Mechanic who retooled as a chef and amazed even himself

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tiyane had a stable job as a mechanic.

In Summary

• His company Facebook profile seems to suggest he has amazed even himself at how much he has managed to accomplish over a short period.

• With a wide variety of burgers on offer and a scooter delivery service, he is now so much in demand that he's begun looking to the future.

Tiyane Malukele, the mechanic who retooled as a chef and amazed even himself.
Tiyane Malukele, the mechanic who retooled as a chef and amazed even himself.
Image: Bird

When people talk about building a new business from scratch, they don't usually mean building the infrastructure, too.

But when COVID-19 struck and forced Tiyane Malukele to take extreme measures to survive, that's exactly what he did - building even the vehicle that carries his burger joint to where his customers are waiting (and drooling, going by reactions on his Facebook page), from scratch.

It’s mid-day and the heat is thermometer-topping. A small line has formed but so far, everyone is waiting patiently - they've been here all morning to claim this treat - despite wondering why he was not showing up.

He starts preparing burgers for them. Quickly, so as not to let them down.

When he's done cutting and frying and adding sauces and garnishes and the queue has disappeared, each person heading off down the street, satisfied, he takes a short rest over a glass of ice-cold water. 

It's draining work, with the sun beating down mercilessly but Malukele is happy.

"Cooking, that was always one of my loves. One of my passions. I grew up in the kitchen with my mother," he said, wiping his hands.

Just months ago, those same hands would have been oil and grease-covered, not the skilled hands of a chef used to mixing seasonings and designing tasty new burger recipes. 

Today the owner of Grub Worx not only receives rave reviews on his Facebook site but is in demand all over Soweto, his informal internship in his mother’s kitchen proving invaluable.

His mother taught Malukele recipes he has never forgotten. He has a sauce of his own that he makes from scratch, with secret ingredients that make his burgers stand out.

His "Chicken Grubgasm" is clearly another favourite, on Facebook.

Malukele's burgers are popular enough in this area that he gets orders as early as six in the morning.

If he and his vehicle are busy in another area, there is always the 30 rand delivery scooter option "anywhere around Soweto" offered on his Facebook site. Bertha Zwane is a regular customer.

"It’s... pure chicken. He cuts it while you are watching, he takes fresh chips while you are watching, not the chips that were boiled last week and kept and he makes his own sauces,” she said enthusiastically.

Long time friend and customer, Nnoi Maubani says he believes that it's the sauces that really separate Malulek's burgers from the rest.

“I trust his cooking. His burgers are amazing. The wings are amazing. I say try it and you will definitely love it," he added.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tiyane had a stable job as a mechanic. Not a wealthy man, he had nevertheless built a roof over his head and food on the table - a quiet and decent life, he said.

With COVID-19, everything crumbled. The economy collapsed and Tiyane's employer couldn’t afford to pay him anymore. Without notice, he was out on the street.

It was a huge blow. Misfortune seemed to be chasing him. This job loss occurred only a few years after his family was evicted from their hard-earned property in Randburg.

Tiyane’s parents had acquired a house in the solidly middle-class area located in Gauteng Province.

They were always busy, he said, his mother in banking and his father running a petrol station in the neighbourhood.

With the hope of securing a long-term future for his children, his father put the house and other properties in a trust.

Everything went well for some years but one day, it felt like the earth was taken from under their feet. They received a letter from the sheriff. The letter informed them that their home was being repossessed by the bank.

The trustee to whom they entrusted all the family assets had scammed them, had taken almost everything and vanished "into the thin air" as if he had never existed. Their house was now on auction.

“We were victims of a scam. We tried and tried, but we couldn’t win our house back, even though we tried bidding for it at auction. We came to a point where we were squatters at our own home,” he recalled.

With that trauma still fresh in his mind, Tiyane was now a jobless man. Heavy clouds seemed to cast a shadow over his future. There and then, he made a decision to ensure the sun kept on shining on his thoughts.

He would not allow himself to be discouraged nor let depression win.

“I looked at myself in the mirror and l said l need to take charge of my life. And l did,” he said.

As he was outlining what his steps forward might be, a friend convinced him to start a burger business. 

"‘I'm telling you, the idea will work, it will change your life,’ he was telling me - and it has," Tiyane said.

But he was now without money. To start a burger business he would have to get extremely creative. An idea led him to a scrapyard, where he was able to get hold of an old Volkswagen car shell.

It took a few months but he got it to move again - thanks to his background in mechanics - and added the fryer on the back.

"I saw the car shell here, no doors, no mirrors, nothing, it was just a bare shell. I negotiated with the owner and from there I started building it," he said.

By early 2021 Malukele had started his new business, naming it Grub Worx, a name that speaks of both the present and the past.

His company Facebook profile seems to suggest he has amazed even himself at how much he has managed to accomplish over a short period.

With a wide variety of burgers on offer and a scooter delivery service, he is now so much in demand that he's begun looking to the future.

"Its been going so well... My vision is having a chain of food trucks, instead of getting a restaurant, it's easier than getting a place to rent,” he explained.