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Ivan Spiers: The man behind peri-peri and apparel

Story by MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

He may not always enjoy the fact, but Ivan Spiers manages to shake things up.

This week he was a little emotionally bruised after yet another City Council meeting having to do with parking at his iconic restaurant and music venue, Mozambique.

“I want to be a good neighbor. I want to help everybody,” he says. “I just don’t want to be micro-managed. I don’t need this aggravation.”

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In the 10 years of operating Mozambique there have been great times, like the many charity events Spiers hosts there, and the amazing musical talent he has drawn to their first class performing and recording space. 

But there have been miserable times, too, like when the economy tanked in 2008. “Then the world fell apart,” said Spiers. 

His main source of income, the apparel industry, suffered disastrous times, and the restaurant business changed suddenly for the worse as well. “Every business was impacted. It’s still impacted. Our restaurant business went down 60 percent overnight.”

But he put his heart and mind into it, and used some creative thinking to stay in business. “Mozambique was a more formal restaurant until then. We had to re-work the menu, and make it affordable for everybody,” he said. “We stuck with it, and never laid anybody off.” 

Mozambique is a big employer in town, and that became the main issue with parking problems most recently. The restaurant staff had been parking on side streets, which bothers some of the neighbors. It was agreed that the employees will now be shuttled from off-site leased parking sites to their jobs at the restaurant.

While we talked about some of these challenging situations, Spiers’ best buddy, Max, helped him to keep his calm. Max is one gentle giant of a dog, who also happens to be a 110-pound therapy dog. His day job is to visit hospitals and VA centers where he brings his sweet charm and calming influence. Spiers has raised him since he was a puppy – surprisingly once the runt of the litter.

Max nudged his hand, asking for more fluffing and scratching of those enormous ears. 

“I bought this building by accident,” Spiers continued. The former Tortilla Flats building had been vacant for years when he drove by almost 13 years ago. “I came to the auction, and thought it would be a good idea to open a restaurant.” Little did he know it would take two and a half years to renovate. “It was falling down – a lot more than we thought,” he said. “It was just a garbage pile.”

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Now it is one of the most popular places in Orange County to see live music, or enjoy great food spiced with their famous peri-peri sauce, and gaze out on the ocean toward the Laguna sunset.

Roots

One side of the man has the giant persona of an international business magnate, and on the other is Spiers’ quiet, kind demeanor. His polite South African nature is always the undercurrent.

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He grew up in a small town that defies spelling much less pronunciation. Umhlatazana was about an hour and a half from the nearest city, and his parents ran a trading store, selling whatever was needed. “From plows to clothes, to food,” said Spiers. “You name it, we sold it.” 

The community was small and multi-racial – and everyone got along. Once roads and bridges were constructed enough to travel quickly to the city, the family moved to Durban. Ivan was 13, and heard for the first time the word “apartheid”. 

Living in Durban, he witnessed enforcement by the government to a racially segregate society. Ivan knew he had to get out as soon as he could. 

He moved to London when he was 19 and found a job with EMI, the music recording and publishing company. It seems obvious now in hindsight that music would play an integral role in Spiers’ life. But, of course, his father and the government of South Africa had other plans for him.

His father wanted him to be a banker. The idea was to join his banker uncle who lived in Hong Kong. The government’s rule was that first he’d have to serve two years in the army.

Spiers did all that, but only lasted four days as a Hong Kong banker. “It was terrible,” said Ivan, simply. “You’re making a big mistake,” said his father.

But at 21 Ivan Spiers was still too young for the stuffy life of a banker. He wanted to play rugby and surf. 

So he went to Australia and did just that until a rugby accident landed him in the hospital. The injuries to his ribs, and a broken spine still plague him today.

Once recovered and back on a surfboard, Spiers met his California connections. They were a bunch of young guys, all good friends, surfing in the Canary Islands. One of them had a family ranch in Monterey and said, “Come to Monterey, we’ll get you some work.”

That was in 1972, and consequently Spiers has added lettuce picker to his resume. 

At that time the economy was booming, gas was 40 cents a gallon, and you could buy a decent car for $500. Picking lettuce was very good money – about $400 a week, but hard work. “The first two weeks almost killed me,” said Spiers. Then he learned from the guys who’ve done it for years how to do the lifting. Just like music, it turns out it’s about rhythm.

Growing a business

It was in Monterey that Spiers began his huge career in the apparel industry. Out by the airport there was a sweater and sport coat factory. Ivan got to know the owners and began buying goods from them and selling.

By the early 1990’s Spiers had amassed 29 large retail stores, and had his own family. He has three children; twin daughters now living in Austin, and a son now living in New York. 

“In 1992 I thought I was retired,” he said. But the financial reality of life post-divorce meant he would keep his nose to the grindstone.

Thanks to many friends in the area, Spiers moved from Monterey to Laguna. He continued to flourish in the apparel business to the point where he is now known as an industry veteran. He has helped launch brands with financing, and he’s created manufacturing, warehousing and distribution networks worldwide for everything from clothes to shoes to sunglasses.

Though Laguna is home base, Spiers is global citizen. He’s in Sri Lanka, and much of Asia at least a few times a year, plus Panama, the UK, and Canada. This week he was closing the deal on a big merger that he was pretty mum about. “You’ll read about it,” he said, slyly. 

He comes off as a behind-the-scenes guy, somehow maintaining his privacy despite his high profile. It’s that kind of humility that makes him approachable. 

Music for the soul

When it comes to music, Spiers jumps in, hook, line and sinker. He appreciates everything about music, and plays the guitar as well. He’s been known to rock it on the Mozambique stage just for fun, with friends like Nick I, and Bob Hawkins. 

This past October, Spiers opened Daryl’s House with rocker Daryl Hall, in Pawling, New York. It’s a restaurant and music venue that also broadcasts shows live on the Internet. “It’s been great,” Spiers said. “We’ve been so well received.” 

During the live broadcasts there are about 80 people employed at Daryl’s House, and Spiers has been surprised at the support they’ve been given. “Governor Cuomo sent someone – in a suit – to see if they could help!” he said. “They want it to succeed and make sure we’re well taken care of.”

 Daryl Hall will be playing there himself, on New Year’s Eve, and the show will be broadcast. His former partner, John Oates, will be performing at Mozambique on Feb 4. Spiers is keeping Hall and Oates rockin’ on both coasts.

At home in Laguna, Mozambique is like Spiers’ community gathering place. He has opened its doors to countless non-profits for their fundraising efforts. He has made friends with musicians, and even the neighbors. 

“I try to help everybody,” he says.

And he does. It’s just in his nature.

Shaena Stabler is the Owner, Publisher & Editor.

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor & Writer.

Michael Sterling is our Webmaster & Designer.

Mary Hurlbut is our Chief Photographer.

Alexis Amaradio, Barbara Diamond, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Lynette Brasfield, Marrie Stone, Maggi Henrikson, Samantha Washer, and Suzie Harrison are our writers and/or columnists. Scott Brashier is our photographer.

Stacia Stabler is our Social Media Manager & Writer.

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