RocoMamas founder Brian Altriche is no stranger to failure. His first franchise left him in debt, he lost almost his entire life’s savings on the stock market, he got squeezed out of one business and sued by Red Bull in another… the list goes on. And yet in each case he’s learnt and implemented vital lessons that have culminated in the runaway success of South Africa’s favourite smart casual phenomenon.
- Player: Brian Altriche
- Company: RocoMamas
- Launched: 2014
- Visit: RocoMamas.com
Like many successful individuals, Brian Altriche experienced a life-changing event in his mid-20s. A car accident left him with a broken leg and a broken arm, stranded in hospital over Christmas and New Year’s Eve. He’d also suffered a head injury, and while the time in hospital was making him re-evaluate his life path, the concussion had altered him in a subtle but significant way.
He became obsessed with visualisation: Visualising his life path, what a brand should look like, how customers would experience a particular offering — nothing happened until he visualised it down to the tiniest detail.
Twenty years later this fanatical relationship with the power of visualisation would lead directly to the launch of RocoMamas, arguably one of the most successful new brands in South Africa’s restaurant industry and the leader in fast casual dining.
Altriche has taken his concept from three stores to 49 in 18 months, and is spearheading South Africa’s renewed love affair with the burger.
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So how does a kid who attended 11 different schools, and has no education beyond matric, launch such a successful and universally loved brand?
The answer lies in the details, and in learning from what Altriche himself calls his ‘fabulous failures.’Altriche left South Africa after matric to airbrush Harleys and leather jackets on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. The late 80s and early 90s were a time of change.
The Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War ended, Nelson Mandela was released from prison and apartheid was coming to an end. Altriche wanted to be a part of something, and returning home to a new South Africa seemed the most obvious choice.
He moved to Yeoville and started painting signage for restaurants. This soon grew into any and all branding that restaurants needed. Altriche had no tertiary qualifications, but he was creative, and a fast learner. He was paying attention to branding and marketing, and figuring out what customers responded to. And then his accident happened. Two changes followed.
First, he decided to go into the restaurant game himself
“It was the ideal business model. A small stock holding, because everything is perishable. No debtors. Once your customer is through the door you take the order, manufacture, distribute and charge for it, and get paid, all within an hour. The trick is to get the customer into your store.”
Second was the focus on visualisation
“After the accident my memory changed,” he says. “I need to see something to understand and remember it. Before we opened our first RocoMamas store I obsessively walked through the entire concept in my mind: what did the store look like, smell like, sound like? What did the food look like and taste like? What was the customer’s experience from the moment they walked through the door until they left? Every detail lived inside my head before we began.”
But Altriche also had almost two decades of experience under his belt, and a few hard-won lessons, thanks to failures that were essential to his overall success — starting with his very first foray into franchising.
“I opened a Longhorn Steakhouse in Pretoria. It was a lead balloon,” he says. “My gut told me the location wasn’t right, but I didn’t listen. On paper it looked great — a good suburban, high-LSM area. Once I opened, it quickly became apparent that there were no office parks in the area, which meant no lunch trade, and the residents were primarily retirees whose kids had left the house. This was not the right demographic for my steakhouse.”
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Through sheer grit and determination Altriche hung on for a year. And he paid his school fees
“I learnt how to run on a lean staff, about stock holdings, operations, and the make-or-break power of location.”
Finally, he gave up, accepted his losses and got out of his lease, thanks to the landlord reneging on a contract clause.
“Failure is part of the equation of success. I call them my fabulous failures. You can’t achieve greatness without failures and risk.”
Armed with a sizeable debt, Altriche took his equipment and approached Fats Lazarides, who at the time had opened five Ocean Baskets. Altriche would be his first franchisee.
“I opened in Southgate. The lessons I had learnt were valuable with the second business. Thanks to Ocean Basket I paid off my debt, had a nice living wage, and walked away with R240 000 in profit when I sold it in 1998.”
Altriche isn’t scared of working hard, and he’s always on the look-out for a new challenge
During his tenure with Ocean Basket, he found a partner and launched Passionade, a pre-mixed passionfruit and lemonade soft-drink in a can. The partnership did not end well, with Altriche squeezed out of the business.
