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From cooking for Obama to selling cakes in Thika

By Peter Muiruri | April 29th 2020 at 09:00:00 GMT +0300

Chef Simon Wanjau.

Simon Wanjau likes to call himself a ‘chefpreneur’, a term he coined owing to his love for cooking. He has worked at some of the top hotels around the world and cooked for the high and the mighty.

When the then US President Barack Obama visited Kenya, Wanjau’s culinary skills faced the ultimate test when his hotel’s kitchen was called upon to prepare his meals. Hillary Clinton, too, has tasted Wanjau’s fiery creations when she visited the country in 2012, as has Hollywood sensation Angelina Jolie during her exploits shooting Tomb Raider.

But despite having an impressive career, Wanjau quit the high-profile job to join his wife, Koi, in running Kobbis Oven, a small bakery that deals in “everything your dentist warns you against” – cakes, ice cream, pastries, sweets and savory snacks.

With an initial capital of about Sh1.2 million, Wanjau says the business’ value has risen to about Sh15 million. Before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the family’s two outlets, one in Thika and the other in Ruiru, were recording brisk business.

But then the coronavirus disease set in. Wanjau speaks to Hustle about what he is learning through the school of hard knocks.

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First things first: what led you to the decision to quit a high-flying job at a five-star hotel to set up a bakery in Thika?

The truth is that I had reached the pinnacle of my career. There was no more ‘up’. It was time to pass on the mantle and mentor younger chefs. Then there was the family.

I had missed out on the important stuff going on in the lives of my family members – the bonding drives to school, the swimming galas, school recitals and other family events. In any case, my goal was to set up a food business that I would pass on to my kids. Kobbis is that business.

How did Kobbis come to life?

The groundwork for Kobbis was done by Koi, my wife. She had started Kobbis in our home kitchen back in 2015 in real hustler fashion. She used to bake cakes, decorate them and deliver them to clients. She then had to deal with the kids while I was still working.

In 2016, she opened our first branch in Thika, alone. Our home is in Thika, and as they say, if you want to conquer the world, home is where you start. So I was the latecomer here. Talk of faith? She had it first.

Did you have any doubts about your decision?

The first thing that hit me was if I would be able to sustain my lifestyle. Would the business be scalable? Could I use it to advance my family’s wellbeing, such as education for our kids? Could I use it at some point to build a permanent home for the family rather than live in rented facilities?

In any case, I didn’t want to go back to the long hours of employment and being away from family. Failure was not an option.

Did you encounter any surprises?

I had run multiple high-end kitchens in Kenya and abroad, won numerous accolades for best restaurants in Mozambique, Dubai and here at home. I had scooped several medals in culinary competitions in South Africa, Rwanda and Dubai. I had banked on the fact that I am a third-generation chef – my grandfather, dad and mum were all chefs.  Running Kobbis Oven, in my estimation, would be a walk in the park. I was dead wrong.

You see, in a normal hotel, when a machine breaks down all you do is call the engineering department either for immediate repairs or total replacement. In your own business, however, you look for a fixer who may not come through when you want him to. You may take it to him only to find he has no spare parts. For example, we currently have one coffee machine that is waiting for a spare part from Italy. When will Italy open up? No one can tell.

How were your prospects before Covid-19?

We had good months and bad months – and things tend to break in the good months. Like any other business, we had big plans. We wanted to open another branch in Kahawa Sukari.

In fact, the dream was to have our business in each major town in Kenya. We even had plans to open up a baking college. Let me say that Covid-19 put the brakes on these plans. They will resume when time is right.

How was the business hit by the current pandemic?

Somebody just pulled the plug on us. We are managing about 15 per cent of projected revenues that we are used to at this time of the year. Majority of our corporate clients suspended their contracts, while others cancelled. We lost the pre-booked vending events and weddings were postponed.

How have you made your business resilient in light of the ongoing crisis and other shocks that may come in future? 

It is important to re-evaluate expenses, suspend some projects and just handle those that resonate with the current situation. For example, we had to re-invent our cakes and create products that resonate more with families since everybody is home. We are calling it the ‘curfew cake’. In addition, we have leveraged on the ‘grab and go’ concept similar to Starbucks where everything is packed and ready to go.

We had minimal sitting space and after Covid-19, all we took out were the seats and business continued as normal. Personal deliveries have always been part of our revenue generation, accounting for a third of total revenues. The fact that our business started on a takeaway model has helped us adjust to the current situation.

Have you had to lay off staff?

No. We still have five members of staff on full-time basis. There are others that we have engaged indirectly for deliveries. Our staff adapt quickly to changes and have unique selling points without which we would have closed. We just hope the situation improves so that we don’t get to that point.

What is that one thing you never knew about business that you do now?

A chef working at a hotel relies on experienced marketers. A chef working on his own business has to become the chief salesperson and grow that thick skin salespeople are known for. Now that was new to me. In fact, I have to be a more resilient salesperson, perhaps even sell more than my salespeople. How can I set targets for them that I cannot meet myself? Let me say I was not ready for that role.

What has this new normal taught you about preparing for unforeseen disruptions?

First, I now know to invest in staff training thus creating a team able to internalise my ideas and think quickly. Second, to create a separate fund that is to be used to cater for such employees in case of unforeseen eventualities. I know many companies wish they had cash to keep employees on payroll rather than send them home.

Was going into business the best decision ever?

Yes, one I would never regret. If I were still in employment, who knows if I would still have a job in view of the situation? Employment may give you that sense of security on a monthly basis. Business has expanded my horizons.

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