Zimbabwean refugee attracting diplomats to her Nairobi restaurant

At the height of Zimbabwe’s political turmoil, Susan Deiters (29) fled the country and settled in Kenya. Four years on, the Zimbabwean is not languishing at some refugee camp, instead she is running Café Des Arts, a restaurant in Nairobi’s upmarket Gigiri estate, serving top diplomats and expats. The restaurant is strategically located just a few metres from the US embassy and United Nations offices.

Susan Deiters

Susan Deiters

What motivated you to start Café Des Arts?

I have always loved cooking. But other than good food we strive to offer good service to our clients. Most of our clients can afford to hire the best chefs, so for them going to a restaurant is not just about good food, it is about the experience. That is why we have to be innovative and invest in the art gallery, good service and ambiance. We recently received assistance from PUM Netherlands, a team of experts who advise entrepreneurs in developing countries and emerging markets. After two years in business, I found myself too comfortable in my shoes. Every day was a routine, innovation was lacking. However, working with the experts we were able to introduce new foods on our menu, maximize our potential and increase our profitability.

What makes Café Des Arts stand out?

We have our own shamba (Swahili for ‘farm’) in Limuru where we plant vegetables for daily use in the restaurant. Every morning the shamba staff delivers fresh vegetables.

The restaurant also has an art gallery where local and international artists display and showcase their pieces. We hold an exhibition opening once a month. When we started we had a few Kenyan artists, now we have established artists from Kenya and outside the country who line up to have their pieces displayed in our exhibition room.

During the visit of A-list Hollywood actor Nicholas Cage to the country, the UN contracted us to prepare food at the residence of a senior official. With this once-off job, we have continued with the concept of preparing food at a client’s house. One of the embassies contracts this service for a monthly cultural event.

While working with the PUM expert, we also brought in a new concept of walking dinners. It borrows a little from the usual cocktail function, the difference, however, is that instead of just nuts and lamb chops, we serve an entire dinner while people stand, walk, talk and interact. This concept is drawing the attention of corporate organisations.

Inside the restaurant

Inside the restaurant

Tell us more about the challenges you faced when first establishing the restaurant?

Having started the restaurant in November 2007, we came face to face with the Kenyan post-election violence. We had to close the restaurant until mid-January. Most of our staff had gone up-country to vote and were trapped there since they could not travel back. The situation was tense and we could not open the business.

What is the secret to your success?

Managing my finances and cash flow is critical. As an accountant I am able to do this myself and can easily spot warning signs at an early stage. Introducing fresh ideas in your business is also important. It is also an advantage to interact with experts, successful entrepreneurs and business advisors. Learn from those you can.

And your plans for the future?

So far the business has grown by more than 100% since inception. I would like to open two more branches of Café Des Arts in the near future.

Would you want to go back to Zimbabwe?

I watch the situation in my country very closely, and I can say that the country is on the path to recovery. My dream is to one day go back to Zimbabwe. It is a very beautiful. Though my father died a month before I opened Café Des Arts, I believe he must be very proud of me.