why i’m scared of owning a restaurant

Taste Budz Ntinda
Photo from Foursquare

I’M scared of running a restaurant, coffee shop or eatery. I’m so scared that I’ll only do it if I am the person cooking, cleaning, and serving customers. Me, myselef.

It’s been a dream of mine for a long, long time – owning a profitable enough eatery that I can live off it doing all the other stuff that I enjoy.

Sitting on the terrace at the Taste Budz of the Capital Shoppers City Mall in Ntinda and swatting away numerous houseflies settled it for me.

Even as I chose the location I knew I wasn’t going to enjoy it, but I needed somewhere to sit and wait till my next meeting nearby. I was quite certain I wouldn’t be enjoying any food here, so I planned to drink just a pot of spiced black tea with honey (I’m also cheap like that).

So I took up position, slapped open the Macbook Pro and watched the waiting staff watching me through the grimy window. It was a public holiday, and they were mostly chilling – some seated at a table chatting and texting while one of them folded up those little thin serviettes into triangles.

Three others were behind the counter chatting and moving things about for some reason that the person who invested money in this venture might not have included in the Staff Manual or books of accounts.

This is one reason I am afraid of owning such a business. I cannot imagine paying rent, electricity bills, internet costs (there is a paper glued to the window here that says ‘Free WiFi’), food costs, staff salaries and so on and so forth, then having just one customer sit at the tables at 1100hrs on a public holiday.

(In your mind, reader, change tense now because I am doing so here)

A minute in, a chap walks up to me slowly with a worn menu card and generally mumbles something as if unsure whether I am a customer or…(I don’t know what else I could be).

“Do you have black tea? Spiced?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says, toying with the menu card.

“Please give me one black tea. Spiced.”

I know that the menu is not impressive but now that there is Free WiFi I feel it would only be fair for me to appear to be spending good money here.

So I ask for it.

He must be intelligent, because he appears surprised and tries to hand it to me but I pretend to be busy with the laptop and gesture to the table so he places it there.

Nothing to report, except that I check for my hand sanitiser and find comfort that it is present before I handle the menu card.

That’s another thing I’m scared of. I cannot imagine owning a restaurant and then getting told my menu cards are fake, with their laminated plastic covering and funny spellings. Then supposing these things are so expensive that restaurant owners can only change them once every twenty years or so? These might be things that non-restaurant owners don’t know and only discover after investing in the business. Then people start talking about your entire family because the menu cards at your restaurant are so old and sticky and worn and dirty and smelly.

I am also scared of being a restaurant owner getting sued for spreading some deadly disease by way of a bacteria infested menu card that I placed in the hands of a customer.

A few minutes later, I gesture to him and ask for the Free WiFi. He puts his hands together as if to rub off some of the bacteria from the menu card he had picked up and says, “I don’t know the code.”

He seems upset by this lack of knowledge – as would I be, if I were him.

“But it says there that you offer Free WiFi.”

“They don’t allow us to know the code.”

I look at him silently for a bit so that we can both spend some time thinking about this situation rather than brainstorming or arguing.

Eventually he figures out a solution.

“Let me call someone to give it to you.”

He returns with the black tea, presumably spiced, and sugar. All in those metallic contraptions that must be the cornerstone of some empire somewhere that convinced Ugandans that this is proper etiquette.

When did we start using these damn things and when will we realise we need to destroy them all? Why do those tea pots NEVER pour out tea properly? How come we all know this but still use them? What were the manufacturers thinking when they made them? Where are they made anyway? <— Five W’s and H. Tick.

“Please give me honey instead?”

“We don’t have honey,” the fellow says, and makes to leave.

“I don’t take sugar with my tea, so please get me honey,” I say with a firmness that normally works with the children and people who expect to be paid in exchange for goods and services. He was clearly neither of the above.

He looks at me as if I am being dense and decides to explain a little further, so as to clear out any doubts and confusion on my part.

“We normally get the honey from upstairs but it is closed. Those people haven’t come yet.”

