Justin Mugwaneza graduated with a degree in human resources at Kigali Institute of Science, Technology and Management in Rwanda. In 2006, aged 25, he moved to South Africa for his practical hospitality training at The Saxon Hotel, Villas & Spa in Johannesburg. Here he caught the eye of MD George Cohen, who offered him a job as an assistant restaurant manager.
Set in leafy Sandhurst, the exclusive Saxon Hotel, Villas & Spa is widely regarded as being in a league of its own when it comes to privacy, luxury and security. It’s also home to the renowned restaurants, Grei and Qunu, and is the preferred destination for the international elite, Africa’s most discerning travellers and Johannesburg’s jet set. The Saxon was home to President Mandela after his release from prison and parts of his biography, Long Walk to Freedom, were edited at the historic property.
Justin, now food and beverage manager at the Saxon, has an intuitive feel for what defines luxury and hospitality. “When you’re at the Saxon it’s hard to believe you’re in a bustling world city,” he says. “It feels like a resort yet it’s homely and there’ll always be a need for that. We also look at what’s happening in the industry – not only in South Africa, but internationally – and keep innovating to ensure our guests have the best possible experience.”
Justin’s job entails keeping track of finances, managing the team, customer service and focusing on innovation. “We always keep an eye on what’s going on so that we can incorporate the appropriate new developments into our hotel offering,” he says.
Besides balancing food and beverage budgets, doing stock control, sourcing and ordering equipment, and compiling month-end reports, he also works alongside the human resources division to recruit, train and develop team members. It’s essential for the team to ensure that the Saxon’s high standards are maintained and guests’ needs are met. “We’re lucky to have a passionate and dedicated team,” Justin says. “They focus on attention to detail and personal touches such as greeting guests by name and go out of their way to anticipate what guests want.”
The five-star Saxon experience is thanks to the team members being at the top of their game. The catering staff offer guests quality and innovative options, for instance. “We also have a team of passionate sommeliers who discuss what the wine and spirits lists need and regularly take part in tastings.” Often the list includes rare vintages from small producers.
Justin says that if he could include any element of Rwanda on the menu, it would be the country’s famous coffee and tea. “Rwanda survived some of hardest times in our history as a nation and the progress has been remarkable,” he says. “The country never had as many top hotels as it does now. There was only one international brand – Intercontinental Hotels and Meridien – but today there’s Radisson Blu Hotels & Resorts, One&Only, Marriott and Serena Hotels, to name only a few. The hospitality industry has grown and improved dramatically since the genocide which means the quality of life has also improved big time.”
Justin chooses his words carefully when recalling the effect of the war in Rwanda on him and his family. Perhaps it’s this prudence that enables him to select the finest food and beverages for the Saxon menu. Like his native Rwanda, Justin has transcended his past.