Enterprise

Why I quit my finance job to start a restaurant

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Soulfood Limited founder and CEO Chanya Mwanyota. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU | NMG

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Summary

  • Armed with Sh700,000 savings in 2018, the former financial compliance officer started Mataam, a restaurant serving Swahili dishes which she felt was lacking in the market.
  • Few months into the business, she introduced the Nigerian dishes menu following numerous requests from customers most of who congregated at a church located in the same building as her restaurant.

Together with her colleagues, Chanya Mwanyota would go to food joints in Upper Hill, Nairobi, where the company she was working for was located. She always found the meals not quite that good for her taste. Her colleagues didn’t find the food value for their money either.

And this sparked a business idea that she went on to later launch. It occurred to her that many other people were possibly not satisfied with the kind of food on offer in restaurants and she wanted to change that.

Armed with Sh700,000 savings in 2018, the former financial compliance officer started Mataam, a restaurant serving Swahili dishes which she felt was lacking in the market.

Few months into the business, she introduced the Nigerian dishes menu following numerous requests from customers most of who congregated at a church located in the same building as her restaurant.

“Since I didn’t want to give customers substandard dishes, I partnered with a Nigerian who brought in a chef and ingredients, then use my kitchen,” says the founder of Soulfood, the company operating Mataam and seven virtual restaurants.

The partnership ended after three months but Ms Mwanyota remained with the knowledge of preparing Nigerian dishes.

She soon joined Jumia and Uber Eats platforms in October 2018, to attract more customers.

At the time, food delivery service platform, Uber Eats had just entered the Kenyan market after a successful launch in Egypt and South Africa.

The firm, exclusively using motorbike couriers, signed up Soulfood as one of its partners to serve customers in Kilimani, Kileleshwa, Lavington and Westlands..

“Uber Eats advised that we split Swahili and Nigerian menu so customers don’t get confused, hence the first virtual restaurant dubbed Naija Plate,” says the BA Economics graduate from the University of Nairobi.

Then she started Mama Ntilie, the affordable version of Mataam, serving meals at lower rates to appeal to customers on a budget. She says the restaurant ran out of food on the first day it opened, attesting to the gap in the market.

Two months later, Shawarma Central was born, then Soul Food that serves food such as French fries, pasta, cheese and bread crammed chicken.

“In an attempt to maintain my sales, I am trying to appeal to every eater out here, hence the numerous restaurants,” she says.

Other virtual restaurants include Grandma Ruks (for traditional meals), Breakfast Republic, Bhajia Shark that specialises in Indian dishes. There is also Mama Jay’s that serves “homely” dishes that people associate with their mums.

Ms Mwanyota notes that she looks at the analytics and decides whether to ramp up the virtual menu, change name or shut it down all together.

Her food supplies are sourced from smallholder farmers as well as from Marikiti and Wakulima markets, both in Nairobi.

All meals are prepared at the kitchen of Mataam Restaurant located in Kilimani, which has a sitting space for 30 customers.

Her virtual restaurants process up to 100 orders a day with prices ranging between Sh100 and Sh2,500 a meal. This earns Soulfood an average revenue of Sh800,000 that goes into paying its seven workers and improving the business.

Ms Mwanyota who quit employment to venture into the business notes that it has not been easy to steer her startup ship to a point of stability.

When she set out to start the business, half of the initial capital went into the lease of restaurant and Sh200,000 was lost to a conman who said he could do the fittings.

The setback was massive and Ms Mwanyota spent five months raising money to run the kitchen even as she paid rent for a business that had not started.

“I had to decide whether I should spend more money trying to get the conman arrested or start off the restaurant with the little I was left with,” she recalls.

So she went to Kamkunji market and purchased three charcoal stoves and went to work. One week into the business, Lady Luck smiled on her path as she got an outside catering job from which she earned enough to buy gas stoves.

Although it has been a steep climb for her in the business world, she says all the hardships she has faced has helped her to be resilient and have the staying power needed in the business world.

Her main role at the restaurant is to oversee the preparation and cooking of meals whose taste she says are unique.

“My biggest role is to pass on the vision to my staff. If I fail to do this, then the whole venture will be a mess,” she says.

While other businesses are struggling amid the covid-19 pandemic, her venture is thriving owing to increased number of customers that are working from home.

Her biggest challenge however is limited geographical coverage as her online restaurants can only be seen by customers within a radius of 3 kms.

Thanks to a roaring success, Soulfood was selected among five women-led start-ups that received Sh1 million seed funding in a programme funded by the Standard Chartered Bank and implemented at iBizAfrica- Strathmore University. The five were awarded after completing three-month incubation at iBizAfrica-Strathmore University’s tech incubator.

Ms Mwanyota says she plans to utilise the funds to open a distribution centres in Westlands and on Mombasa Road to grow her client base.