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Community shocked by passing of beloved, “one-of-a-kind” waiter

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Many of us know the faces of the waiters at our most-frequented neighbourhood eatery, some might even know their first names and strike up a quick, friendly conversation.

However, things were different with the late Meli Nkomo, 41, of Frangelicas in Glenhazel. He was more than a waiter. He was a friend. For some patrons, he was more like family. He knew the way you liked your eggs, over easy, or your cappuccino, hot and strong. He also knew when you were having a good day or when you were feeling a little down and needed a lift, perhaps a chocolate symphony biscuit would do the trick.

Nkomo, known to hundreds of customers at the popular kosher restaurant, passed away suddenly last week. He was found by neighbours lying on the ground in the courtyard of his apartment building in Hillbrow at about 21:00 on 17 April. It remains puzzling exactly how he died, but according to those nearest to him, there was no evidence of foul play. One thing’s for certain, Nkomo touched hearts at every table he served.

His tragic, untimely passing has struck a nerve in the community, as seen by the steady stream of tributes that flooded the eatery’s Facebook page this week.

“I loved Meli, he was like family,” one patron who wished to remain anonymous told the SA Jewish Report. “We had endearing nicknames for each other, and he knew exactly which of the different muffins to put aside for each of my children for Shabbos.”

The restaurant was closed over Pesach when news of his passing trickled in. During Chol Hamoed, one heartbroken family taped a printed poster on the doors of the restaurant with his name, encouraging people to write special messages in a book. People placed flowers and messages of condolences in the book.

Distraught staff were inundated with calls by concerned patrons asking for details about what had happened to their beloved Meli. When the restaurant opened again after Pesach, there were a number of offers from psychologists and social workers for grief counselling for staff and others who have been devastated by his loss.

Frangelicas co-owner Elana Godley said she was deeply moved by the amount of love and support shown by the community. “There’s been an outpouring, it’s nothing short of breathtaking”, she said.

Thousands of rand have been donated, which will go to Nkomo’s family upon its return from his resting place in Zimbabwe, Godley said.

“Meli understood the ethos of Frangelicas, and took it very seriously. He made people feel like they mattered, like they were seen and heard. It’s a family-run, community-based business, and he knew his customers and made them feel special,” she said.

“He lived his life in ways that mattered. He’s an inspiring, shining example of how a kind word, a smile, and genuinely noticing someone matters.”

Nkomo was one of the waiting staff when Simon and Elana Godley bought into the business several years ago.

“He grew with the business and worked his way up to becoming our head waiter. He was one of those people you could see just loved his job,” she said.

He was a mentor and role model. She described him as “wonderfully cheerful, optimistic, engaging, light-hearted, playful, and helpful”.

For Nkomo, “The hours were never too long, the work never too difficult, the demands never too much, the concerns never too daunting,” said Godley.

Describing it as an “irreplaceable loss”, she said Nkomo was a deeply religious man, who “was always there to lift us up, especially through the bad times”.

The restaurant posted on Facebook that it had been an honour to share his life, and that it was proud knowing that he had “left such deep footprints” on everyone’s hearts.

“Meli’s soul should receive an aliya from seeing and hearing all the ways he made this world a better place. May he be uplifted in his journey knowing how many looked forward to seeing him and how much affection he stirred in all of us.”

Rebbetzin Wendy Hendler described him as a “sweet and beautiful man whose demeanour never failed to lift one’s spirits”.

He was described as “a legend of a man”. One person said he was a “one-of-a-kind human being”. Others said he was a “bright light”, a “humble, gentle giant of a man”, “a mensch and true example of leadership”, and “the epitome of a gentleman with a heart of gold”.

People said they were “devastated, shocked, and shattered” by the news. “The world will be a sadder and poorer place without him,” one woman said.

Shereen Abramowitz-Sacks posted on Facebook, “I’m absolutely devastated to hear this. We were probably one of the last tables Meli served on Thursday evening before the Easter weekend. I was still going to write a sterling review of him and our beautiful evening at Frangelicas. We were a table of 19, a huge family reunion from four continents. Meli was our waiter of choice – he was outstanding! He managed our huge crowd beautifully. He was so kind, helpful, and accommodating and gave us a truly wonderful Frangelicas experience, as he always has.”

Jackie Jacobson said, “My heart is so sad and broken to wake up and read this news. Our family loved you, and you looked after Morri all the years and knew what we wanted without a menu .Your care for me when he passed on was so comforting always, and you knew the grandchildren by name. Coming to Frangelicas is always a highlight and even if you never served me, your smile and greetings were there. The last time I saw you was Thursday night, and Gavi and I said, ‘Hi Meli’ for the last time. You touched the hearts of all who knew you.”

Godley said she would put together a book of memories, messages, and stories to be given to his wife, Happiness, together with the donations, “So his family will know Meli through our eyes and understand the impact he made on our lives.”

Nkomo is survived by his wife and three children.

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