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It’s all work and no play for eat-out guru

MIKUL SHAH, Founder, Sleep Out/ Eat Out. Photo/Fredrick Onyango
MIKUL SHAH, Founder, Sleep Out/ Eat Out. Photo/Fredrick Onyango  Nation Media Group

You know of Eat Out, right? It’s the largest online restaurant guide and booking engine in Kenya. This year, Eat Out is estimated to have sat over 100,000 diners at hundreds of restaurants in Kenya, generating about Sh200 million in revenue.

Now Mikul Shah has just launched Sleep Out, a comprehensive, contemporary, functional and unique online portal that links users to Kenya’s accommodation spots.

Born and bred in Mombasa, Mikul, a computer systems engineer, started his business in 2010 with a staff of one at his inherited family business block in Westlands – from where he still operates. Now he is set to open more offices in Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania and Uganda.

The fact that he hasn’t closed shop so far– and is growing rapidly - points to the fact that Kenyans, indeed, are eating out more than you would imagine. And Mikul is happy.

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I always wanted to know, do we have any Michelin Star chefs around?

There is a big difference between a Michelin Star and a chef working in a Michelin Star restaurant. We don’t have a Michelin Star restaurant in Kenya, but we have chef’s who have worked in Michelin restaurants, like Chef Karan of the Fairmont, Marcus from Talisman, Barry Tonks of the new Hemingways has run a Michelin restaurant before.

Is the eating out culture developed enough here to keep you in business for long?

Knowledge of world cuisine is really growing in Kenya. There are many restaurants you can crane from here to New York and they would fit in perfectly. The Kenyan middle class is growing and there are many people with disposable incomes who are willing to try out new cuisines.

Give me your top five favourite restaurants.

There is a big difference between my favourite restaurants and my best restaurants, some of my favourite restaurants are sort of more homely; plastic chairs, service wouldn’t be the greatest but I’d get served with a smile and I have one-on-one with the owners.

Can you cook?

(Laughs) Well, no, not at all. But my wife is a wonderful cook, although she is vegetarian. But I’m not a vegetarian even though I truly appreciate vegetarian meals especially if you find someone who knows how to experiment with it.

What would happen to you if you dared walk into your house with a double beef burger?

(Laughs) Well not much, but I wouldn’t. I mean…I think she would probably toss it out. Uhm, I don’t think I would carry one home though.

Between Eat Out and Sleep Out, what do you in between?

I actually don’t have much time to myself, with the two engagements and my two kids (he has two sons aged 5 and 2). There is so much going on in terms of expansion. For instance, we have just received $1.5 million from a Dutch company to go into Eat Out, we are also embarking on a comprehensive resource for business tourism- conference.co.ke –, and so with these projects, I hardly have time.

So, all work and no play, huh?

Well, whenever I get a window, I travel. I’m hoping that with the business expanding in Africa I will see more of the rest of Africa. But I don’t splash on clothes and what not, so I would normally indulge in travel, like go to Lamu and relax at the beach.

You always seem to have some new fancy gadget every time I run into you…

I’m big on gadgets and cars. On gadgets, I have to have the latest gadget but as you know, trends pass rather quickly and those gadgets always end up with my son.

Allow me to box you in when I ask if you’re the archetypical upwardly mobile young Asian with a souped-up and loud Subaru trumpeting down the street and disrupting the peace.

(Laughs) That was me. I drove a lot of fancy cars while abroad. Everything from Audi to BMW to Mercedes to Range Rover. My biggest problem now is the state of Kenyan roads so I’m not keen on driving something that will be hard to maintain on our roads. I love cars but now I just drive a practical family car.

Talking of movies, have you watched Sky Fall and did you see the Heineken shot because I didn’t! Those folk got a raw deal, no?

(Laughs) Not really, I mean there were two brief scenes in the movie both lasting about 10 seconds, but the activation all over the world helped the sponsorship. We got to watch the movie before everyone else in the world and Heineken gave us that opportunity.

What’s your greatest weakness?

I’m not very good at management, but I’m superb at finding and nurturing talent. Also because I started this business, I tend to be more hands-on than necessary.

Wine, beer or whisky?

I’ve done beers and whiskies. Now I’m all for wine.

How do you choose a fine bottle of wine?

I look at the bottle. If I like the way it looks, I buy it. And I never buy the same bottle twice.

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