How Brian Altriche Built Rocomamas

So how does a kid who attended 11 different schools, and has no education beyond matric, launch such a successful and universally loved brand such as RocoMamas?

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.

Brian Altriche, founder of RocoMamas

In his mid-20s, he suffered a serious car accident, which left him stranded in hospital during festive seasons with a broken arm and leg, as well as multiple head injuries.

The time spent in hospital made him re-evaluate his life path in two major ways:

  • Firstly, he decided to go into the restaurant business by himself. It dawned on him that the restaurant game wasn’t that complicated, which made it the ideal business model for him.
  • Secondly, he became obsessed with visualization. Visualising what a brand should look like, smell like, sound like, what the food should look like, how consumers experience a particular offering, every tiny detail lived inside his head before he could start to work on it.

Longhorn Steakhouse

He went against his gut and opened Longhorn Steakhouse in a Pretoria suburb. After a few weeks, it became clear it wasn’t the right demographic for his steakhouse.

There were no office parks in the area, which meant no lunch trade. On top of that, the residents were primarily retirees whose kids had left the house.

Not one to give up easily, Brian hung on for a year before finally giving up and accepting his losses.

The failure experience taught him a lot about running a restaurant on a lean staff, stock holdings, operations, as well as the make-or-break power of location.

Ocean Basket

Ocean Basket

With a sizeable debt hanging over his head, he packed his equipment and approached Fats Lazarides of Ocean Basket and asked him to become the first franchisee of his brand.

Lazarides agreed to to the proposal and then Brian launched his Ocean Basket store at Southgate Mall in Johannesburg. The lessons he learnt at the steakhouse came in handy while running Ocean Basket. After a while, he was able to pay off his debts and start getting some regular income.

Passionade

Being an entrepreneur at heart, Altriche was always on the look-out for new challenges.

While still running 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.

He became sad and disappointed at how the whole situation transpired but nonetheless, he never held a grudge because it would have hurt him far more than his partners to hold on to anger.

Mad Bull

One day a case of energy drinks arrived for him to sample for his store. When he took a gulp for the first time, he was completely hooked. Over time, he started relying more on those drinks to relieve exhaustion and sleepiness.

Altriche liked the drinks so much and gradually realized a market could exist for them.

He managed to find a chemist in the UK who could create a formula with Taurine as its active ingredient, secured a funding partner in South Africa, and launched his own version of the drink, calling it Mad Bull.

By 1998, Brian had sold off his Ocean Basket store for R240 000 to fully concentrate on making Mad Bull and GoGirl, a sugar-free version of the energy drink aimed at female consumers, a success.

However, he realized later on that it was a mistake to sell the store. He hadn’t taken into account the fact that owning the Ocean Basket store actually gave him more security where he earned a nice living cheaque on a monthly basis.

Soon as he embarked on the Mad Bull project, the cheaque became absent. To this day, he regrets selling that store.

Red Bull comes bullying….

Red Bull

He threw himself into growing and establishing the Mad Bull brand, but just as he was about to go nuclear mode, Red Bull sued them over naming rights. As you’d expect, they lost the case, and then Mad Bull was renamed to Mad Buzz.

It was the beginning of the end for the brand, not because of the name switch, but due to internal decisions that were made as a result of the court case and money lost while fighting Red Bull.

Brian, a gut-feel entrepreneur who relies mostly on reading a market’s pulse and responding to customer’s needs, didn’t see eye-to-eye with his partners who owned a majority stake in the brand.

In order to recover losses, a decision was made to rebrand entirely along with the name change, however, Brian opposed the move.

According to him, when launching a brand, there’s a marketing curve whereby first you capture your cult followers because they are a critical component to the success of your brand. They need to go the distance with you, even after you gain mass appeal, they’re basically the influencers.

So with Mad Bull, and then Mad Buzz. The team had a fun and edgy marketing campaign for the whole rebrand, with street pole ads that read: ‘SA’s first Bull Fight’. Their early adopters loved it because they saw Red Bull as the bully.

In the business world, there’s a critical moment in every product’s growth curve when you move from early adopters to the general mass market. The key isn’t to lose your early consumers, they need to feel appreciated and heard. However with Mad Buzz, the shift in direction happened just too soon.

Brian eventually sold his stake in Mad Buzz as he didn’t agree with the direction the partners were taking the business.

