Gavin Bell knows quite a bit about chains. Not the sort of chains that hold you down, mind you. No, Gavin is not the sort of man to be held down. I’m talking about restaurant chains – and Gavin has been involved in a few of them: Spur Steak Ranches, Kentucky Fried Chicken, his own Kengeles – and now Roast.
This is a new restaurant of the Tamarind Group, an offshoot of their famous meat specialty place, the Carnivore – and perhaps the first of a chain. It is very well sited: on the first corner as you enter the piazza of the Hub, the new and very attractive shopping complex in Karen.
So when I went for a roast lunch at the Roast and a chat with Gavin, I began by reminding him that when I first interviewed him – it must have been about seventeen years ago, not so long after he opened his first Kengeles Restaurant in Lavington – he told me that he had turned down the offer of a nice plot in Karen.
‘I looked at population density,’ he said, ‘the five acre plots in Karen as against the one acre plots in Karen. Anyway, Karen people don’t like to go out at night.’
‘So here you are, involved in opening a place in Karen’, I said.
‘Well, the social dynamics have changed,’ he pointed out. ‘Drastically! Karen isn’t the place it was seventeen years ago.’
It certainly isn’t. There are more housing estates; more people – and a greater mix. Also, the new bypasses bring other people in and out more easily. That’s why The Hub – Kenya’s newest, most spacious, and most imaginative shopping mall – will be so successful. And the Roast will thrive with it.
‘This is the best site for a restaurant I’ve ever had,’ Gavin said.
But there’s more to the Roast than its location. Let me tell you about the menu. I notice it is headed ‘Roast by Carnivore’. And the motto is ‘Spread the fire’. So you will appreciate that this is no place for vegetarians. However, to be fair, they can choose from a Veggievore Sandwich (a veggie cutlet with cucumber and yoghurt sauce), a Herbivore Salad (a very basic one with crispy lettuce, tomatoes, roasted onions, sweet corn and croutons), and even an Ugali Fritter (with a choice of sauces).
At Roast, though, meat is the thing. I chose a Pulled Beef Sandwich – filled with lettuce, tomatoes, fresh and roasted onions. I guess you will know that ‘pulled’ is a way of cooking meat that would otherwise be quite tough. It is cooked slowly at low temperatures, so the meat becomes so tender that it can be ‘pulled’ into individual pieces. And the beef in my sandwich was certainly tender.
But Gavin wanted to prove the point. He also ordered a Pork Rib for me to try – even if I could manage only a taste. Which I did. It was also very tender – and nicely smoky.
The prices are very reasonable. The pulled beef sandwich is Ksh.690 (add Ksh.100 for chips). The pork or beef ribs are Ksh.850 for 300g and Ksh.1,600 for 600g. There are also meat platters served with kachumbari: the Fire, 600g, at Ksh.850; Bush Fire, 600g, at Ksh.1,600; and Inferno, 1.2kg, at Ksh.2,700.
On the piazza, Roast has the charm of a pavement restaurant. The service is rather special, too. Gavin brings to this new Carnivore venture his accumulated experience from his time with the Spur and KFC chains. For him, standardization of the quality is almost an obsession. So Roast will only bring steaks to the menu when they are assured that quality can be replicated.
His focus is on establishing the right kind of brand image and ethos – one that builds on the reputation of the Tamarind brand – and, especially, to ‘spread the fire’ of its Carnivore. The waitresses are called ‘appetizer igniters’; the cooks are ‘fire makers’; the kitchen supervisor is a ‘fire chief’; and the hostesses are ‘scorchers’. They seem to be a very contented bunch: well fired-up and smiling.
I asked Gavin how he selects and trains the staff. He flicked through the files on his phone and showed me one of his presentations.
‘This is how we try to instill what Roast means and stands for,’ he said.
And there it was, in capitals: R for raving brand fanatics; O for obsessive about quality; A for awesome customer focus; S for scorching service; T for terrific team.
To further motivate the staff, each one is understudying someone in the next position up – sitting on the bench for them, as it were.
So Roast at The Hub seems to be a very happy place. As Jonathan Seex, the Tamarind’s Director of Business Development, said, ‘It might not be fine dining, but it’s certainly fun dining.