“I didn’t hold a grudge,” he says. “For them it was just business. It would have hurt me far more than them to hold on to anger and disappointment.”
Running two businesses had taken its toll. Altriche arrived at the office at 6.30am and worked until 10am, then he’d open the Ocean Basket, return to the office, go back to the restaurant for the lunch trade, back to the office, and finally close up the store.
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One day a case of energy drinks arrived for him to sample for the store, and Altriche was hooked
“I was exhausted, and those energy drinks really helped. I realised there was a definite market for that product.”
He found a chemist in the UK who could create a formula with Taurine as its active ingredient, secured a funding partner in South Africa, and called the energy drink Mad Bull. In 1998 he sold his Ocean Basket store to concentrate fully on the energy drink. It was a mistake. “I hadn’t taken into account that the Ocean Basket store gave me a great living wage that was suddenly absent when I started running a start-up. To this day I regret selling that store.”
But what’s done is done, and Altriche doesn’t believe in dwelling on things you can’t change. Instead, he threw himself into Mad Bull and GoGirl, a sugar-free version of the energy drink aimed at female consumers.
And then Red Bull sued over naming rights. Altriche and his partners lost, and Mad Bull was renamed Mad Buzz. It was the beginning of the end for the brand, not because of the name change, but due to corporate decisions made as a result of the court case and the money lost while fighting Red Bull.
Altriche, a gut-feel entrepreneur who relies on reading the market’s pulse and responding to consumer needs, did not see eye-to-eye with the MBA-educated marketing representative of the private equity majority owner of the brand.
To recoup losses, the decision was made to rebrand along with the name change. Altriche vehemently opposed the move.
“When you launch a brand, there’s a marketing curve,” he explains. “First you capture your outliers, your cult followers. They are critical to the success of your brand. They need to go the distance with you, even as you gain mass appeal. They’re influencers. With RocoMamas, they have been influential on social media. The same was true of Mad Bull, and then Mad Buzz. We had a fun, edgy marketing campaign for the name change, with street pole ads that said: ‘SA’s first Bull Fight’. Our early adopters loved it. They saw Red Bull as the bully.
“The shift in direction happened too soon. There’s a critical moment in every brand’s growth curve when you move from early adopters, to early mass market, to mainstream or general mass market. The key is not to lose your early customers. They need to feel appreciated and heard. They’re big influencers, particularly if you haven’t reached general mass market level yet.
“We shifted focus and lost them. We had a sizeable stake in the local market — about 15% — but not enough to lose our early adopters. I didn’t agree with the direction we were taking, and wasn’t adding anything to the new vision. I sold my share to my partners and moved on.”
Altriche sold Ocean Basket before he was 30, and a few short years later had his biggest failure to date. By that time he was in his early 30s, he’d lost two brands he’d created, he’d had a failed restaurant and he’d sold the one business that was doing really well. Worse still, the R240 000 he’d made from Ocean Basket and invested with a broker became R80 000 overnight after the 9/11 attacks in the US. Panicking, Altriche pulled his money out.
But, entrepreneurs are resilient, particularly if they accept the powerful role failure plays in eventual success. Altriche took stock of where he was, and visualised what he wanted his life to look like.
“I wanted a break. Through the natural way I visualise things, I realised I wanted to go back to running a restaurant, earning a decent wage, and being in control of my own business.”
Altriche had identified Spur as the franchise he wanted to own. But joining one of the oldest franchises in South Africa was easier said than done. The franchisor was fiercely loyal to existing franchisees who got first dibs on any new locations or stores.
“First, I got a loan from FNB. Then I did my own negotiations with the landlord at Southgate and got a good installation deal. I tap danced to open that store. It took me 25 phone calls just to get a meeting with Spur. I cut my hair, donned a collared shirt, and got a testimonial from Fats. Before they would even consider my application, Spur asked all the franchisees in the area if they wanted Southgate? No one did.
“I wasn’t focused on ROI. I worked that business, growing it step by step. I paid off my loan and earned a decent salary. Today it’s a massive business and I still own it. One year later I opened a second Spur with a 50% partner. We opened in the Carlton Centre in December 2006. It was a big risk. No one knew what was going to happen in that area. We stuck it out and today it’s also a great business. Trust in Joburg’s CBD is growing. The equity partners that I’ve developed are gems.
