his accountant brother, John, he bought a restaurant in Johannesburg called the Linger Longer, a moribund and very stale old fashioned restaurant that was tottering on the brink of bankruptcy.

Their application for a loan was turned down at first but Filmalter never allowed minor setbacks like this to deter him, and no one could be more persuasive. After lunch with a couple of banking executives, the brothers got their loan.

This was the start of his Restaurant Life. Within 1 year Linger Longer was back on track and later in 1980 was named South Africa’s finest restaurant, a position it held for no less than 5 years and was always in the top 3 for at least 12.

But one restaurant was never going to be enough, always hugely influenced by all things American, Ben opened several American styled operations including Fat Franks, Leipoldts, Scratch Daniel’s, Baccarat, Tijuana 220, Rattlesnake Diner, Turtle Creek, Ruby’s, Brand 32 Coffee Shop, Genghis Jones, Buchanins Carnival, and
Chalk & Cheese just to name a few of the 50 plus restaurants he has opened either for his company or for others.

The names he gave his establishments were usually as arresting as the service and excellent fare. The concepts varied from Cajun to Californian to French and Mexican.

He opened branches in Pretoria, Benoni and Cape Town, which did not work and almost bankrupted him

In 1996, things had changed, Nelson Mandela who only recently ascended to the presidency’s seat was faced with a country that was effectively bankrupt, interests rates rose to over 25% and the country as a whole went into decline, needless to say the Filmalter restaurants as well.

But with yet another concept Ben dug himself out of bankruptcy. Signing leases and purchase agreements with nothing other than a reputation. He then embarked on his “Franchising Life”

He was an optimist who never let a bad decision get him down. His philosophy was to keep moving on and trying something new. The fact that his first venture into franchising was a disaster only sharpened his desire to make a success of the next one.

The memory of that comfortable coffee shop in Chicago never left him. Over time, a concept began to emerge, and he evolved the identity and history of the Mugg & Bean brand. He got the name while queuing for a ride at Disneyland called Mug & Bean. Finding the right launch location was next, and finally arrived at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront.

The first restaurant opened in September 1996, and because it combined the values Ben and Judi had experienced in Chicago with their own personal values, it was an immediate hit.

Development of the Mugg & Bean concept as a franchise opportunity began in earnest two years after the establishment of the first outlet. Franchising allowed for rapid expansion of the business in a way that would not have been possible with other models, while allowing Filmalter to retain absolute control over the nurturing of the brand, giving full licence to his creative genius for marketing.

An immediate flurry of development followed and Mugg & Bean restaurants popped up all over the country with similar success, clearly indicating that the philosophy of generosity was working.

Franchisees around South Africa were buying into the company’s culture of generosity and customer focus. The memories of the early days in the restaurants in Cape Town were dominated by long working hours and long lines at the door. People could not get enough of the generous portions, giant muffins and bottomless coffee.

Mugg & Bean grew in a relatively small market and was quickly recognised as a desirable food service brand. In less than 7 years, it had grown to over 80 units.

Mugg & Bean’s success has been derived principally through a culture of renewal and innovation.

The brand pioneered the introduction of South Africa’s favourite tea, Rooibos, in the form of tea expresso as a healthy alternative to caffeine-laden coffee. Another trailblazing initiative was the introduction of Wi-Fi access in many of its restaurants.

The company has been reinvented a number of times since being launched, it is a culture and ambience of unrelenting renewal that has retained and consolidated consumer interest in Mugg & Bean.

The brand mainly targets the shopping market with all demographics in mind while constantly looking for new food items to add to its menus in order to broaden appeal and attract new customers.

Not surprisingly, such success attracted a great acclaim within the sector, and ultimately, an ardent suitor. Famous Brands is Africa’s leading quick service restaurant and casual dining franchisor. With a global footprint of 2887 franchised restaurants and a portfolio of premium brands including Steers, Wimpy, Debonairs Pizza, FishAways, Turn N Tender, and Milky Lane amongst others.

Mugg & Bean became a sought-after addition. Famous Brands announced acquisition of the brand for 104 million rands in July 2009.

Filmalter wanted to take it a little easy, but there was one more life he wanted to experience, the American Life.

He moved to the US in 2011 and bought two Mexican restaurants in Charlotte, North Carolina, which became very successful. He spent the last three years of his life trying to find the right location for what he hoped would be the first of a new chain of Mugg & Bean restaurants in the US.

He eventually found what he was looking for in late 2015 at Charleston, but by then had been diagnosed with leukaemia and given six months to live. He passed away in July 2016.

The seed of generosity laid by Ben Filmalter sprouted and has continued to grow for more than 25 years. Under famous brands, the Mugg & Bean brand has grown to more 260 restaurants nationwide and can also be found in Kenya, Botswana and even the United Arab Emirates.

Mugg & Bean’s tagline of “giving you more and more” is definitely 110% true with portion sizes being on the overly generous side, bottomless cups of coffee and giant muffins that just have to be shared! And all of this has made for a winning combination and a name brand that people have grown to trust and love.

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