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The brush with death that birthed a pizza firm

ENTERPRISE
By Mona Ombogo | January 2nd 2019
Queens Pizza Founder Peninah Ntongóndu during her pitch for investment on the show, KCB Lions'Den

“I almost died when I got caught up in a riot and sustained serious injuries to my eye and had to resign from my job. That’s when I decided to start making pizzas from my kitchen,” says 33-year-old Peninah Ntong’ondu.

The holiday season was the perfect time for pizza parties, take-out and enjoying the company of friends and family. And while most of us were taking it easy, Peninah was busy at her company, Queens Pizza, which bakes and delivers homemade pizzas to its customers’ doorsteps.

She gained her experience on everything pizza during her tenure at chain restaurant Pizza Inn, where she worked for five years.

“I joined Pizza Inn as a cashier, but found I was intrigued by the entire pizza process,” Peninah says.

“The first thing that caught my interest was how the chefs made pizza dough. I started coming in to work early to watch them.”

Peninah made fast friends with the kitchen staff who taught her not just about pizza dough, but how to marinate the different meats and put together the ingredients that give each pizza its unique taste.

She didn’t stop there – she extended her curiosity to the daily administrative running of the kitchen and tailed the manager who taught her book keeping and how to estimate how much food would be needed each day.

“It became normal for me to come in two hours before my shift, prep in the kitchen and do the books for the previous day before reporting at my work station.”

Turning point

Peninah’s dedication and enthusiasm paid off when she became the branch manager. She later left to work in a similar position at European Foods, a deli outlet.

In 2014, however, Peninah sustained an eye injury that kept her out of work for a month.

“Even when the doctors cleared me to return to work, I was struggling because my eye didn’t fare well in the hot and smoky conditions of the kitchen, and I needed constant breaks in between. I didn’t want to be a liability to my employer so I resigned,” Peninah tells Hustle.

She decided to use her years of experience in pizza kitchens to start her own business, Queens Pizza.

“I invested in a small oven because I couldn’t afford a commercial oven, which cost upwards of Sh400,000. I ended up spending a total of Sh200,000 which I used to buy the oven, pizza screens, dockers, spades, lifters and related equipment,” Peninah says.

“I also bought boxes for packaging and paid for branding.”

With the help of two colleagues who had worked with her at Pizza Inn, Peninah created signature pizzas and sampled them out to friends and family. The best bit about her pizzas, she believes, is that they taste and feel like homemade pizza.

“I like to give a personal touch as well in my customer service. Unlike a huge commercial outlet, my customers can call me personally to make an order. Once, a family had just come from holiday and there was no food in their house,” Peninah recounts.

“It was almost midnight when they called to order pizza. I got out of bed and made it for them.”

Despite her current popularity, Peninah’s reputation took time to grow. In her first month of operation, she sold just 20 pizzas.

Her orders then grew steadily, especially when boosted by orders from corporates that would sometimes order up to 35 large pizzas for meetings.

And then in 2015, Peninah was featured on Business Daily and CNBC Africa, further boosting her visibility.

The setback

However, shortly after those gains Peninah suffered a setback that almost brought her business to a complete standstill. Her mother died.

“My mother had been my rock, my backbone. She was the biggest support system for my business and, being a businesswoman herself, walked me through the early days of Queens Pizza,” Peninah says.

“I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that she was gone.”

It took Peninah at least six months to stabilise again, and she lost customers in that time.

“I wasn’t consistent, so they started going elsewhere for their pizzas.”

It wasn’t easy, but she got back on her feet, bolstered by the memory of her mother who’d wanted her to succeed. Peninah worked hard to win back her most prominent corporate clients by walking into their offices and offering free pizzas to staff members.

Her marketing strategy worked and she slowly rebuilt her clientele.

Big break

By the end of 2015, Queens Pizza was selling about 90 pizzas a month – in 2016, that number went up to 260 pizzas a month during high seasons, which are during school and public holidays.

“In 2017, our annual turnover was Sh1.1 million,” Peninah says.

“But I think our big break came in 2018 when I got called into KCB Lions’ Den. That was one of the most exciting and frightening days of my life.”

Peninah received an investment deal of Sh3.5 million in exchange for 40 per cent of her company, with the option to buy back 10 per cent.

“I couldn’t believe I’d bagged a lion, Kris Senanu! That whole day before I pitched had just gone wrong,” she explains.

“My electricity tokens ran out and my power went off. No electricity meant no pizzas, which I needed for my pitch. I tried to reload the token but it kept giving me error messages. Frantic, I called a friend and explained my predicament. Somehow he managed to reload my token for me at the very last minute.

“When Kris said he’d give me a deal, I almost burst into tears. But I did break down backstage. At the top of my mind was how proud my mother would have been of me. She would have slaughtered a goat in my honour, I’m sure. This was our dream coming true.”

Peninah plans to use the capital from her investor to brand and market her company, and set up a fully fledged professional kitchen.

Her vision is for Queens Pizza to be mentioned alongside the great pizza giants of the region, and to have a reputation for unique homemade pizzas at an affordable price.

“Because,” says Peninah, “pizza should be for everyone, not just the privileged few.” 

Queens Pizza is currently located in Buruburu and offers a delivery service to most of Nairobi and its environs.

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