“I’ve bought two more Spurs over the years. I sold one, and closed the other. We bought into the idea of the regeneration of town leading up to the World Cup. Maboneng and Braamfontein have been a success. Hillbrow hasn’t. The recession hit and everything ground to a halt. It’s now full of empty and highjacked buildings.”
By 2007 Altriche had regrouped and was ready for a new challenge. “Sushi bars were everywhere when I lived in California,” he says. “When I returned to South Africa in the early 90s our market wasn’t ready for them, but almost 20 years later I thought it was.”
Altriche let Spur know what he was doing, and the franchisor gave him its blessing. He opened a Yume in Clearwater Mall and Monte Casino before selling the brand.
He’d learnt another valuable lesson, this time not from a failure, but interestingly from the success of his brand. “I had a lot of fun with the branding and the overall look and feel of the Yume experience, but throughout building and launching the brand I realised I never, ever wanted to eat sushi again. I still don’t.”
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The lesson? Don’t launch something if it’s not going to hold your own attention. “Through my own reaction to sushi I began to doubt how long the market for sushi bars would last. I didn’t think I could build it into a large, vibrant brand with stores across the country. It was too niche and trendy.”
But this was the seed for RocoMamas. What wouldn’t get old and tired quickly? What dining and food experience would hold South Africa’s attention, across demographics, standing the test of time? “While that idea was percolating, I was grappling with the fact that my two teenage daughters considered fast food normal. I hadn’t grow up with that. In the US you get some fast food that’s still made like it was made in the 50s. It’s real food.”
The idea for RocoMamas was taking shape, becoming more real day by day, as Altriche started visualising what this dining experience would be like
“Initially I was going more gourmet, but I’ve learnt to walk through my ideas; feel them out from every angle. I wanted to see how the concept should fit together and work. What is the full brand experience? What does it look, feel, smell and taste like?
“You need to be able to under-promise and over-deliver and so I asked myself what that looked like? I wanted the concept to be franchisable. Colour, branding and food — everything needed to be replicable, but still based on fresh cooking. That was important.”
By being completely obsessive, Altriche has achieved his goal. 90% of RocoMamas’ menu is freshly prepared and cooked. The only items each store needs to buy are frozen fries and baked rolls. “The meat we buy is fresh. We spent a lot of time getting that right. All of our meat is from the same butcher who is audited by Spur. He’s a passionate youngster, born and bred in butcheries. We march to the same beat.”
The idea behind the smashburger, which Altriche has trademarked in South Africa, also came from the US. “There was a burger place I loved. It was run by a husband and wife team, and he smashed the burgers. He used meatballs with no binding agents, and he’d place them on a hot skillet and smash them down. You lose no juices with that method. Everything squeezed out of the meatball is immediately sealed into the patty. The entire idea was based on memory and obsessively walking through the vision.”
A well-run business is much more complicated than the customer perceives. “That’s the point though,” says Altriche. “It should be simple for the consumer. There are so many parts to make this work seamlessly. We’re targeting a market that is generally loyal to the big brands. The right marketing gets them through the door, but the atmosphere keeps them here. We’ve created a comfortable environment for anyone, with delicious, fresh food that will always be a firm favourite. Burgers are sexy again, but they’ve always been a food that everyone loves.”
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As with Yume, Altriche presented the idea to Spur, and they gave him their blessing. “I opened two stores, and my brother-in-law became my first franchisee, bringing us up to three. Then Pierre van Tonder, CEO of Spur Group, told me Spur wanted to be involved. I’d designed the concept with franchising in mind, and I’d already had a lot of franchisee enquiries, so the partnership was an obvious next step. I had created the branding, marketing and look and feel of the brand, but Spur has the franchising know-how. The Spur Group is a master of systems, processes and training manuals, and these are a vital cog in a franchise’s success. We have taken this brand to incredible heights.”
RocoMamas has become an overnight household name, but longevity is going to come through slow, careful, sustainable growth, which is exactly what Altriche is doing.
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