Thinking of Running a Restaurant?

Have you heard the claim that most restaurants close within the first year? It’s a notion that has had a well-travelled run. Perhaps it’s related to an old American Express commercial that claimed that 90% of them failed in their first year. However, recent research studies show that this statistic is false. One thorough study carried out by two American economists in 2014 found that in the United States the failure rate is only 17%, which is about the same as for most new businesses.

Nevertheless, to have a restaurant is to have a precarious business. In 1982, in her guide, Eating Out, Kathy Eldon listed 78 free-standing (not in a hotel) restaurants in Nairobi. How many do you think have survived? I reckon only four. Which ones, do you think?

Last Sunday, the day before another trip to Mogadishu, I decided to stock up with a good lunch and a relaxation in the lovely garden restaurant, Steak Out, on Manyani Road, just off James Gichuru Road – the Waiyaki Way end.

Steak Out has been open for two years now; it is owned and managed by Cheryl Barreto – and I was interested to learn about her experience, in the light of what I have said above about the precariousness of the restaurant business.

Cheryl gave up a good job, a marketing role with an international pharmaceutical company, to follow her dream of having a restaurant. Her job meant a lot of travelling around Africa and to Europe, so she became familiar with a variety of good restaurants. But her eureka moment was when eating a steak in an Argentinian steak house in Amsterdam. That’s when she decided to make the plunge.

It was a rather long drawn-out plunge because she took her time finding the right place. Eventually she found it in the leafy suburb of Lavington. The garden is very special, but the house is bigger than she had imagined. Using all the space has been one of the challenges she has faced. But she now has dining areas inside and outside; a cosy bar leading to a terrace overlooking the garden; a small private dining room, and a couple of elegant rooms for meetings.

In fact, the whole place is elegant – and that is something you might not realise from the name, Steak Out. Cheryl’s place is certainly not anything like a joint!

Yes, her steaks feature prominently on the menu, served with a good choice of sauces, starches and vegetables. Last Sunday I enjoyed again a fillet steak, drenched in pepper sauce and with new potatoes and grilled vegetables. But there is also a good range of chicken, fish and vegetarian dishes. And the sweets are delicious. I had relished the Chocolate Fondant before; this time I tried the Peanut and Chocolate Mousse – and it was better than indulging on a bar of whole nut milk chocolate. All this with a glass of the house Chardonnay – I can’t think of a better way of preparing for a trip to Mogadishu.

I chatted with Cheryl about her experience over the last two years with the dream she had realised. ‘Though I enjoyed my job,’ she said, ‘I had a passion for food and dining out. And I kept thinking about my idea of running a small restaurant.’

I asked her what it takes to be successful at running a restaurant. ‘You really have to be resilient,’ she said, ‘It’s hard work. You have to be prepared to work long hours – very long hours. I think if I had got down to preparing a proper business plan – dotting all the Is and crossing all the Ts – I might have been put off. I’m not a risk taker by nature. And I didn’t realise the risks until I got into it. But I am still glad I did get into it.

‘It’s a high investment operation,’ she went on, ‘what with all the staff and equipment you need. And the look I wanted for the restaurant ended up being quite expensive. There’s also the challenge of finding the right staff – and then keeping them. You then have to find ways of marketing the restaurant well; advertising is expensive – and also complicated these days. And in Nairobi now the competition is quite daunting. So you need stamina as well as resilience.’

I asked Cheryl what advice she would give if someone said to her, ‘Me too, I’ve always thought I should open a restaurant.’ She didn’t hesitate in her reply: ‘If you really have a passion, then go for it.’ I hope she would also tell them about the risks and the challenges.

Tomorrow, Christmas Day, we have booked a table at Steak Out for a traditional turkey roast. I guess the place will be fully booked. If you want to try your luck, the number is

0722 243008. They will also be open on New Year’s Day.