Winging it: The man behind Nairobi’s first chicken wings only fast-food joint

A Wing It waiter taking out an order

The idea for Paul Kihiko’s fast-food restaurant brand Wing It, which specialises in chicken wings, was born over a lunch with friends.

“When the waiter came to the table with the menu, it had all the usual items: burgers, chicken, everything. But everybody somehow decided to take chicken wings – the whole table. So I thought, why not start something because it’s a business I have seen working very well in Europe and the US. It’s a huge industry.”

Today, Wing It has two restaurants in the Galleria and The Hub shopping malls in Kenya’s capital Nairobi. The company offers chicken wings in 15 flavours, which Kihiko himself created through experimenting with different recipes.

But starting the venture wasn’t easy, and as Kihiko explains, “The biggest challenge during the planning phase was approaching the landlords for the buildings where we wanted to be placed. The issue is that they always asked, ‘Have you done this before? Before I give you this space, do you have a track record in this business?’

“And my answer was that I have never done it before. This is my first time. So everywhere I went, doors were locked. People were saying ‘no’ every time. We did that for three, four months.

“Then a friend of mine (the owner of Mambo Italia restaurant) told me, ‘Paul, I’ve heard you are looking for space. Let me talk to the mall manager, let me see what she can do for you.’ So he did the introduction for us. Without his introduction, the mall actually wouldn’t have considered my idea.”

With his father as an investor, Kihiko spent an initial amount of about US$46,000 to open the first Wing It restaurant at the Galleria shopping centre towards the end of 2014. A year later, a further $60,000 was invested to launch a second outlet at The Hub mall. Today the shops have a combined monthly revenue of about $15,000.

Competing with global fast-food brands

Recent years have seen numerous international fast-food brands – including KFC, Burger King and Pizza Hut – enter the Kenyan market. Kihiko says these chains are having both a positive and negative impact.

“A lot of international brands are coming in. They are now educating the market on behalf of us on fast food and quick serve… That means we do less marketing to some extent, plus it’s much easier to convince the customers of the fast-food aspect of the business. The bad part about it is they are now competing with us and they have the funds to do it.”

On how Wing It manages to compete, Kihiko says, “We are offering something different from what they have. Most restaurants have chicken wings, but we are now offering it in so many flavours and varieties – all in one place. Before, if I wanted breaded chicken, I’d have to go to KFC; if I wanted buffalo wings, I would have to go to Slims or Cedars; if I wanted barbecue wings, I’d have to go to Spur. Now we are giving you all that variety in one place.”

Rethinking shopping malls

Kihiko says due to high rental costs, his biggest mistake was locating the first restaurants in shopping centres. The company is now planning to close one of its mall outlets to focus on more lucrative locations with less overheads. It is considering a 24-hour restaurant in Nairobi’s Westlands area to capitalise on the weekend nightlife scene, as well as a possible site in the Gigiri neighbourhood that will target expats.

“The rents [in the shopping centres] are really killing our business. A lot of money is going to rent. We have had to restrategise and have identified a few places close to the United Nations [in Gigiri] and Westlands where the rents are between Ksh.80,000 ($800) and Ksh.120,000 ($1,200).”

Another challenge, especially when starting out, was securing reliable suppliers of raw chicken wings. “Finding somebody who can actually slaughter all those chicken to supply us with fifty kilos of wings is quite difficult. They have to have another customer take the other parts [of the bird]… I think we have moved through eight chicken suppliers over the years.”

Kihiko is currently in talks with a leading fast-food chain to take responsibility for running a central kitchen on Wing It’s behalf. From here, all food will be prepared and moved to the respective restaurants. This is expected to have cost benefits and will also ensure the consistency of the product.

Looking ahead, Wing It wants to start franchising its restaurant concept, and according to Kihiko, is currently seeking investors to finance its expansion plans.