My confusion deepens because whereas I am vaguely aware that there is an upstairs section to this Mall and perhaps even to this restaurant itself, I see no reason for this detail to be shared with me.

“Then I have to cancel the tea.”

He looks at the teapot, cup and sugar arrangement briefly, then at me. Then he leaves.

“Excuse me!”

He turns back.

“Seriously – please get me honey instead of sugar, or take back the tea. And don’t take long because if it cools and you bring honey I still can’t drink it.”

He leaves and returns two minutes later with a fresh, non-uniformed employee. Not likely the Manager, but clearly higher up the ladder – maybe from upstairs?

She doesn’t have honey in her hands and comes right up to me before I realise that this is the custodian of the Free WiFi code (Taste110). At this point I enter into a moral dilemma – if they don’t bring me the honey I will send back the tea; will I still be entitled to the Free WiFi?

I debate for a few seconds then take the path of the Christian. She understands me quite well, exchanges a look with the waiter, then they walk off together for a few seconds.

She returns with a small piece of paper bearing the Free WiFi code (Taste110). The waiter follows closely behind her and removes the metallic tea pot, sugar bowl, and the cup and saucer.

I am scared of running a restaurant where they do that – spend my investment while not bothering much to get a return on it. I am scared of having employees who allow a customer to sit on the chairs, use the electricity and space, and EVEN the ‘Free WiFi’ without trying too hard to get some money out of his pocket.

These things really scare me. To think that I could be the owner of this place, which is about 200 metres away from the Capital Shopper’s Supermarket that sells honey at about Ushs5,000 a jar, yet have employees withdraw tea and sugar from a paying customer…

I fear to imagine being the owner of that restaurant – what did they do with the tea that had been brewed? How do they recover the cost of heating the pot of water involved?

The fears continue to rise as I log on and start typing out this lengthy review, and somebody else walks in, taking up a seat on the verandah. Within one minute a different waiter walks over in that slow, hesitant way we tend to use when employed in such jobs. He moves faster than my waiter, and seems more awake. They talk a little bit and a menu card is placed in the customer’s hands.

Eventually, the customer asks for a soda and hands over a Ushs50,000 note right away. I can’t be the restaurant owner who doesn’t get feedback from the staff about how people keep looking at the menu but they don’t order.

Or maybe it was just a slow morning with picky, stingy customers?

I still feel a little bad about using the ‘Free WiFi’ so I call this more sprightly looking waiter and ask for a bottle. He brings me my bottle – Dasani – and places it on the table.

I probably wouldn’t have used a glass if it had been placed on the table, but I feel a little slighted that none is offered.

Ripping the kaveera off the top of the bottle makes me gag as it is DEFINITELY SMELLING OF SOMETHING UNHYGIENIC!


I push it away and take another sniff and indeed, I feel like calling up the people at NEMA…or UNBS. A friend comes over to say hi and I ask him to smell the bottle. He is aghast. The waiter appears to notice, and comes over to check (marks given for that). I ask him to smell the bottle as well – “Nothing.”

“THAT smells okay to you?!”

“Yes, sir.”

I am at such a low point in my life that I can’t raise a tantrum, so I smile and bid my friend farewell.

And the waiter shocks me with: “I can get you another bottle if you want.”

Courtesy. Politeness. Attentiveness to the needs of a customer. Why is this surprising? Astonishing? Downright shocking?

I would hate to be a restaurant owner where my staff’s courtesy is a surprise. It’s hard being an entrepreneur sometimes…too many times. Especially in the food business – I’ll only do it if I am the person cooking, cleaning, and serving customers. Me, myselef.

#KlaRestaurantWeek – food, fun, innovation and more and more food

I attended the #KlaRestaurantWeek launch tour while on a diet and lived to tell the tale.

My dietary planning this year did not take into account events like these, and I have made a million notes to self with calendar reminders so that the next time I think of anything diet related I first make contact with all organisers of food events to make sure there will be no repeat of the pain I am going through.

I arrived at The Bistro for the launch tour well on time, heeding the ‘keep time’ warning and quite apprehensive about the night ahead.

