THE SON OF A DOMESTIC WORKER, Cheslin Grobbler (24) grew up in Wellington, a town in South Africa’s winelands challenged by poverty, unemployment, substance abuse and other social problems. Here he tells SUSAN BENTLEY about his turnaround from hustler to entrepreneur and encourager of others…
Cheslin Grobbler: ‘I learnt to hustle at an early age’ | Photo: Daniel Saaiman
‘My parents got divorced before I was born and I never knew my real dad. My mom was married a few times, but my stepfathers didn’t really guide me. It wasn’t easy for my mother, she was a single mom and I remember her as always busy. I was gifted at sport but she didn’t really talk about my school colours for swimming and rugby, or the fact that I played age-group rugby for my province.
I think that as a result, I sought affirmation outside the home and learnt to hustle at an early age. My cousin was a gangster, and to get his approval I started selling marijuana and other drugs. I had a real struggle with my identity, always trying to fit in, yet always feeling fearful and uncertain. I admired famous athletes but had no idea how to be like them.
I thought I’d better do something
My main memory of childhood is having to work hard and fight for things. I earned money in my gran’s shop and helping out at my mom’s work, and made extra money selling cigarettes to primary school children for my cousin.
When I was about 16, I refused to play a musical instrument for a class at school and the teacher said I couldn’t come back until I could do so. Shortly afterwards, I happened to walk past a house where I caught sight of a guitar. I thought I’d better do something about learning an instrument or Mom, who was strict, would give me a hard time.
While intentionally spending time away from his tough home environment, Cheslin was introduced to the joys of coffee | Photo: kikitography.com
I knocked on the door and this white guy, Anré, opened it. I asked him to teach me how to play and he welcomed me in and showed me some chords right then and there. He and his friend Delwin displayed a friendliness, love and compassion that I’d never encountered. I was so touched by their kindness. I wanted to know what made them like that, and discovered they were students training at a Christian ministry.
We built up a friendship and after a while I prayed with them a prayer to give my life to God. A few weeks later, Anré came into a drug house where everyone was drugging their troubles away and challenged me to decide what I wanted to do with my life. ‘I’ll wait outside for you for five minutes,’ he said. It made me feel so loved. My cousin told me to stay but I walked out. I physically felt that God was hugging me and a weight was lifted off my shoulders that has never come back.
I wanted to make coffee
Anré arranged for me to go to my uncle, a chef in Simonstown, for weekends and holidays so as to escape my home environment. I helped in the restaurant and did some physical training alongside his navy friends. There, I learnt about coffee for the first time while whipping the milk for the cappuccinos. I also studied some theology while playing under-21 rugby for Boland, a regional team, as scrumhalf or wing.
I was now convinced that God was real and working in my life. A friend had started a mobile coffee business and I told God that this was what I too wanted to do. One morning, I woke up and felt Him telling me to go to a particular shop in town and tell the people there that I wanted to make coffee for them. I did exactly this and the owner just looked at me and said, ‘I told the Lord last night that I don’t have a barista, and if there is one in town, please let him walk into my shop!’
With an investor, Cheslin opened the roastery at the Val de Vie residential estate near Paarl and now has three other Fleet Coffee locations in Cape Town and the winelands | Photo: Daniel Saaiman
I worked there for three months. As the barista there, I got talking to a customer named Ivan Swartz who heads up Labit, a company that identifies and incubates entrepreneurs and amazingly, he helped me to start a coffee company with R250! I laughed at him when he suggested it, I didn’t think I was capable, but he insisted I had the potential inside me and started mentoring me not just with specific business knowledge but skills such as how to handle people.
I just wanted an opportunity
I called it Fleet Coffee because of my navy connections. It was really hard work, especially trying to work with ex-offenders with no skills. But I kept persevering. Then another friendly guy started coming into the coffee shop. One day he asked my name, introduced himself as Martin Venter and asked what I needed. I said, ‘I don’t want money, I just want an opportunity.’ He told me he liked to help people and I realised we shared the same dreams.
Martin turned out to be the CEO of Val de Vie, a residential estate near Franschhoek. He gave me an investment opportunity and suggested opening a roastery before I even had the chance to tell him that this had always been my dream! We opened the roastery at Val de Vie and now have three other Fleet Coffee locations in Cape Town and the winelands.
Cheslin feels called to mentor young men in his community | Photo: kikitography.com
Martin’s such a humble man, but he’s also a visionary. Like Ivan, he too mentors me, and I in turn have mentored a number of people in the last two years. I feel God has called me to do for the young guys in my community what Ivan and Martin did for me. It’s now my passion to train them up as responsible, successful fathers and leaders. Six of my mentees work for Fleet Coffee and two others have gone on to start their own businesses. I encourage them to bring in new ideas, not to agonise too much about mistakes as they are a part of growth, and to keep moving forward.
I have never touched drugs again
I believe that if you identify your core passion, God will bring people to you to enable it. I know He’s always with me even when I don’t acknowledge His presence. And since the day I physically felt God’s love and Anré challenged me to leave the drug house, I have never touched drugs again.’