Nothing captures the story of George Kariithi, the founder of George Grill King, quite like meat does. From barbecued beef in the bush to grilled pork at home, lamb and beer, chicken with friends, his is as meaty as a life can be.
During the Covid-19 pandemic when businesses are shutting down, his fortunes seem to be going in the opposite direction. Unable to keep his IT consultancy job, George set up a barbecue business in Kilimani, Nairobi in May.
With restrictions on movement that affected eating out, residents of Nairobi and the surrounding counties turned to food deliveries, pushing the arc of demand up. It’s this gap that he had his eyes on.
George Grill King deals with all types of meat besides their signature wedges that are infused with beef, operating between Friday and Sunday. He has employed eight people and works on a pre-booked basis, where consumers make orders before the meat is prepared and dispatched.
“It takes a lot of time and attention to the meat to derive this kind of flavours and aroma. Customers just don’t walk in. This also allows us to get the right cuts from our meat supplier,” George explains, delicately poking a large succulent slab of pork with a pair of tongs.
A mixture of seasoning ingredients sit in a separate pot nearby.
“This is a blend of our signature rubs that we use to barbecue the meat. Sometimes customers order the rubs which we package together with the meat.”
George loves bulk. It’s easy to see how, because here, ribs measure 1.5 kilogrammes and chicken is sold whole. I’m struck by the large portions. I ask him what inspired this approach.
“Kenyans love barbecue. We wanted to offer portions that would be value for money; cuts that customers would not only enjoy but have their fill as well. There’s uniqueness in the large sizes, which is our identity.”
The cuts are sold for Sh1,500 while chicken goes for Sh1,400.
A natural adventurer, George likes to curate meat with gin, whisky or cognac sauces.
Before Covid-19, he and his friends held ‘Mbuzi Friday’, where a few people converged on Friday to enjoy pork and beef glazed with expensive whisky sauce. It’s upon this concept that this business was founded.
What has the reception been like? Everything is going as he has expected, George replies with animation. His secret has been to experiment with a handful of people. This, he notes, has been key in damage control.
“The majority of our customers are the people who participated in ‘Mbuzi Friday’ experience. We also have new customers and multiple repeat ones.”
He describes his business as agile and small.
“We don't want to grow into the masses. Keeping it small is necessary for purposes of quality control because we’ve a specific clientele that we target.”
Who’s this clientele then? “When you target people, you sort of target yourself. I’m targeting people who, like myself, are curious about meat, people with subtle palates who love to grill and eat tasty food.”
Sometime between a luscious beer-marinated chicken and potato wedges and the accompanying vegetable salad, George breaks into a brisk narration of how Covid-19 has been a wakeup call to him.
“It’s only natural to want to do what others are doing and what’s seemingly more profitable,” he says, lamenting that this has resulted in mass duplication of business ideas in the last three months.
“I’ve realised that I need to create my value and to be unique in my business approach. It’s important to do what you’re passionate about, because, at the end of the day, it’s what you value most that will see you through any crisis.”
With reduced sit-ins, many local hotels and restaurants have added delivery services to their portfolio. It’s the natural direction to go to survive. Except George doesn’t see it that way. He tells me the focus for George Grill King has been trying to understand the takeaway model.
“Most hotels are volume businesses. With the sudden drop in the number of diners, they’d want to find alternative ways to make money.”
“We chose to first work on our products to meet the highest standards possible. As a new eatery, attempting to aggregate logistics while maintaining food quality is a tricky balance,” he adds.
The average Nairobi diner, he says, is self-sufficient, and will likely order for accompaniments for the meat from different providers, which is where a rider comes in handy.
“It takes some time for people to notice and appreciate a new experience. As such, ours hasn’t been a steep climb.”
On Kenyans’ meat consumption habits, George says: “Women between 28 and 35 years are becoming the most vicious meat-eaters. Women are visual, and whenever they see meat photos online, they’re curious to try it out. They don’t stop once they’ve discovered a new taste.”
Goat, he says, is generally accepted because “it has a straightforward and standard way to prepare” as opposed to lamb.
“Lamb is delicate. You have to cure it so that the flavour is preserved. You also can’t have it dry which is why consumers prefer it medium (cooked).” He adds that Kenyan beef is tastier than any other he has had elsewhere in the world. “There’s something about charcoal and smoke from our local trees that derives the essence from meat.”
So, what type of carnivore is he? “A lion,” George says archly. “I eat fast like one. I bite, chew three times, and swallow. If you’re a slow eater, I’ll have eaten three-quarters of the portion by the time we’re done.”
For someone who has travelled extensively around the world, for both work and recreation, George argues that nothing breaks barriers as much as food does.
“Sharing a meal creates powerful connections. It doesn’t matter what inhibitions you hold, but once you enjoy a meal together, everything changes.” A family man, George is married and has two sons, Gregg and Kyle, aged 18 and 16. ”
In the future, he hopes to develop boutique cottages “that will encompass barbecue and outdoor activities in a bush and sea setting.”
His proudest investment decision? “Listening to people to understand and grow with them.”
So, what does he look forward to the most in life? Enjoying the different seasons that life has to offer. “I always enjoy being with my wife and sons, family and friends. Finding opportunities to appreciate their blessing to my life is important to me,” he says.
I wonder, with his three months of hindsight, whether he thinks this business will outlive Covid-19.
“We aren’t going anywhere,” he says with as much conviction as buoyancy. “I have plans to bring in American pitmasters that operate large grills. The idea is to blend Kenyan rubs with American seasoning for a different experience for Kenyan meat lovers.”
Already, he has set things in motion by developing five designs of grills to be fabricated for this purpose. It’s somehow unsurprising that, three months later, the tech pro now takes his new job as seriously as he once took computer wizardry.