The girl with the big dreams and bright eyes looks confident as she poses in front of the dusty Soweto street in which she grew up. This is no ordinary street. It’s the Vilakazi Street in Johannesburg’s black township of Soweto, where the late Nelson Mandela once lived. His house, 8115, is now a museum, and Thembi Mahlangu’s café, Thrive, occupies a pride of place on the same historic street, once also home to yet another Nobel peace prize laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
For 31-year-old Mahlangu, her café is a dream come true.
She had embarked on a career in the hospitality industry more out of necessity than passion, starting as a sculler at Nescafé straight after high school. She worked at several coffee shops thereafter, which fostered in her an enormous love for coffee – and people.
Her turning point came when she met businessman and entrepreneur Ross Paton at the Hyde Park Corner mall, where she worked in Culinary’s Café 41.
“Ross would come in for coffee every morning at the same time and I opened up for him even when the shop was closed,” says Mahlangu.
They had a mutual love for brewed beans and he was curious about her dreams and ambitions. She spoke about Soweto and how she wanted to introduce the neighborhood to good coffee.
“I often went to the street on my off days to see what was missing – coffee!” she says.
She dreamt of having a coffee trolley, but lacked funds. Luckily for her, Paton saw her drive and determination. He agreed to go with her to Vilakazi Street.
“At first I was terrified,” says Paton. “The first person I met on the street was a very friendly hawker and I thought, well, if all hawkers are this nice, this might not be such a bad idea.”
It was a Saturday and on Monday, he gave Mahlangu the go-ahead. He invested in a small piece of land and a year later, Thrive Café was born. He made Mahlangu his business partner and co-owner.
Growing up, Mahlangu had no idea the street would become so famous. Now, she gets to spend every day in the heartland of history. What was meant to be a coffee trolley turned into a vibey restaurant attracting locals and people from the (northern) suburbs alike, not to mention celebrities and tourists who “want to see Soweto but don’t want to compromise their palates”.
“Sometimes it is quite overwhelming,” says Mahlangu. It is a happy problem.
The Café has since turned into a bistro and bar. People come back for the food, service, ambience and to meet the young entrepreneur. Some of Mahlangu’s former customers from Sandton are regular patrons here too.
Thrive Café brought to the fore Mahlangu’s true ability to succeed under tremendous pressure in a highly competitive industry. She is grateful the eatery is popular.
“Sometimes we don’t put chairs outside because it is just too busy. People queue up like they do at Tasha’s,” she says. Her team is her greatest support when things get tough and there is a true sense of camaraderie between them.
Mahlangu dedicated her time to what she truly loved, and was willing to learn and dream big.
Her life began in Soweto, and she chose to return to make it a better place.