On the original island town of Mombasa—long before the exodus of businesses and homes onto the mainland —there was a modest restaurant and ice cream parlour just off Digo road, the main street that runs through the centre of the city.
It had a nondescript name, but it wormed its way into the stomachs of island residents, and today Blue Room is celebrating 64 years in business making it one of the oldest family run establishments in the country.
In 1952, the patriarch of the Karachiwalla family — Mohamedali Jaffer — moved from Pakistan to Zanzibar and thereafter to Kenya. He came in search of a better life in an East Africa where trade was prospering, and started a shop in Mombasa’s Old Town that sold material imported from Pakistan and India.
“He used to sell the material to the ships,” said Malik. “My grandfather and my uncle, Kassamali, would go out in a little boat to the big ships and sell material to the sailors and travellers.”
With the money he made from this initial business, Mohamedali Jaffer bought a small piece of land in what was then a port town but without any funds to develop it, the plot lay idle for many years.
“My grandfather had the piece of land, and he was still deciding what to do with it when he ran out of money and so put the plot up for sale,” said Malik.
An offer was made on the plot but as fate would have it the buyer never came through with the money. So the Karachiwalla family decided to borrow the money they needed from another source and retain their land asset.
A short while later, they decided to build a restaurant. Mohamedali’s friends and acquaintances suggested he should open a restaurant. They painted the building blue to reflect Mombasa’s coastal position, and together with ideas from clients, the name Blue Room was coined.
The family had no prior experience in running an eating establishment, and “It was a big change from selling material to this,” said Malik.
But the whole family became involved with the restaurant. Initially, the business was managed by Mohamedali, his wife Sakar Bai and his eldest son Kassamali.
Kassamali was instrumental in building the restaurant and in the early 1960s started the famous “BR” ice cream parlour within the restaurant. The younger son, Shiraz (Malik’s father) was 20 years younger than his brother and still a student at Aga Khan High School, but he helped where he could.
“My dad used to sell food at the school. He would pick up orders from students, come here at break time and then at lunch time go back and deliver them,” said Malik.
The kitchen at Blue Room was initially run by Malik’s grandmother who commercialised her home recipes. Later they involved cooks who taught them how to make other popular coastal dishes.
Today Blue Room has developed a signature menu, which includes coastal classics like biryani and chicken tikka, but they are still best known for their meat pies, samosas and dhal bhajias.
Surprising as it may sound even Blue Room’s tea—which many would assume is a beverage that doesn’t require a special recipe —has earned them a following. That and their ice cream, which started in 1962 and saw Blue Room set up an ice cream manufacturing plant and parlour alongside the restaurant.
The ice cream is marketed under the Blue Room brand, affectionately termed BR Ice Cream, and from a single parlour now supplies ice cream to locations across the Coast region.
The business has however remained small scale. Apart from the original outlet at Haile Selassie, there is only one other Blue Room in Mombasa’s Makupa area on Jomo Kenyatta road and it is a dedicated ice cream parlour.
During the mid 1980s, both of Kasamali’s sons, Karim Sr and Karim Jr joined the business and managed the growth and operations together with their father and uncle Shiraz.
Shiraz’s passion for movies fuelled the start of a movie video rental library in the 1980s, one of the first such libraries in the city. It was eventually made redundant by the arrival of inexpensive DVDs and Internet downloads and in 2001 it was transformed into an Internet cafe that is now complemented by free WiFi.
Over the years, Blue Room underwent numerous expansions and renovations and in 1992 the whole site was practically rebuilt making it one of the largest restaurants in the city with a seating capacity of 120 people (it previously catered to only 40 people).
While Shiraz Karachiwalla, Malik and Salim’s father, is still involved in the business, today the two brothers now run the show with Salim heading Operations and Malik handling the Finances.
Fourteen years ago, Malik and Salim had moved to Canada. “We wanted to do something on our own over there,” said Malik, and neither he nor his brother were involved in the Blue Room business as children.
“My cousins, Karim Sr and Karim Jr, were heavily involved [in the Blue Room business] and were instrumental in running the business until 2009. In 2009 the family mutually decided to part ways in the business.
“At the time things were a little hazy about the future of Kenya and East Africa,” said Malik. “But we decided there was opportunity here and we had faith in the Kenyan growth plan. We made an offer to my uncle and cousins, and they accepted to sell us their shares.”
In 2009, Salim returned to Kenya and Malik followed a year later to support their father and join the family business full-time. The decision from his uncle’s side of the family to sell their stake in the Blue Room business was a fortuitous one.
While their return to the family business hasn’t prompted any major changes in the last five years, Malik and Salim have spent time learning about the business from their father and mother, Shiraz and Naz, who are part of the board of directors and who still come to Blue Room every day.
To date, Blue Room continues to operate along the self service model which has worked so well for it in the past. It continues to be open seven days a week from 7am till 10pm.
The only recent change has been the move towards an open kitchen concept which encourages interaction between staff and builds confidence about their quality and hygiene standards.
Their menu has gradually expanded from the Swahili and Indian styled snacks that defined it when it began, and now includes American fast food such as oven baked pizzas, burgers, fried chicken, chicken tikka and steak.
“The brand is well known for the ice cream and for our tea and bhajias. And this is international. But the local people know us for our chicken tikka, biryani, burgers and pizzas,” said Malik.
And with just two outlets and a staff of 60, it continues to be one of the most popular spots on the island and attracts over 1,000 patrons a day.
Its central location and open plan design has also made it popular meeting place for people from all walks of life including corporates and politicians.
“The brand is very well known, worldwide. It is unlikely that you would meet anyone who has visited Mombasa and not heard of Blue Room,” said Malik.
And the family centric business model has helped too.
“We are a small family run business. People come to us and we interact with them. There is a face of the family to the restaurant; it is not just a corporate brand.”
As Malik and Salim regain their feel for the restaurant business in Kenya, they are confident they can build on the brand capital that Blue Room has amassed in 64 years and have plans to expand the family business.