In January this year, Elena Kuoni held an evening party to celebrate a successful year for her restaurant business. She invited a few Kenyan celebrities – mostly those known to her.
Media personalities Anita Nderu and Nick Odhiambo were among the guests. Kenya’s film industry celebrities such as Catherine Kamau - famously known as Cate Actress – were present too.
“We are celebrating a successful one year since opening the restaurant,” Ms Kuoni said back then.
She is the proprietor of Oyster & More: a restaurant on the ground floor of Village Market’s new wing in Nairobi. On her social media pages, one can clearly see that the establishment attracts a fair share of celeb presence – with the likes of Jeff Koinange frequenting the joint.
The irony of Oyster & More’s success is that its birth came as a result of the death of another restaurant that had been occupying the premises.
“The pandemic came down hard on the hotel industry. Many hotels closed shop never to serve one more meal,” Ms Kuoni says.
Indeed, according to data from Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, accommodation and food service activities dropped by 57.9 per cent.
According to Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (Kippra), the contraction of the hotel industry was marked by a decline to 72 per cent in March 2020 and further to 35 per cent in May 2020.
The effects could be attributed to containment measures aimed at curbing the spread of Covid-19. Social distancing reduced hotels’ holding capacity, working from home reduced demand for restaurant services while partial lockdowns reduced movement.
Job losses and salary cuts also meant that fewer people could afford restaurant visits. And thus, the previous restaurant could not sustain operations.
It was therefore odd that Ms Kuoni saw an opportunity to take over and start a new restaurant.
“I never even thought of running a restaurant. Prior to this, I had no experience in the food industry,” she says.
“But then this space was put up for sale. I said to myself, ‘Why not buy it and see what happens next?’. It was purely based on intuition.”
“I know it sounds like a crazy decision, some part of me felt so too. But I am also a person who loves taking up challenges.”
With the help of some friends, she was able to put together a team, starting with some talented chefs.
“And just like that, the restaurant opened its doors. I decided to have both a bar and a restaurant complementing each other.”
Ms Kuoni is known as the face behind the luxury fashion boutique – Kshmr by Kuoni – also located in Village Market. For four years, Kshmr by Kuoni has thrived and sustained business amidst its unique customer segment. It had been everything she wanted to associate with.
But now, the restaurant has taken her from the runway to the kitchen. The human spirit of adventure and wanting to try out new ideas got the better of her as the restaurant space opened.
Right off the bat, the restaurant became a hit with the bourgeoisie who flock the upmarket establishment. Village Market is surrounded by middle class and upper-class residentials. Could this have been the force behind the restaurant’s success?
“I don’t think so,” Ms Kuoni says. “If that were the case then the previous restaurant wouldn’t have closed.”
Power of quick-thinking
In her opinion, clients simply loved services at the restaurant. She stresses the importance of having a chef who looks at food not just as a way of solving hunger but also as an art of making people happy.
“I believe it was our food, the work of our skilled chefs, that kept clients coming back. We knew we were doing well by the number of returning guests.
“We grew our client base, and are still growing, because of these loyal clients who have referred others as well.”
In April 2021, when the second lockdown was announced, Ms Kuoni says she panicked a little. “I feared that things would go south and we would be forced to close like the previous business.”
She says she did not spend much time worrying about what would happen next. Instead, she quickly reinvented the wheel and converted Oyster & More into a takeaway centre.
“I asked myself, what is our product? And who is our client? Then decided that we would deliver the product to the client since the lockdown limited the client’s ability to come over to the restaurant,” she says.
It worked. The restaurant developed a database of loyal clients who would order for delivery. Oyster & More continued with its operations in spite of the lockdown. The business did well enough to pay all salaries on time.
This quick-thinking, perhaps, is what saved them from sinking as well. But also, the lockdown did not last longer than one month. Soon enough, the restaurant tables were occupied again.
“I loved everything that we were doing to serve our clients and to keep going. I was coming to work every day, even when I didn’t need to, and it didn’t feel like I was working,” Ms Kuoni says.
The restaurant has surprised Kuoni so much that she has shifted her focus from the fashion business to the restaurant. She has had to innovate on the go; choosing to be as pliable as possible to fit the changing times.
Part of the restaurant’s success, she says, could partly be accounted for by high profile parties that saw clients book restaurant space and food. But it was not all without challenges.
Taking over from a restaurant business that had failed, there was a tendency of clients associating the new establishment with the old business, “yet we did not want to be associated with who was there before us,” she says.
And then, as is with many eateries, food is highly perishable. The cost of storage is also high, which eats away at profits.
“To deal with this problem, we have arranged with our suppliers for fresh produce and ingredients every two days,” she says.
Oyster & More specialises on different oyster preparations, vegan and vegetarian foods, seafood and aged steaks, pastas, champagne and soups. The entrepreneur bakes bread and cakes to put together a table of unique desserts.
Starting a restaurant business, without prior experience, and with the industry in decline, was a gamble. “It has paid off,” she says. “Sometimes it is a combination of luck, passion, grit and focus.”