Running seafood restaurant in a city

Edna Odongo is the managing director of Mawimbi Seafood restaurant in Nairobi. Odongo has been in the food business for 26 years. PHOTO | POOL

The seafood market in Kenya has been growing and expanding in recent years. With this growth has been the emergence of exclusively-seafood restaurants in Nairobi.

In the capital city, Mawimbi Seafood on Kijabe Street is one of the many restaurants now serving 90 per cent seafood.

The establishment that opened its doors in 2019 sits 200 and operates for 22 hours daily. It has 70 staff.

It is known among seafood enthusiasts for its anchor offering called the “Poseidon” a platter that has shrimp, lobster, calamari, oysters, sea fish, and squid.

“It is a taste of the sea and a true experience of what seafood is,” says Edna Odongo, the managing director.

“We wanted to introduce seafood to inland palates,” she adds.

How do you run a seafood restaurant in a city?

Running a seafood restaurant, though, is more complicated than operating a regular restaurant. The success depends, foremost, on the catch of the day, then the availability of certain seafood species and freshness.

“Getting supplies fresh from the sea and transporting them to Nairobi without passing that cost on to the customer is delicate,” she says.

For many restaurants, buying supplies in bulk and freezing them is the way out of this logistical nightmare. But this comes with a freshness challenge.

“We had to figure out how to reduce frozen supplies. You lose the essence when you freeze seafood for an extended time. The intensity of the flavour is highest when fresh,” explains Ms Odongo.

Salmon wrapped in beef at Mawimbi Seafood, a restaurant along Kijabe Street in Nairobi. PHOTO | POOL

Crustaceans like crabs are even more delicate. “Crab needs to be alive into the pot to the table if you want it whole. It is difficult to transport crab because you must transport it alive. Some die in transit,” she adds.

That is why the restaurant restricts crab on the menu and guests have to make a 48-hour pre-order to be served. In many restaurants in Nairobi, this dish is a rarity.

The restaurant works with fishermen in Malindi who send their catch overnight.

“It is about engaging the fisherman to find out what they have and the kitchen being creative so that the dish that is placed in front of the guest meets their expectations.”

Whatever is served at the table has a lot to do with the situation at sea. “When the sea is favourable, you get a bigger catch. There is also variety.”

Mawimbi’s clientele straddle well-travelled Kenyans and members of the international community living in Kenya.

“They are people looking for the overall experience of dining. The food is a huge component but it is also about the ambience, the welcome cocktail, and the after-sale service.”

The taste of fish, especially lake fish has changed over the years, she notes, owing predominantly to human activity.

“I grew up loving fish. The water quality now is different and what the fish are feeding on has changed. I stopped enjoying lake fish. Sea fish is more flavourful,” she says.

To her, the local seafood scene is expanding by allowing a diversity of experiences and more restaurants are bold enough to introduce items on their menu.

“Kenyans are a very positive people. They are welcoming to new experiences. From an employee standpoint, we are fast learners. This explains why there is a lot of exportation of Kenyan talent to the West and the Middle East.”

An assortment of seafood at Mawimbi Seafood, a restaurant along Kijabe Street in Nairobi. PHOTO | POOL 

From an offerings standpoint, Ms Odongo says there are more seafood choices for consumers today than there were 20 years ago.

“It is a challenge for the market to keep growing and to keep doing better.”

She also Kenyans could nurture foods that are natural to the country for authentic dining experiences.

If not at Mawimbi, she says, she would have seafood at Tamarind Mombasa because “they have stood the test of time”.

“We need to come up with ways of making transport cheaper to supply the city stores,” she says.

Ms Odongo also thinks players in the market should form an association to support fishermen.

Talent in this industry is in short supply. One of Mawimbi’s key chefs is leaving to work in the US. How does this hurt business?

Ms Odongo says the growth of her staff means the growth of the industry. “They [always] come back and teach those who do not get such opportunities. For guests, there is continuity. They do not have to feel the difference.”

When Covid-19 struck it affected the restaurants both in sales and staff.

Top chefs enticed by better perks in the UK, North America and Dubai left high-end hotels scrambling for the few available talents. Some had to promote their junior chefs to take on the often demanding role of executive chef, with mixed results.

Ms Odongo says it is important for a restaurant to work as a unit and to empower all individuals to lessen the hit of the departure of a member of staff.

She knows too well the effects of the pandemic, because, within months of opening Mawimbi Restaurant, the Covid-19 pandemic hit, complicating the matrix.

“It was completely rough for the business. Somehow we survived,” she says.

Today, Mawimbi has won multiple awards and recognitions.

“It takes a while for a business in this industry to build momentum. I think we are thriving. Determination to know what customers want and serve is key. We reprint our menu as often as the situation dictates to offer different flavours. We do it as a team. It is mathematical, based on feedback, reports on what is popular from sales and creating new flavours on what is new in the market.”

She then organises several tastings where customers give feedback. The items are then tested in the restaurant. Ms Odongo says it is a science.

Cocktail at Mawimbi Seafood, a restaurant along Kijabe Street in Nairobi. PHOTO | POOL

“You cannot just add a pepper steak to the menu, for instance. Every item has to go through a process.”

On personal lessons, she says her tenacity and love for people have sustained her in the service industry for nearly three decades.

“I do not mind working hard and for long hours. I am far from reaching my peak. I keep learning a lot from young people wherever I work.”

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