When you Google Robert King'ori you will get 58,000 results, none of which is Robert Kingori who owns Road House Grill. For a man who runs one of the popular nyama-choma landmarks in Nairobi, he’s pretty below the radar.
When he came back from USA in 2010 after working in a cruise ship in Florida, he knew he wanted to start a bar. With his siblings, they bought a local bar called Kijiji, on Dennis Pritt Road, Nairobi, that was on its knees. They didn’t do much on it, just a lick of paint, brought down a wall and opened the kitchen.
It’s been six years now and business has flourished so much that they took over the former Buffet Park Bar in Hurlingham and did the same thing; left the seats as they were and painted the walls. They took over the spirit of Buffet Park and gave it a new name; Road House Grill.
He sat down with JACKSON BIKO at the Hurlingham branch for a pow wow.
Is there a kind of personality type that owns and runs a bar like this? Do you have to be of a particular disposition, I don’t know, rough and tough? The kind of person who can throw out an irate customer by their scruffs. You look the type.
(Chuckles) In the drink business, anything could happen and being disciplined makes my job a little bit easier. Does it help to be rough? No, but you should be tough. You also have to be fair. If a guest climbs on tables to dance, that’s someone I will be very firm with. That is not the kind of bar I would like to run. If you have mature guests who can maintain themselves, there is never any need for that.
What’s the magic to running a successful popular bar? There must be some magic.
I can’t call myself a magician but there is a great bit of luck involved together with a great product and great staff. The staff runs this place because I come here at 3pm and before that time anything could be happening here, you know? But there isn’t a secret, we just do things in a certain way— run the kitchen in a certain way, treat our customers in a certain way, and the rest just unfolds on its own.
Why did you come back after 12 years?
There were all these stories of economic opportunities opening up and it made me interested to come back and run my own business.
You could have opted to build a swanky lounge bar that gives scented hand towels to guests, but you decided to keep it local. Any reason why?
I figured we would just improve what was already there, what may not have been working for the previous owner. It was easier and faster to open the doors when the bar was existing— plug and play I guess. Also I didn’t want to get into heavy investment without knowing what would happen. So we said, let’s just test it out.
Does your day start at 1pm? Do you spend the whole morning sleeping at home?
I don’t have a fixed schedule. But Thursdays to the weekend are busier. Some days I can sit here until we close at 3am but mostly by midnight I can leave. Part of it is PR, being here, meeting guests and all.
You have a family?
(Chuckles) Uhm...no...just siblings... but not family of my own.
It could have been much harder if you had a family, no?
It is hard I would think, I don’t know. If you have family there are certain expectations like going to church, family time. But also there are family people who have even bigger businesses than this so I guess it’s just work-life balance.
What’s the one thing people don’t know about running a bar?
It is a lot of work. It looks like all fun — eating meat and drinking, cheers to this and cheers to that — but behind the scenes it’s crazy. It’s also a very cash-intensive business. Cash, cash, cash. Suppliers have to paid, staff have to paid, renovations etc. You also have to have a discipline.
How old are you now?
I’m 44...no wait, it’s 43. (Laughs).
For how long do you think you can do this until you say, ‘Okay, now my bones can’t handle this pub anymore’?
Well, I’d like my body to continue doing this for a long time. But as one continues with these late nights, your body will just tell you can’t do this anymore. Sometimes I take off and drive out of town for a day just to clear my head.
As a bar owner, does it help to be a drinker?
(Laughs) Yes and no. Sometimes you can sit down with a customer who is drinking and waiting for someone, if you have a drink with him and chat, well, I guess that helps, but it’s not necessary. But as a boss you have to manage it, you can’t be tripping over yourself, staggering, you have to be an example to your team even to your guests.
What’s your stand on Alcoblow, as we call it: Good or bad?
I am pro-Alcoblow, which comes down to responsible drinking. Of course, it has its flaws as far as what some of the standards are out there. Also you can’t just block the road and subject motorists to this test. But it’s important to keep the roads safe. I’m all for responsible drinking; if you have had enough, call and Uber or Taxify or if you are a man of means, have your own driver. I don’t believe that the car knows its way home.
Do you go to church?
(Pause) I am a non-practising Catholic. I do go to church when I get the chance. This year I have not gone, I am still on holiday.
What do you like most about 40s right now, three years in?
I am wiser. If I was in my early 30s, some of the discipline I have acquired may not be there, especially in business. I am not saying if you are young you cannot run a bar, but I think there is something that age teaches you.