Just like Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone in The Godfather, Shane Swiegelaar is a man who holds court.
But save for the giant ring on his finger, bejewelled with the name of his business (a gift from a loyal customer) that is where the similarity ends.
Shane may have been inspired by Francis Ford Coppola’s epic film series in calling his restaurants “The Grillfather”, but his convivial personality is a far cry from a fictionalised “don” who uses heads as a scare tactic. No one is even expected to kiss the ring.
Not that Shane isn’t highly revered himself.
In only two short years, he has taken The Grillfather from a business based in a garage to one of the most recognisable names in Mitchell’s Plain.
In May, the 44-year-old opened a branch in Wynberg, and already word is spreading of his grilled burgers, steaks, wings and footlong boerewors rolls.
Shane’s love of cooking and food began in Hout Bay, where he grew up in the harbour community.
Mother “Auntie Henna” Swiegelaar was known to all and sundry, catering 21st birthday parties (and just about any other occasion) with her famed curries and brownies.
Her young son took it all in, but little did he know at the time where this grounding would take him.
“I went to Sentinel Primary and was part of Hout Bay High’s first matric class. Hangberg was still a quiet community back then. It was a happy place, and we would hike into the mountains or Duikersklip or go fishing. My mom worked at the Sea Products fish factory and my dad was a walskipper.”
After finishing his studies, Shane joined Hout Bay Fishing, working as a supervisor in its Table Bay operation. He then spent a period working at Atlantis Diesel Engines before venturing into the nightclub industry as a bouncer.
“I worked at Shakers in Sea Point, which was a 24-hour pub. Those were some good times. I then got the chance to manage the Wynberg Sports Club for four years. Then my mommy passed away, so I moved back to Hout Bay to be with my dad.”
Round about the time he hit 30, Shane felt it was time to broaden his horizons, and travelled to London, where he worked as a bouncer and hotel porter.
When his work visa expired, he returned to Cape Town where he managed the Stones bar and nightclub in Kuils River.
He also invested in the Stones franchise, but after several years, believing there were too many “bad elements” creeping into the nightclub scene, he decided it was time to move on.
It was at this point that his thoughts turned to one of his great loves: food.
“I started doing spit braais from home in Mitchell’s Plain, and people seemed to like it. I did a spit braai for a catering company, iHealth Meals, and they told me they were looking for a driver. The spit-braai business wasn’t taking up all of my time, so I thought, ‘Why not?’ I worked from 2am to noon delivering meals all over Cape Town.
“While I was there, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with the chef, who as it turned out had worked for Gordon Ramsay. I learnt so much, just from talking to him.”
Imbued with a new determination to start his own food business, Shane set about transforming his garage in Mitchell’s Plain into a kitchen and room from which customers could be served. He also started testing sauce combinations that would make his grilled burgers and meats the stuff of legend.
“Very quickly word spread of what we were doing, and we got really busy, especially at the weekends. I also used Facebook to get the message out.
“The problem was there was one auntie in my street who didn’t like all the cars parking there, so we had to close up shop and start looking for a new space. Obviously, now I had to cover that rent, so I started selling off a lot of what I owned, including my ‘baby’, a BMW 5 Series.
“When I had got the money together for the space, we launched on September 23 2016. I was on the grill, my long-time friend from Hout Bay, Jonathan Meter, was on chips, my wife, Tina, did the packaging and my mother-in-law, Maureen van Niekerk, worked the till.
“From the start it was success. When we got home at 11pm that night, we all had big smiles on our faces.”
Going from strength to strength at a rate of knots, Shane became synonymous with his restaurant.
“Kids would see me on the street and call me ‘The Grilldaddy’. I think our success has been that we never put out food that is not 100% perfect, even if that means people have to wait a bit longer for their food.
“Our food is not mass produced. I also think we have really connected with the people of Mitchell’s Plain. As I say, the people of Mitchell’s Plain own The Grillfather. I am just the custodian.”
Vannie Kaap Media, renowned for their satirical and social commentary, have even partnered with The Grillfather to produce the highly popular “Tsek” burger – a mountainous offering comprising two beef patties, two slices of cheese, boerewors, two slices of pineapple, braised onions and mushroom sauce.
“I’m 44 now, and what I’ve realised is that everything I’ve done up to this point has helped me with this business.
“I’m doing what I love. There’s nothing better than watching people socialising and eating.”