Over a camomile tea, I engaged in a small taco-making competition and envied the judges as they took bites out of a total of eighteen tacos made by our team! I put more feeling into the task than was required, of course, but stepped on my culinary brake pedals (amateur as the accelerator ones are) when I realised some of my team mates were new to tacos in general.

I did wish that we were required to produce Rolexes instead, even though that would have been overkill for the judges, including JJ, the amiable owner of The Bistro. After their flavourful good start, off we went to Yujo, the Japanese fusion restaurant in Nakasero.

They’ve moved to a new location, I discovered, on the road below Nakasero Primary School, and are as busy as ever in the evenings.

Their owner manager, Hanif, is as energetic as they come and for a few minutes you will forget what city you are in as he whirls around you issuing instructions and cracking jokes to go with the colours sounds and smells of Yujo.

Here, I did put down a 50gramme steak, as that fits well within my dietary measures, but during #KlaRestaurantWeek it will be a 100grammer (on the special). I missed out on the Kampala Roll (their response to the Philadelphia Roll) because of the ingredients containing things verbotten to me – but I will be back, walahi!

After that the rest of the group went to The Lawns but I wasn’t strong enough (or was wise enough not to try) to fight all that temptation, and left them to their enjoyment.

But enough about food – on this blog.

The point of the #KlaRestaurantWeek, and the reason you must all go out to the participating restaurants and take part in this culinary adventure is because it is:

1. A lot of fun: Visiting 40 (forty) restaurants in about seven days is DEFINITELY piles of fun – going by our night of just three restaurants. If you plan your week properly you can maximise everything that those restaurants have to offer by taking in the special menu items first and going in groups of friends so you all order different dishes and keep the experience lively.

2. Easy to do: Imagine that on the night of the launch we got from one restaurant to the next in good time regardless of the crazy Kampala traffic, simply by planning the journey and using the relevant back roads – even with the Fairway roundabout in the way of two of the trips. Just by planning a route in advance we cut off precious minutes of digestion time and enjoyed three restaurants in one night (that could easily be “for the price of one”…next bullet)

3. Cheap: For real! If you are clever about it and choose the specials only then you will be on a roll. Most of the meals are either Ushs10,000 or Ushs25,000, in places where during the normal days the cost of each would be about Ushs5,000 or Ushs10,000 more than that. It’s a bargain especially considering that the quantities are more or less the same decent amount you will get when the #KlaRestaurantWeek has ended and we are all pretending to be normal. Visit this page: http://thepearlguide.co.ug/kampala-restaurant-week/ for more.

4. Surprisingly pleasant: Especially finding that there are so many fine restaurants right here in Kampala! Sitting in Yujo, for instance, was like being part of one of those highly entertaining and mouthwatering programmes on the Food Channel (not the one of UBC…yet).

5. An adventure in discovery: As immediately above, but also, for instance, I discovered Yum Deliveries – a new rival of Hello Food – and Eat Out Uganda, with whom I immediately signed up. Actually, I can boast here that I am the first Ugandan to sign up for an Eat Out card, because I happened to meet the Country Manager on the #KlaRestaurantWeek tour that evening.

6. A great way to meet people: As evidenced immediately above, besides the fact that I met a number of bloggers in the flesh on that one night and will be meeting many more bloggers, celebrities, fun Ugandans, great people of all walks of life, provided I go through these restaurants during #KlaRestaurantWeek.

This week is not just about you and I going into those restaurants to eat food though;; it is also about Ugandan restaurants raising the bar to compete with the rest of the world.

Fine dining can be found in Uganda, but so can consistent good food, as many of the 40 (forty) restaurants will show. Plus, in coming years we need to see more and more ‘ordinary’ local restaurants proudly displaying the ‘Kampala Restaurant Week’ badge – including the pork joints many of us like to frequent (I miss those).

And the week gives these restaurants the opportunity to showcase innovation. At Yujo, on the night we were there, the whole restaurant went silent at one point and I looked around to catch about ten people nodding their heads as if in some foodie Mexican wave.

