Keeping our restaurant business afloat in a pandemic


The Nyama mama centre in Yaya.[Elvis Ogina,Standard]

Ninaa Shanghavi ‘ mama’ and her husband Jay Shanghavi would meet in the UK and fall in love. Then Jay, a Tanzanian, would follow Ninaa back to Kenya where in 1986, they would set up a tours and travel company. But just before the West Gate terror attack in 2013, they sold their share of the business to their business partners who were keen on expanding. The couple would channel the sale proceeds to enter the restaurant business. Today, they own a total of six restaurants; two outlets of Nyama Mama which is their most famous brand, Blue Door restaurant, Central Kitchen and two Chinese restaurants-- Mr. Yao and The Pan Asian Yao. Ninaa shares their business journey and the ravages of the pandemic to the business.  

Is there any truth to the word around the industry that restaurant businesses are particularly difficult to start?

The food industry is not an easy one. And for us, we entered into this business not knowing anything about it. But that also meant that we sought the help we needed. We had consultants from within and overseas who guided us to ensure that the brands were ripe for the market. The consultants ensured that the business plan would work in case of expansion. We did not have to worry because we had our ideas, our skills and patience despite being new in the business. It took us a year or so to understand the business before setting up Nyama Mama in Yaya Centre as a test ground and we got positive reviews all over.

What inspired the birth of Nyama Mama?

 I felt that there was a gap in our local African food. Every time we received guests from abroad, we would take them to The Carnivore but it was not exactly an African restaurant. There was an opportunity there. We wanted to give an explicit showcase of Kenyan hospitality; the people, food, décor and music. Nyama Mama’s decor is all African, and the employees are youthful with the majority being women.  So we sold our travel business and started the restaurant.

Running six restaurants must be an uphill task. How do you manage it?

We have invested heavily in having professional teams that cater to the restaurants. These include executives, financial officers, chefs and many others.

Has that made it easier to cope with the pandemic? 

Definitely. Covid-19 is the monster of the industry. It has not been easy keeping the business. There is a lot of investment required. You need passion, hard work, and you need to put a lot aside for the business to meet the standards you desire. We have been hit by so many things in the middle but what determines our progress is the ability to get up again every single time. The business has been hit hard because restaurants became non-essential to many Kenyans at the onset of the pandemic. 90 per cent of our revenue was wiped out and we are currently working with 10 per cent of our original revenue So the difficult part was figuring out how to survive. We had to put most of new projects on hold and we sent home most of the staff. Hopefully things will get better as days pass. 

What could you say has been the most integral thing to your success?

Corporate governance. This is where you have professionals run the business. This is especially important for a family business like ours. We have a board of directors and corporate policies in place. My husband does the day to day operations to ensure the business is running. Personally I do marketing, sales, strategy level, and expansion plan. We do make decisions together but we do not conflict on a day to day basis

 Also, paying taxes is vital. The government’s crackdown on taxation is correct because without taxes the country will never grow. And you don’t want to be on the wrong side of this.

 Does the line between the business and family get muddled?

Family issues will always get mixed up in the business if it is a family business. It also depends on how many family members are in the business. If it is 12 of you, there will always be conflict. But where you draw the line is very important; decide who the board of directors are, have a clear line of roles and departments. Also, not everyone should make business decisions. There should be key decision makers. 

What is your advice on hiring family in the business?

 I say do not. I think it is better to avoid family members in the business, this way you will avoid unnecessary conflict. You do not want to ruin family relationships because of family businesses which will likely cause friction.

 Do you have a succession plan in place?

Well, we do not have biological children. Our plan is to grow this business by ensuring we get the right partners who will help us grow this vision even bigger. And then the rest will happen as it should.  

What has been your greatest challenge so far?

Funding. We want to expand our brands beyond borders and across the world.  But to do that one needs investors. It is difficult to access money to expand. To grow to the level we have, we have been reinvesting proceeds from our previous businesses and also borrow loans to meet our goal of expansion. 

What is the most important thing for anyone looking to set up a business?

Location. Restaurants need to be looked at in terms of their location. It is very important to research on the location to put up restaurants and which brands to put in which location for the target market. Be sure your restaurant fits the market demands by analyzing the brand down to the tiniest detail.

If you were still in the travel business, what changes would you be effecting?

Technology. The next journey in the tourism industry is technology based. And whoever thinks that our traditional old style of running tourism business will work is wrong.  I would invest in technology, and enable people to book a ticket in 30 second or under one minute. That would ensure business survival in the next 10 years.



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