The love affair with food that built me a restaurant

ypmfefwjqj9zy058f6f29a9b0ad The love affair with food that built me a restaurant

On the Saturday morning of April 8, Ian Kamau, a student at Catholic University and a young entrepreneur, died in a road accident on Mombasa Road. Before this tragedy, Ian had spoken to Hustle about his vision for his restaurant, Jikoni 323. Today, we pay tribute to Ian by sharing the business lessons he leaves behind.

Food is a vital part of our society, not just for its nourishment, but because it is at the centre of many social activities. This is what inspired Ian, 23 and his mother, Carol Kamau, to start their restaurant, Jikoni 323, based at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport’s food court.

Today, the restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner, but this was not the original idea Ian and his mother set out with.

“Our idea was to have a snacks bar, selling samosas, mandazis, spring rolls, that sort of thing,” Ian told Hustle in March.

Affordable snacks

The idea was born after his mother got a group of women together to share the costs of a chef who specialised in pastries. They called it ‘food pooling’, and each person would chip in a set amount of money. Because they were buying in bulk, the costs of making the snacks was reduced significantly.

“Soon, the news of this ‘food pooling’ spread. My mum’s friends convinced her to turn it into a business and sell affordable snacks to the neighbours. We started doing this and it was a great success.”

Ian said food had always been in his life. As a child, he spent a lot of time in his grandfather’s restaurant, where his mother would drop him off in the morning as she went to work.

“Food reminds me of that sense of comfort and belonging that I got from my grandparents as a child. I think many of us have similar memories,” he said.

It was this love for food that helped Ian convince his mother that they could expand their snacks shop, Jikoni 323, named for their house number, into a fully-fledged restaurant. As fate would have it, they got the opportunity when a new food court was opened at JKIA.

“It was a big decision to make, especially for my mother since she was injecting the capital. We needed Sh1.7 million. I remember sitting in the living room one night after I got home from campus. She asked me if I was sure I could commit to this, if I was sure we would make it work.”

Ian had his doubts, but he wasn’t about to let an opportunity slip by. He gave his commitment to the restaurant. In April last year, Jikoni 323 set up, and the journey, like most start-up businesses, was both exhilarating and tough.

“Our biggest challenge was that we were the new kids on the block. And we were competing with other restaurants that had been there for a while, some for more than 10 years,” he said.

Ian, who was studying marketing at Catholic University, put his studies to good use. They marketed aggressively with fliers and food tastings. They also offered free delivery to nearby offices, something no other outlet in the court was doing.

“We knew if we got anyone to taste our food even once, we could sell them on our vision,” said Ian.

The first few months were rough, mostly because of the wastage from a lack of sales. They were forced to dispose of the food at the end of the day. But instead of throwing it away, they would pack it and distribute it to the guards in their neighbourhood.

“It made the pain of the loss more bearable. At least someone was benefiting from it. I think God blessed us because of that,” said Ian, adding that at the end of six months, the restaurant had picked up.

Ian’s dream was to expand Jikoni beyond the restaurant and food deliveries, and he had begun to book clients for events catering.

“I love the events aspect because it’s always different – different set-ups with different people who want different things. It keeps us fresh and challenged.”

Biggest lessons

Ian said one of his biggest lessons came after they showed up at a tea party event without tea bags, coffee, spoons or cups. Now he can laugh about it, but on that day, he thought he had ruined his business. Since then, whenever he would find himself rushing to get things done, he would stop and get the details right.

“When it comes to food, your customers want to trust you. They want to trust that you will be on time and you will give them good food. You can’t do that running around like a headless chicken. Good food is deliberate. It doesn’t just happen,” he said.

The restaurant has a current turnover of Sh500,000 a month, and Ian expected this to translate into Sh6 million by the end of this year.

So how did he manage to go to school and manage a rapidly growing restaurant at 23? “Focus. When you decide to do something, just do it.”

He, however, admitted that every now and then, he would fall off the wagon and just want to have a good time like other people his age. But his mother would not let him get away with this for too long. She was his mentor and his driving force, he said.

“Passion and courage to do what you need to do will always pay off,” he added.

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