They were all chewing on the Katsuberry burger, and because I couldn’t take a bit I interested myself in what it tasted like.

“Mmmmmryy jnncckjkkddnnnggh,” everyone seemed to say, in their reluctance to stop eating into the damn things.

Eventually someone told me the story of how Hanif and his team went shopping for rare strawberries in a market in Kampala when they were in season, and found the most succulent and juicy offering they had ever seen on our shelves.

Snapping them up, they sped back to the restaurant to make their meal but, as Ssemwogerere’s Law dictates, someone sat on the bag of berries and squashed them flat in their kaveera. The chef was beaten, as was the entire kitchen team. But they did not despair; with some quick thinking and brainstorming, they mixed the squashed berries with aioli and voila! The Katsuberry Burger was now a gastronomic conversation stopper.

That’s innovation in food – they type of result that the #KlaRestaurantWeek aims for.

May we have many more!

(There are no photographs here because at the last food event I attended before this one, someone stole my camera…)

don’t take Ugandan food for granted…ever

IMG_6059WE have a vernacular reference that goes something like ‘ssi mmere’ (“It’s not food”), indicating that the matter being referred to should not be treated simply.
My girth will tell you that I do not subscribe to the use of that phrase or the spirit behind it. I am of the persuasion that food is a serious matter, to be taken seriously, and all else be damned.
Living in Uganda has helped firm up that position, because of the tastiness of the foods over here – from the boiled cassava my grandmother wrapped in banana leaves, to the spicy matooke and meat balls designed by my brother’s kitchen at his Ntinda bar, and my recent discovery linked to smoked meat and sim sim (more on that later).
It is because of this tastiness that I have eaten my way happily through life at every turn and opportunity presented to me in bufunda and hotels with varying star classifications across the country, and why I am very excited by the increasing number of food festivals and events taking place here.
It is also why I get confounded up to this day we still have concepts such as ‘Mongolian Dinner Night’ happening in our towns. Finding one such night in progress at a top-notch hotel this week reminded me of a cooking competition I entered into a few years ago, where our team came second in a competition against hotels.
We were pleased to perform so well because we had been pitched against professional hotel chefs, but our greatest pleasure came from seeing one of those ‘professionals’ scoring very, very, very poorly because the chef had done ‘Mongolian’ food.
I recently asked the internet about the big deal we here call “Mongolian night”.
It turns out that the “Mongolian night” we know, that involves involves stir frying strips of meats and vegetables on hot pans as people queue up with their plates and watch, is a concept that began in Taipei in 1951 – and Taipei is not in Mongolia.
Why are we doing this?
Where is Mongolia, even? Or is it Mongol?
Mongolian food is a whole different story, just as you would be hard pressed to do Ugandan night and focus on one or two styles of cooking or individual foods.
We’ve got luwombo and muchomo; foods like Pilao, Biringannya, entula, nsenene, malakwang, angarra, boo, firindi, eshabwe, akaro; different stews and sauces; foods with an Indian and Swahili influence but of Ugandan origin, like the Chapati (yes – it IS Ugandan!), modern creations like the Rolex and the Ekicommando…
The list is endless and could easily keep an army of food enthusiasts occupied for a weekend just eating.
Hence my excitement these last couple of months at finding more and more food-related events taking place in towns around me, allowing me to join the army of food enthusiasts.
One was the Kampala Muchomo Festival, and the other the Tokosa Food Festival. The third, coming in a few day’s time, is the Kampala Food Network ‘Twist & Cut’ Cook-off, with a focus on beef, and the fourth is the Kampala Restaurant Week when we will sample food from a long string of high end eateries.
The events typically involve cooking competitions between amateur chefs, and attract sponsorship from wise corporates promoting food-related or domestic items.
As all this happens, my hope is that we are heading for the ultimate food festival in Uganda, involving thousands of stalls of street food served in small amounts, at very IMG_6062low charges, and available all day from breakfast to breakfast.
The events we are attending now are fun, family-oriented, small events that made me think of one word echoing all through like the thud of a persistent toothache (which I also developed, from all the meat eating). That word was: Potential.
If our Export, Investment, Tourism and Commerce promotion bodies woke up to the opportunities these events represent then we could translate this industry into benefits for a whole range of other sectors:
– agriculture, processing, tourism, to name but three.
It should all be pretty obvious: everybody in the world eats something, and people must eat regardless of how broke they might be – so tourists will alway spend money on food even if they carry tents on their backs to sleep in instead of taking up a hotel room.
Plus, food events attract people in families, therefore increasing participation numbers. And food draws in very many sectors in many ways and creates jobs for various reasons – designers get involved in packaging and branding, chefs cook, waiters and waitresses serve, energy (gas and kerosene) is spent preparing food, petrol and diesel are spent transporting it…
I am double convinced, diets be damned, that food is not a simple matter and should not be treated simply.
I am available to attend the first proper food festival arranged to the scale of the Uganda Manufacturer’s Association International Trade Fair. ANY day!

