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What’s wrong with Kenyan restaurants?

Oct 11, 2009 Management, Sunday Nation

This week I want to stick a steak knife into the restaurant industry. Running a good eatery should be simplicity itself. Entry barriers are low, if you’re willing to start small; many a world-beating restaurant chain started life as a single food stall somewhere. Yet in Kenya we are running this most important industry very badly.

Pretty much everyone in the world living above the poverty line is a restaurant customer, no matter the income level. From the modest kiosk to the fancy-shmancy gourmet restaurant – all have their customers. So tell me this: how many eating-out places can you list in Kenya that meet the following universal tests?

First, that the food tastes very good, and tastes very good every time you go there. Second, that the atmosphere created is one that instils a sense of belonging in you. Third, that you are welcomed warmly and served quickly and efficiently, and that this happens on every visit. And finally, that you happily pay the bill presented to you and feel a genuine sense of value.

Now, I have no doubt that you came up with a few names, regardless of your income level. But I’ll bet you anything that you didn’t have many on your list. And that is where the problem lies. It’s not that we don’t have the exceptionally good and woefully bad; every country does. It’s that our average is so low. When was the last time a restaurant gave you a ‘wow’ experience, one that you wanted to tell all your friends about?

Many food places start off quite well. The fare is tasty, the smiles are wide, and you start to think that you might like coming there often. But give it six months, and you’ll find what that restaurant is made of. That great taste you remember fades away; portion sizes start to shrink; prices climb; the service becomes grouchy and sullen; and the decor slowly crumbles with no new investment.

Over the years, I have watched even renowned venues fall into this trap. Famous restaurant names regularly bite the dust in Kenya, mostly due to shambolic management. Most of the places I remember frequenting and liking as a child simply no longer exist.

If you run a great restaurant, congratulations. But not many do. Most people owning restaurants might as well be running matatus, for all the passion they display for their products. The genuine food-lover, the one who wants to create something outstanding, something famous, something just perfect is a rarity on these shores. Most of the industry consists of people looking to make a quick buck. That is why they spend the least they can on fittings and furnishings; that is why they pay their chefs and serving staff peanuts and give them minimal training; that is why they source food from the cheapest sources; and that is why they crumble.

So at the highest end, the expensive fine-dining segment, do we not have some world-class places? There is a problem here as well. Complacency is commonplace. We simply cannot compete with comparable destinations when it comes to the range and quality of fine dining on offer.

We have the stunning locations, certainly: few countries in the world can offer fine dining overlooking a beautiful green sea or a perched on a rocky outcrop over vast plains teeming with wildlife. Few can offer dishes made from freshly picked ingredients the way we can. But it is these very things that is making us complacent. We are squandering these wonderful advantages because we can’t offer world-beating cuisine and outstanding service.

Am I saying that we don’t have fine-dining restaurants that compare with the best in Cape Town, Dubai or Mumbai (let alone Paris or London)? We do, but I could count them on one hand, and I wouldn’t need all my fingers. Too harsh? I don’t think so.

Where are the top-notch chefs who win international awards? The ones who think of their food as their life’s work and put all their life force into creating outstanding dishes? Who keep extending the boundaries of culinary excellence by experimenting with new flavour combinations? Who would never dream of sending a substandard dish out of their kitchens? Who regard food on the plate as a work of art? And where are the owners who regard a customer complaint as a tragedy and a call to action?

Being truly great at anything is all about passion. Without passion we are mere investors and mere employees, and we create merely mediocre enterprises. Passion is the missing ingredient in Kenya’s restaurant industry. Where are the people who set themselves the standard of being the very best, who put their personal pride at stake when they open a business, who see profit as a byproduct of success and not the point of it?

That one missing ingredient is responsible for the flavourless, unambitious dish that is the Kenyan restaurant industry.

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