Early 30s crisis….

By this time he was in his early 30s, he had lost the 2 brands he created, had a failed restaurant, and on top of that, sold the one business that was actually doing well.

Worse still, he had invested the R240K made from the Ocean Basket sale with a broker, but due to the 9/11 attacks, it became R80 000 overnight. He panicked and pulled out his money.

Spur

As you can imagine, he was going through a lot mentally but since he was never one to panic, he sat down and analyzed his situation and visualised what he wanted to do with his life. He then identified Spur as the next franchise he wanted to own, however, it was easier said than done.

Spur

It took him about 25 phone calls to get a meeting with Spur. He cut his hair, donned a collared shirt, and got a testimonial from his former boss, Fats Lazarides. Before they would even consider his application, the company asked all the other franchisees if they wanted Southgate Mall which was the location Altriche wanted to open at, luckily for him, no one did.

He managed to secure a loan from FNB and negotiated with the owner of Southgate and got a good installation deal.

At first, Brian wasn’t too focused on ROI. He grew the store step by step and by the time he knew it, he had paid off his loan and was earning a decent salary.

In December 2006, he opened a second Spur in a 50% partnership in Carlton Centre. It was a big risk as no one knew what was going to happen in that area. In the end however, the store became a massive success.

Yume

By 2007, Altriche was ready for a new challenge.

Yume

He remembered that Sushi bars were everywhere when he lived in the US. When he returned to SA in the early 90s, he realized the country’s market wasn’t ready for them, but years later, he thought the readiness was there.

He informed Spur on what he wanted to do and the company gave him their blessings on the new venture.

He launched Yume in Clearwater Mall and Monte Casino before selling the business. He learnt another lesson, not from failure like his previous experiences, but interestingly enough, from the success of the brand.

According to Altriche, he had a lot of fun with the branding and overall look of the Yume experience, but throughout that journey of building and launching, he realised that he never wanted to eat sushi again.

Through his own reaction of eating sushi, he began to doubt how long the market for sushi bars would last. He didn’t think he could build Yume into a large and vibrant brand with franchise stores spreaded across the country, because it was too niche and trendy.

Yume taught him to never launch something that wasn’t gonna occupy 100% of his attention.

RocoMamas

A wise man once said everything happens for a reason. On his next venture, Altriche wanted something that wouldn’t get old and tired quickly. A dining and food experience that would hold South Africa’s attention across all demographics, while standing the test of time.

The idea for RocoMamas was starting to take shape, becoming more real day by day, as he started visualising what its dining experience should be like.

Inside the original RocoMamas store in Malibongwe Drive

He Initially thought of taking the gourmet route, but because of his ability to dissect every little tiny detail before embarking on any journey, he dismissed the idea.

He settled on the idea of serving smashburgers, ribs and chicken wings as the brand’s core offering.

RocoMamas

As with Yume, Altriche presented his idea to Spur, and once again, they gave him their blessing.

He started with two RocoMamas stores, and then his brother-in-law became the first franchisee, bringing it to a total to 3 stores.

By being completely obsessive, Brian achieved his goal as 90% of RocoMamas’ menu is freshly cooked and prepared. The restaurant only buys baked rolls and frozen fries.

After launching Rocomamas, he initially thought the concept would only appeal to the millennial and youth market, but as time went on, diners of all ages started queuing up for the artisanal-style food.

Spur Acquisition

Pierre van Tonder, then CEO of Spur Corporation, told him Spur wanted to be involved. In January 2015, Spur Corporation paid R27 million for a 51% shareholding stake in RocoMamas.

Spur Corporation

From the get-go, Altriche designed the concept of RocoMamas with franchising in mind, so the partnership with Spur was an obvious next step.

Although he designed the branding, marketing, look and feel of RocoMamas, he needed Spur Corporation to make it as big as it can become because they had all the franchising know-how.

The Spur Corporation is a master of processes, systems, and training manuals, which are a vital cog in a franchise’s success.

After the acquisition, RocoMamas went on to expand over the years. As of 2023, there’s over 100 RocoMamas restaurants in South Africa and 11 international points of presence

Brian Altriche’s entrepreneurial journey is paved with a feast of successes, fabulous failures and curve balls. It shows with enough hardwork, perseverance and never backing down from challenges, one can achieve success.

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