what’s our beef with cows, steaks and leather in Kampala?

MY FAVOURITE Argentinian was a fellow in Uganda called Pedro Seambelar.
I found him working at British American Tobacco and made friends pretty quickly for a number of reasons, and the one time I was upset with him was when we were planning to host the gods of our global tobacco leaf business, on a visit to Uganda.
In that Board Room putting plans together, I was irritated that Pedro spoke up in support of the idea that the meat that would be fed to the visitors in Hoima be bought from all the way in Kampala. I objected on the premise that there were certainly enough butchers in Hoima to supply our needs, but heard back the view – not from Pedro alone, but also from a South African, an American and a Briton in the group – that our beef was generally not good enough.
I eventually lost the argument, but heard quite a lot about how we don’t achieve good cuts of beef, don’t age it well for tenderness, and so on and so forth.
As I ventured out to my first of many restaurants in Buenos Aires the other week, that discussion was on my mind because I very badly needed to demystify the superbovine Argentinian concept of beef.20150621_192606
Even as I type this out, my salivary glands are reacting to the juicy memories of the week’s dining in fine restaurants, train station meatstops and mall food courts. Every one of them, without fail, offered up a consistency of beef that caused me some concern about my situation back here.
For about a year now I have boycotted beef in general at home unless it is minced into a hamburger patty or braised in an upcountry location preferably at a traditional ceremony – both guarantees that it will be extremely tender and full of 20150621_194504flavour.
In urban spots and most Kampala restaurants I generally avoid it especially if it is served up in those chaffing dishes that form the buffet gauntlet that is honestly the bane of the busy lunchtime diner.
The Argentinians certainly know their beef, I agreed, but so do a good many people in upcountry Uganda.
As I munched through various types of tender, juicy steaks I read through piles of brochures and leaflets and magazine and internet articles about this Argentinian beef and kept finding references to the cows themselves being given special treatment throughout their lives.
A lot of specific care and attention goes into the cows’ feeding, breeding, transportation and even slaughter and carcass management.
The role of the chefs, therefore, is made much simpler because the product presented before them is in such fine form, rather than driven down in cramped trucks to crowded abattoirs for slaughter then hacked up with pangas into indeterminate chunks.
With toothpick firmly in mouth, a number of questions shot through my mind after every meal:
  • Is it possible that beef over here would taste better if we had abattoirs positioned in upcountry Uganda where the bulk of the cows are produced?
  • And what is so complicated about abattoirs that we cannot have some set up in locations closer to where cows are herded?
  • Are refrigerated trucks very hard to create?
  • Can’t engineering students design some and modify things to make them?
  • What do our food, science and technology students study and why can’t they give us ways of turning all our cows into superb steaks that we can use to attract dollars to Uganda the way Argentina took mine the other week?
  • Where do all those hides and skins go after the abbatoir, and why isn’t Basajjabalaba a producer of leather belts, jackets, wallets, luggage and furniture the way so many Argentinians are?
  • What simple item can we pay enough attention to all through the process from inception to the time we serve it up, so that we make Uganda world renowned for it the way Argentina is for their beef steaks?
  • And where, in Kampala, can I find as juicy a steak as the ones in Buenos Aires? (This is NOT a rhetorical question. Email me, please.)

