Besides family, South African restaurateur Yente Pienaar shares something else in common with world tennis legend Roger Federer.
And that is the word ‘serve’, which she does well in her restaurant, far from the flashy center courts of Wimbledon.
A second cousin to Federer, 29-year-old Pienaar owns and runs the Meet on Milner restaurant on Milner Street in the heart of Waterkloof in South Africa’s capital Pretoria.
On any given day, the place is teeming with locals and diplomats – few know she is related to tennis’ numero uno.
“I wouldn’t say people come here because of who I am related to. Like only some people know we are second cousins. I have only seen [Roger Federer] twice. He has never been here but my aunt and uncle [his parents] have a couple of times,” says Pienaar.
Multi-faceted, as a young student, she won entrepreneur of the year at her high school, the Saint Mary’s Diocesan School for Girls, Pretoria. Today, she has the drive and savvy to compete with any man in the restaurant business.
Meet on Milner is a sophisticated meeting place covered floor-to-ceiling with art, bringing to life the quiet, sleepy street and neighborhood it is located in.
Born and raised in Kwaggafontein, in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province, Pienaar combined her love for cooking, fashion and photography to start her restaurant at the age of 25.
“My mom hated cooking. In the evenings, we would have a choice between toasties or avo on toast. So I got really fed up, and would trade my McDonald’s for cucumber sandwiches. Then I just started making my own food and then later started my own herb garden,” says Pienaar.
This love for cooking continued into her high school years. Pienaar was never one to settle for the ordinary, she would always use her skills to make life better and brighter.
“Even though I went to a nice boarding school, the food could get boring, so I always [enhanced] my food by buying stuff from Pick n Pay. I would always have extra stuff so people would come to me and say, ‘please, like spice up my dish’.”
With an upbringing that advocated imagination and a go-getter’s attitude, Pienaar had dreams and the zeal to fulfill them.
“I always knew when I was small that I wanted to be the editor of Vogue and I wanted to have a restaurant. Those were the two things on my list. So I have got a restaurant now, and it’s been four years,” says Pienaar.
Next on her list is to be an editor, and she is determined.
“I went to TUKS where I studied visual communications. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do but I knew I wanted to go into the arts field. Then I did my honors in drama and film, and that’s another thing I really like and I would like to make a film one day. Creative art directing is what I like.”
The same passion Federer has for the racket, she has for the ladle.
Her restaurant is an amalgamation of two outlets that were earlier a tea room and a 75-year-old pharmacy.
“When I was working at a guest house, I would always drive by the tea room and think this was just a great location.
“I came here with my mother and told her there was such potential. Then I spoke to my parents and told them that I don’t know how this all works, could they help me with a loan, and then they said they would see,” says Pienaar.
It took Pienaar two visits before she could strike a deal with the owners of the tea room. At first, the price was too high and Pienaar left with no deal but she was not ready to give up.
As she traveled back and forth to work daily, she could see the shop was getting emptier attracting fewer customers. It was then Pienaar went to put her offer on the table again.
After being persistent, the owners of the tea room finally gave in to her offer and she began the renovation process.
With the help of her parents, she started her restaurant.
“They are like my bank, my interest-free bank,” she says.
However, Pienaar was not done. After opening up Meet on Milner, she asked the owner of the chemist next door to sell her his store if he ever retired.
“I thought he would retire in maybe two or three years but he came back to me about five months later and told me he is ready to retire. I was shocked and I sure wasn’t ready financially but I knew I wanted the space, and so did many other people, so I bought it.”
Meet on Milner attracts the residents of Waterkloof and diplomats from the embassies nearby.
“The food and the service are just different from other restaurants. Your meal always looks different from the last one you had which makes it taste like a new experience every time,” says Beau van Zyl, one of the regulars here.
“I love how the staff takes time to know us, even Yente. And as you can see they even have linen table cloths which you just don’t see anymore,” adds Claudia Dalebout, another regular customer.
Pienaar now plans on incorporating more theme events at the restaurant, such as ‘singles mingle’, as she met her boyfriend here. And then some.
“I love Johannesburg and I would love to expand into Johannesburg. Maybe the next year or so, I could have a ‘Meet on…’ on any street,” adds Pienaar on her future plans.
“I guess the next challenge for me is to become the editor of Vogue. I think Africa needs a Vogue, don’t you?” she says, with a smile.
More hits than misses, Pienaar seems to be making all the right moves. – Written by Keketso Majoe
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