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Entrepreneur watch: Bringing the ‘Zen’ back to Kenya’s restaurant industry

Shivani Radia Patel (27) quit her high-flying job at a UK law firm to heed her parents’ advice of settling back in Kenya and doing something of her own. Today she is one of the founders and managing directors of Zen Gardens, a leading restaurant in Nairobi, Kenya. How we made it in Africa’s Regina Ekiru sat down with Patel to discuss the business.

Shivani Radia Patel

Shivani Radia Patel

How did you initially start Zen Gardens?

While working in the UK, I always thought of having my own business but it is the encouragement from my parents that gave me the go. My passion for food inspired me to venture into the hospitality sector. It was a big risk considering the amount of investment in terms of money and time. It took two years to establish the restaurant. It will take us about three to four years to recover the investment but we are on the right track since we are already profitable. When I came back from the UK, I brought in my experience in management and marketing, and teamed-up with my mom and sister who are garden, landscape and interior designers.

Zen Gardens hosts two restaurants – the Bamboo Oriental restaurant and the Jade coffee and tea house – and a conference facility. The facility stands on a two and a half acres piece of land. It has been in operation for two years now. We have 60 employees with a target clientele ranging from the high end market, corporate firms and tourists.

What makes Zen Gardens unique?

Ours is a unique location and concept. The décor, the food, the ambiance and our service standards make us stand out. Being an owner-run investment means we are highly involved in the business. It is very easy to lose control of a big business if the owners are not involved in managing the venture. We are passionate and take care of every detail to ensure our clients get the best service.

Tell us more about the challenges you face in running the business

Setting and maintaining service standards is no joke. We have to be top of the game every day. This demands a lot of time and involvement in the day-to-day activities to ensure we maintain our standards. To add to that, managing every aspect of the business calls for one to be an all-rounder. I am involved in all the departments, from marketing, procurement, human resources, accounts as well as front of house duties. Power disruptions, water shortages and droughts are some of the other challenges that affect operations and lead to extra expenses.

A chef working in the Bamboo Oriental restaurant's kitchen.

A chef working in the Bamboo Oriental restaurant's kitchen.

How would you describe the current state of Kenya’s hospitality industry?

The hotel industry in Kenya is on an impressive growth trend. The establishment of new hotels has increased competition thereby prompting market players to adopt higher standards of service.

What are the reasons behind the emergence of Asian women as serious players in business in Kenya?

There has been a change of perception. A lot of Asian families now value educating the girl child. Personally, I was sent to a boarding school in the UK at the age of 13. Most young Asian women are now running start-up businesses. In the next ten years, I can bet we will be a force to be reckoned with.

What’s next on the horizon for Zen Gardens?

We hope to operate as a franchised business. We have received several requests to open Zen Garden restaurants in other locations. This would, however, require a lot of time in management, and since we do not want to compromise on the quality of service, we would prefer to franchise the business as an expansion strategy. We are also looking at establishing a boutique hotel in the near future. In the next five years I would like to see Zen Gardens emerge as an established and highly respected business in the country. We would like to make a mark in the hospitality industry.

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