the rolex and the pizza

I HAVE never really liked pizza, in spite of what American television claims it represents. I do like cheese, though, in some of its various forms and presentation formats, but I generally would not choose pizza ahead of most other meals available to me.
For years, the pizza in Kampala has been presented as special in some way, as if only capable of being produced by persons of a sacred training and anointment, using rare equipment that the ordinary Ugandan would find hard to own, let alone manufacture.
When it was brought to my attention, therefore, that a Pizzeria had in recent months opened up across the road from one of the small, ordinary offices I occupy, I was surprised because I hadn’t realised that pizzas had become so easily available in Kampala.
I need to stress, at this point, that I am not politically against the pizza as a form of nourishment. I just don’t rate them highly over other forms of food in which I have a culinary and economic interest.
So when two weeks ago I was trapped by hunger at a crucial hour of the day and had to place an order at the Pizzeria across the road, I was a bit sceptical. An hour later, I was surprisingly pleased with the experience so much so that I was a repeat customer within the week.
I even mentioned this to my children, later that first evening, since they are prone to suggest pizza as an option when we approach dining out in a democratic manner. Luckily for me, our domestic democracy only gives them nomination rights until they have jobs of their own even if they accumulate wealth through savings, so pizzas are not a frequent hazard in my home.
Even as I notified them of the new development up my office street, I was mindful that I had not yet made them queue up at any roadside rolex guy’s stand, for obvious reasons – and I was to blame for something there.
Photo courtesy of http://www.nkozaandnankya.com/

My office neighbourhood had a couple of roadside Rolex stands whose popularity was disturbing for the distraction they caused when the hunger of their customers overcame their fear of irresponsible drivers speeding up our narrow street.

Then last week as I was whizzing past my favourite pork joint, that also serves up a traditional buffet on working days, I was flabbergasted to see that they, too, had opened up a Pizzeria and were advertising it heavily with very specific branding!
For a few seconds, my mind linked the rise of Italian food places in my part of Africa to the recent rise in disastrous incidents of African migrants in the Mediterranean Sea near Italy.
It was discombobulating!
Worse, it is a little sad that we have more pizza joints cropping up, with their own branding and advertising, instead of Rolex (or Rolleggs) stands upgrading to that next level. (Again, I feel a little guilty here, as I will tell you shortly.)
Sadder still, the Rolex guy on my street is no more, which I coincidentally noticed after ordering the first few slices from the pizza place across the road.
Perhaps he didn’t secure the right licensing, or premises, but he sure had the clientele wrapped up from what I saw over the months he was in operation.
Thus my guilt, because I have had the opportunity before of branding this product properly and professionalising this food product to rival the Pizza of Italian origin so efficiently that we could have been opening up Rolex joints in Venice rather than Pizzerias in Kampala – but I haven’t grasped it.
On a related side-note, I suspect that the origin of the Ugandan Rolex as a street food offering dates back to a hungover weekend morning at work when I – yes, me – walked across to the chapati guy near my then-office and bought two eggs from a kiosk nearby to liven up my breakfast meal.
I didn’t pay much attention to what I was doing then, and every time I see a Rolex stand I see lost opportunity for myself; but today, every time I see a Pizzeria in Kampala I see an economy heading the way of those Mediterranean migrant boats!
Pizzas are even made in ovens apparently imported from some other country, whereas Rolex are made on pans fabricated locally from materials recycled here. Even the ingredients that go into the Pizza are reportedly imported, for some reason!
This coming week you guys have an event happening in Kampala called the ‘Kampala Restaurant Week’ – let’s see how many Rolexes are on menus over there, as opposed to Pizzas and other foreign dishes, and then we’ll have a discussion about food, tourism and building local economy.