The unpalatable truth about Nairobi dining

Eatout CEO Mikul Shah. PHOTO | FILE
Eatout CEO Mikul Shah. PHOTO | FILE 

Eat Out was born in a casino in Westlands one night four years ago when Mikul had just relocated back from the UK. He didn’t know many people so he would go to the casino to keep the only friend he had company as he worked the graveyard shift.

Today, it’s grown into a multi-million shilling company that has an online restaurant booking engine, a marketing arm that founded the Taste Awards in 2011 and the Nairobi restaurant week that just ended, not to mention Yummy magazine, a social media campaign and newsletter. They are now set to roll out in Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Mauritius.

We meet in the sunroom on the second floor of their massive home off Peponi Road, Westlands, where his dog with his large floppy ears, settles between us on the couch, sniffs and stares intently at my voice recorder. Mikul can only be described as, well, cool.


I like this dog. What breed is this?


This is Lego; he’s an English Cocker Spaniel. Just a puppy still, that is why he’s all jumpy.

What’s your story?

I grew up in Nyali, Mombasa. I spent most of my time at the beach. I attended Mombasa Academy. At 18, I went to study in the UK – University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. I studied computer systems engineering, got my degree but soon realised I didn’t want to be a coder or programmer.

I didn’t want to be behind a computer, I wanted to stand before people. In 2001, I came back and got my first dose of Nairobi as I waited for my work permit in the UK.

I moved back to the UK, got a job that involved sales for a company that installed interactive whiteboards in schools. The job made me see most of England.

At some point, my wife and kids relocated to Kenya in the hope that I would jump into a family business that was meant to start a shoe company in Athi River but that project never took off. But then Eat Out came out of that glitch.

This thing of Asians joining the family business, what are its demerits?

Indians are big on investing in education. We will send our kids to the best schools even if we have to bend over backwards and after university, you will do a year working elsewhere and then join the family to build the business for your kids. We are savers, we save for our kids.

The problem with this system is that it stops us from being innovators – not when the innovation was done by our grandfathers. When you join the business you are joining a machinery that is already working and you are often unable to challenge it with new ideas and concepts.

When I came back home, I wanted to digitalise everything and introduce social media but my family didn’t understand why! They asked, “why should we change anything when we have been doing it successfully for the past 25 years?!” I guess the demerit is the generational clash of ideas. (Laughs).

Do you see this culture changing with time?

Yes, that is changing because a lot of family businesses are putting in corporate structures and it doesn’t matter whether your son just came in with a Master’s degree. The most suitable person will have to run the business on merit. At the end of the day, for successful family business, they should be aiming to be successful as businesses not as family businesses.

Did your father feel betrayed when you chose to open your own business and not join the family one?

He still doesn’t understand my business! (Laughs). He sees me in the newspapers and thinks I must be doing well. But he doesn’t quite understand what I do, day-to-day. (Laughs). He also knows I’m not as wealthy as he is, but he appreciates it because like him, I started off from the ground and he respects that.

The family was adamant at the beginning, but later they said it’s fine, we will always provide food and shelter for your kids but do not come to us for help with your business. That you will deal with on your own.

In terms of just generation gap, how are you a different businessman from your father?

You have to understand that these guys came from Indian villages with nothing but the clothes on their backs and went ahead to achieve so much through hard work. I can’t even compare myself with them because I had a head start.

Whereas they didn’t go to school, I was sent to the best schools and even when I started my business, I didn’t have to worry about food or shelter or any of those things they stressed about while they ran their businesses.

Which means as a businessman, I can afford to take risks that they wouldn’t because I have a fall-back plan – my university papers that will allow me to get a decent job anywhere but also I can fall back on family.

As an Asian – and really as a man – what’s your greatest fear for your two sons?

Trying to make sure they don’t end up being spoilt brats. I mean when you achieve a certain level of wealth, your children can get spoilt. I grew up playing outside and riding my bike and my parents didn’t see it as a problem. Now we can’t let our children go play outside.

The problem with society is not even insecurity, it’s “classism” which is much bigger in Kenya now than racism. At the end of day – it doesn’t matter your colour – if you drive this car and you live in this neighbourhood and earn this much money, you get accepted into a class. I’d like my children to integrate better.

Why aren’t Kenyans eating out?

It’s down to education. People just don’t know about wine or food. Also, Nairobi is just too expensive; you don’t usually get quality for the amount you are paying for. In fact, we pay about 400 per cent more for the same thing you would pay for in, say, South Africa. There are also fewer restaurants compared to other countries.

This is an unfair question but what’s the best restaurant in Nairobi?

For obvious reasons, I wouldn’t want to comment on the best restaurant in Nairobi. But my favourite one has plastic chairs and service with a smile even though it isn’t polished.

There is so much inconsistency in Nairobi in terms of food and service so I’d rather go to a consistent mediocre restaurant because I expect that mediocrity rather than go to a place that is a hit or miss. I love Diamond Plaza because it’s consistent.

What do you do for fun?

I don’t read books at all, believe it or not. I read online stuff. I’m a massive collector of Lego. I love it! You would be shocked at my collection of Lego. I love it so much I named my dog after it. (Laughs)

What does that tattoo on your forearm mean?

It’s something I always wanted to do, besides I realised I won’t need a sleeve. It’s tied to Westgate; it’s got a lot of emotion riding on it. Traditionally, Indian women did this design on their hands and feet just before they got married.

This tattoo, I guess, basically says life is short. So live it. You only live once.

A design that Indian girls put on their arms? Are you the butt of jokes with your pals?

If you look at my beard, it makes up for the tattoo. (Laughs).

What would you like for your last meal and where would you eat it?

Definitely steak. Where, I don’t know, maybe a nice steak house I visited in Cape Town, South Africa. But generally, the most important thing about the last meal isn’t even the meal but who you are having it with.