In January this year, Elena Kuoni hosted a party to celebrate a successful year for her catering business. She invited a few Kenyan celebrities – mostly those she knew.
Media personalities Anita Nderu and Nick Odhiambo were among the guests. Celebrities from the Kenyan film industry such as Catherine Kamau – known as Cate Actress – were also present.
“We are celebrating a successful year since the restaurant opened,” Ms Kuoni said at the time.
She owns Oyster & More: a restaurant on the ground floor of the new Village Market wing in Nairobi. On its social media pages, it can be clearly seen that the establishment attracts a fair share of celebrity attendance – with the likes of Jeff Koinange frequenting the joint.
The irony of Oyster & More’s success is that its birth came after the death of another restaurant that occupied the premises.
“The pandemic has hit the hotel industry hard. Many hotels have closed up shop never to serve another meal again,” Ms. Kuoni says.
Indeed, according to data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, accommodation and catering business fell by 57.9%.
According to the Kenya Institute for Policy Research and Analysis (Kippra), the contraction in the hospitality industry was marked by a drop to 72% in March 2020 and 35% in May 2020.
The effects could be attributed to containment measures aimed at curbing the spread of Covid-19. Social distancing has reduced hotel capacity, working from home has reduced demand for catering services while partial closures have reduced travel.
Job losses and pay cuts also meant fewer people could afford to eat out. And so, the previous restaurant could not maintain its operations.
So it was odd that Ms. Kuoni saw an opportunity to take over and start a new restaurant.
“I never even thought of running a restaurant. Before that, I had no experience in the food industry,” she says.
“But then that space was put up for sale. I thought, ‘Why not buy it and see what happens next?’. It was purely based on intuition.
“I know it feels like a crazy decision, part of me felt it too. But I’m also a person who loves a challenge.
With the help of a few friends, she was able to put together a team, starting with talented chefs.
“And just like that, the restaurant opened. I decided to have both a complementary bar and restaurant.
Ms Kuoni is known as the face behind the luxury fashion boutique – Kshmr by Kuoni – also located at the Village Market. For four years, Kshmr by Kuoni has thrived and sustained its business within its unique customer segment. That was all she wanted to be associated with.
But now the restaurant has taken her from the track to the kitchen. The human spirit of adventure and the desire to try new ideas prevailed over the opening of the restaurant.
From the outset, the restaurant met with great success with the bourgeoisie who flocked to the upscale establishment. Village Market is surrounded by middle-class and upper-class residences. Could this have been the force behind the restaurant’s success?
“I don’t think so,” says Ms. Kuoni. “If that were the case, the previous restaurant would not have closed.”
Power of quick thinking
According to her, customers simply loved the restaurant’s services. She emphasizes the importance of having a chef who sees food not just as a way to solve hunger, but also as an art to make people happy.
“I believe it’s our food, the work of our skilled chefs, that has kept customers coming back. We knew we were doing well by the number of repeat guests.
“We have grown our customer base, and continue to grow, thanks to these loyal customers who have also referred others.”
In April 2021, when the second lockdown was announced, Ms Kuoni says she panicked a bit. “I was concerned that things would go south and we would be forced to close like the previous business.”
She says she didn’t spend much time worrying about what was going to happen next. Instead, she quickly reinvented the wheel and converted Oyster & More into a takeaway hub.
“I asked myself, what is our product? And who is our client? Then we decided to deliver the product to the customer because the lockdown limited the customer’s ability to come to the restaurant,” she says.
It worked. The restaurant developed a database of loyal customers who would order for delivery. Oyster & More continued its operations despite the confinement. The company did well enough to pay all wages on time.
Perhaps it was this quick thinking that also saved them from sinking. But also, the confinement did not last more than a month. Soon the tables in the restaurant were occupied again.
“I loved everything we were doing to serve our customers and keep going. I came to work every day, even when I didn’t need to, and it didn’t feel like work,” Ms. Kuoni says.
The restaurant surprised Kuoni so much that she shifted her focus from the fashion industry to the restaurant. She had to innovate on the go; choose to be as flexible as possible to adapt to changing times.
Part of the restaurant’s success, she says, could in part be explained by high-profile parties that have seen customers book dining space and food. But all was not without challenges.
Taking over a failed restaurant business, customers tended to associate the new establishment with the old business, “yet we didn’t want to be associated with those who came before us,” she says.
Also, like many restaurants, the food is highly perishable. The cost of storage is also high, eating away at profits.
“To deal with this problem, we arranged with our suppliers for fresh produce and ingredients every other day,” she says.
Oyster & More specializes in various oyster preparations, vegan and vegetarian foods, seafood and aged steaks, pasta, champagne and soups. The entrepreneur bakes bread and cakes to compose a unique dessert table.
Starting a restaurant business, with no previous experience, and with an industry in decline, was a gamble. “It paid off,” she says. “Sometimes it’s a combination of luck, passion, courage and focus.”