‘I have not had a day off in six weeks,’ says restaurant entrepreneur

Kenyans are not known to be lovers of crab and oyster. A seafood restaurant in Nairobi targeting the middle class has, however, defied expectations. The Seven Seafood & Grill has been in operation for over two years and a second branch just opened two weeks ago. Seven Restaurants co-founder and renowned chef Kiran Jethwa told How we made it in Africa’s Dinfin Mulupi why the food business is not for the faint-hearted.

Kiran Jethwa

Kiran Jethwa

What’s the inspiration behind the Seven Restaurants?

I have a degree in hospitality management and I am a trained chef. I have been working in the kitchen since I was 18 years old and I have trained and worked all over the world. This is a business I know and understand.

When I came back to Kenya, my business partner and I thought there was an opportunity to do things a little bit differently. There is demand and appetite for certain standards within the Nairobi community. We felt the demand was not being met in terms of quality eateries with great food, service and ambiance. We opened our first Seven Restaurants brand, the Seven Seafood & Grill in Nairobi, in October 2010. We wanted to establish restaurants that could be picked up and placed in any city in the world and survive.

Describe some of the challenges you face.

The age old challenge for any restaurant is to continuously deliver and not compromise on standards. We have a workforce of over 100 people now in two restaurants. Managing that number and delivering the product is difficult. I am a big believer in making sure that your team buy into the product, the ethos and culture of the company and promote the culture of the company, which can be achieved using various motivational tools. If I did not have the team that I have around me, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do. I have a very strong senior management team.

The restaurant industry is accessible to anybody, which is why there are so many eateries opening up everywhere in the world. But it is very difficult. It is extremely difficult. There are so many factors involved in the day to day running of a restaurant, such that if you don’t set up yourself properly, you won’t be around for too long.

As challenging as it sounds, there are still many restaurants coming up in Nairobi targeting the middle class. Why are entrepreneurs investing in this business anyway?

Nairobi is a very interesting and exciting place at the moment. We have got a growing middle class with disposable income. We have many expatriates here and a lot of Kenyans who have been out of the country are coming back. They have been exposed to certain standards. I think anyone who is a little bit innovative in the food business will be successful. If you get it right, it can be a very profitable business. My business partner and I have just started another company called The Good Food Company, a firm that offers a wide range of modern and classic cuisine prepared and delivered to offices in Nairobi. It’s small, but we have got much bigger plans for it.

There is a huge opportunity in this business and that is why you are seeing a lot of investments. However, it needs to be carefully thought out, very well planned and then executed properly. It requires hard work. I have not had a day off in six weeks. I have worked 18 hour days for six weeks straight. When it comes to food, people are very fussy. You have very little tolerance for error. It’s not for the faint-hearted this business.

Many Kenyans in the diaspora are coming back home to establish businesses. Why is this so?

The opportunity is here. You go to Europe and the US and its all doom and gloom. If you have a creative brain here, you can succeed in whichever industry. There is demand for innovative businesses. It is also easier to do it here if you understand the market and how it works.

What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs going into the food business?

There is no magic in business and there are no unknown secrets. It’s just about following the fundamentals. Don’t cut corners, put in solid structures, really spend money on the set up and recruit sensibly.