The restaurant that grew out of a campus dorm

Cycy Rukenya, 25, at her Dial-a-Dish restaurant.
“There’s once I worked so hard that I went to bed and woke up in hospital three days later. My body had gone into a coma,” says Cycy Rukenya, a young caterer who got into the business of cooking while studying in the US.

Despite difficult beginnings, 25-year-old Cycy has managed to build a viable catering and restaurant outfit in Dial-A-Dish.

The company specialises in cuisines like chicken biriyani, chicken and mbuzi pilau and honey-glazed pork.

She has two outlets, one in Karen, catering to university students, and one in Rongai, catering to corporate clients.

Cycy speaks to Hustle about the dedication and stamina required to build a dream one brick at a time.

Why food?

I went to study forensic medicine at the California State University in America. I really missed Kenyan food. One day I decided to go shopping for ingredients to make pilau. It came out so well that I ended up starting a mini-business, selling it from my hostel.

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The university didn’t want me cooking in my room for safety reasons, but they also knew how popular my food was, so they offered me a station at the school cafeteria.

I partnered with two other students and we started a small business, which we later called Vervain Events.

How much was your food?

We charged $20 (Sh2,000) per plate, which included one protein, one starch and green vegetables. Our fastest-selling product was chicken pilau, sukuma wiki and ugali.

Even at that price, we sold out almost every meal time.

Because people liked our food, they asked us to cater their parties. For a party of about 30 people, we would charge $500 (Sh50,000).

For complete event services, including décor, music and food, we would charge $4,000 (Sh400,000) for between 60 and 100 people.

How much did you make on average per month?

I honestly can’t remember the figures right now, but let me put it like this, with the money I accrued, I managed to buy my mother a house in Mombasa.

When our business was running, we did more than 150 parties, including for a very popular club, Club Kiss, in Atlanta. Unfortunately, we couldn’t sustain the business because our grades started suffering.

We scaled it down to doing small gigs on campus only.

What did your parents think about your business, especially when your grades started suffering?

My mother was always impressed by it because she’s a business person, too. When I completed my degree and returned to Kenya, I told my parents I didn’t want to pursue forensic medicine as a career. They accepted this.

I didn’t go into catering, but instead went straight into the entertainment business, working as a promoter and marketing manager in clubs like Blue Lounge and the entire Legend franchise. I started out earning Sh75,000 and by the time I was resigning, I was at Sh150,000 per month.

Why did you resign?

Well, food was still in my heart, I just hadn’t given it a chance in Kenya. As fate would have it, in 2017 my manager told me my salary at the club would be slashed.

It was a wake-up call that the marketing and promotion industry can be very volatile. I figured that if I’m going to be working long, difficult hours, I might as well be building my own empire. I went back to catering and registered my company, Dial-A-Dish.

What was your start-up capital?

Believe it or not, Sh1,000, which I used to buy ingredients. I cooked from my kitchen and carried a basket of cooked food to nearby kiosks.

I sold a plate of chicken pilau at Sh100. At the end of that day, I had made Sh3,000. I’ve never touched that money. I keep it in my house to remind me that everything is possible if we’re brave enough to step out and do something about what we really want.

How did you go from selling food to kiosks to owning a restaurant?

I started approaching corporates in the area, particularly banks. I’d walk in and speak to the manager stating what I was offering.

I had done flyers for marketing purposes, so it made my pitch easier. I spent Sh9,500 on marketing and got a return of Sh28,350 by the end of my second week of catering.

Would you say food is a profitable business?

Yes, if you do it correctly. But not all my calculations have borne fruit in this business.

One of the hardest lessons I learnt followed my trying to expand too fast. In the first few months of my business, I was given a chance to sell food at an event that promised a footfall of about 7,000 people.

We invested more than Sh34,000 hoping to make a return of at least Sh200,000. We sold less than 20 plates of food, yet we’d made enough for 300 people.

The worst part was that one week before this event, my body shut down and I went into a three-day coma. I had worked myself to the ground. I woke up the day before the event and still showed up for the gig, despite being diagnosed with chronic fatigue. It was disheartening to feel like I’d almost killed myself for a venture that yielded nothing.

How did you bounce back?

By realising that I had to take things slowly. We had lost most of our original clientele because we’d neglected them as we prepared for this big gig. So I had to rebuild that.

Now I laugh at myself thinking I was like a hawker, going door-to-door asking people if they wanted to buy my food.

These slow but sure efforts yielded fruit as our orders grew to about 150 plates per month. For individuals, we were selling chicken pilau at Sh180, chicken biriyani at Sh250 and honey-glazed pork at Sh200. We got back on our feet.

When did you set up your restaurant?

In August 2017. The original offer made for the premises was Sh30,000. I asked the landlord to allow me to pay the deposit over time and when he saw how diligent I was in keeping my payment promises, he dropped the rent from Sh30,000 to Sh10,000.

I strongly believe that when you go after your dreams, the universe conspires in your favour. I furnished my restaurant from gifts given by the clubs I had worked for. They sent me seats, tables, counters, a fridge, décor, and so on. What I didn’t get from them, I acquired at low costs from roadside vendors. We officially launched the restaurant in December 2017.

What are your sales today?

I am thankful that we turnover approximately 30 plates a day, excluding the standing corporate orders. The business is fully paying for itself.

My next venture, which I plan to launch towards the end of this month or beginning of September, is a cocktail lounge in Karen. It’ll be a bottled service only and will source for clientele from all over Nairobi.

What has kept you going through your toughest times?

I believe in the power of attraction. I believe you can achieve whatever you want as long as your mind is in the right place. My mantra is, ‘I love money and money loves me, I attract what I am’. I got this from the book The Secret.

I believe you cannot be more than you think you’re worth. So, if you want to grow beyond where you are, first improve who you are. That’s my philosophy.  

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