Ambitious waiter and now enthusiastic franchisee, Mekeni is determined to inspire others and make his mark
Andile Mekeni has the presence of a confident young rugby player.
Nothing about him suggests he has walked a journey from being a waiter to a franchisee – all within a space of a few years.
City Press met the Eastern Cape-born 24-year-old recently and saw first-hand why he has raised eyebrows in the restaurant business.
He was born on the eve of the first democratic elections in 1994 in the Nqamakwe village, near Butterworth in the Eastern Cape.
He had four siblings and grew up in a typically poor family and was raised by his breadwinner maternal grandmother after his mother died.
Mekeni lived with his grandmother and uncle after his siblings were adopted by other relatives.
“I always knew I was destined for something greater because the only inspiration I had was teachers and policemen. I wanted to be a soldier only because one of my teachers said I had a big head and it would fit perfectly in a soldier’s helmet,” he said, laughing at the spark for his early career ambitions.
It was during his years at Kwantozonke High School in Butterworth that he fell in love with music.
“I loved writing songs. It came naturally to me and my friend, who also loved music. We started calling ourselves the ‘Angel Brothers’. It was all I wanted to be,” Mekeni said.
He had plans to go to Johannesburg to join his siblings and hopefully enrol at a music school.
However, the day he wrote his last matric examination, his grandmother died and that changed all his plans.
He went to live with his brother and aunt in Turffontein in Johannesburg after getting his matric results.
“My aunt sat us down and told us she can’t afford to support all of us and we must find a way to move out and fend for ourselves.
“At the time I was very angry but she really couldn’t afford to support us,” he said.
With that ultimatum and the deadline looming, Mekeni and his brother went on a job-hunting drive that yielded no results.
“When the time came to move, we didn’t have a place to stay. Luckily my aunt’s daughter offered us a shack to stay in. I had given up on getting a job.
“My brother had gone to work at the Spur in the Carlton Centre when they were doing renovations.
“They told him they were looking for two more people – so he called me and we went for an interview to be waiters,” he said about his break in 2012.
Having never eaten at such a restaurant before or even worked in his life, Mekeni’s friendly and bubbly personality caught the eye of the owner – businessperson Brian Altriche.
“During the training Altriche, founder of RocoMamas, walked in and told us his inspiring life story.
“I remember thinking this guy is not one of those privileged people and I could relate to him.
“I remember, during that training session, him telling me I had an eye of a tiger and there’s something about me and that with my attitude I am going to be someone big in life. He said that the first day he met me.”
With the prophecy forgotten, Mekeni went on to be a great waiter, made a lot of friends and got a lot of customer compliments.
He was promoted to a manager nine months later.
“I started feeling that it was an opportunity. A year later, I was promoted again to be operator and that is when I learnt about the real business.
“The operator runs the restaurant and accounts to head office and the owner,” he said.
He later moved to a bigger restaurant in Gold Reef City in Johannesburg.
After doing a good job there, Altriche offered him an opportunity to be a partner in his franchise – including two RocoMamas stores – and he has not looked back.
The move opened doors for him and another partner, Nkululeko Zulu, to open the group’s first RocoGo store, an express version of RocoMamas, which is the first of its type.
Having gone through the restaurant business from the floor to the back managerial office, Mekeni has developed a passion for people-centred businesses.
Creating job opportunities for as many people as possible remains top of his list of priorities as he looks to open more stores.
It is when he speaks about people and how passionate he is about them that his face lights up.
“It’s fantastic where I am right now. I am surrounding myself with the right people and even in the businesses that I run I don’t accept mediocre. I am enjoying my current partnerships because I am learning so much and want to grow with them,” he said.
A married father-to-be and a keen reader and guitarist, Mekeni is inspired by the need to leave a legacy.
“I don’t want to just live and die. I don’t want to do average things. I want to leave a mark and that’s my inspiration.”
Mekeni is also passionate about education but points out the country’s education system is in chaos.
“With this education system, they expect a fish to climb a tree and bird to swim,” he said.