LESSONS FROM A LONG TIME CHEF

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You need not visit a restaurant to entice your taste buds; make It happen in your kitchen

By Caroline Mwendwa

Not many people would consider themselves hedonists when it comes to culinary arts. But to Kenneth Ndirangu, meals are not just meant for sustenance, they ought to be enjoyed. “People get stuck with the meals they were brought up eating, they never try out new dishes, and so eating becomes a need and good food becomes a luxury only experienced in a hotel,” remarks Ndirangu. His experience in the hospitality industry especially within Nairobi made him realise that the eating out culture is one that is prevalent and people find it difficult to make the dishes they find in hotels at their homes.
Looking to change this situation, the former student of Utalii College opened an establishment; LemonGrass Kitchen, to train people how to prepare various cuisines. Having worked with various companies in the hospitality industry in Kenya and South Africa, Ndirangu had an idea of what he needed to do to actualise his dream. “I had this idea of establishing Lemon Grass Kitchen since college, but it was only after serving in employment for ten years with various hotels, that I decided it was time to make my venture,” says a reminiscent Ndirangu.
Ndirangu wanted to challenge people to make the hotel food available at their homes. “It is not costly as people imagine, it only requires a change of mindset. Making a delicious and out of the norm meal requires nothing more than the usual spices and ingredients available in many stores and our own gardens, the only problem is that people do not know the value and use of these ingredients to improve on food quality and taste.”
His experience with employers, would add on to the urge to start his own business. Working as a chef left Ndirangu so much free time (from three to five in the afternoon) two hours of idleness every day and he felt there was so much he could do to fully utilise his potential. Secondly, being employed meant sticking to a traditional menu and this was limiting as he did not have the space to explore creativity. These factors drove him to quit employment and pursue his dream.

The journey to establishment
Even though Ndirangu had the idea of starting Lemon grass kitchen while still in college, there were hitches of raising the seed capital. He had to team up with a couple of friends in order to overcome that hurdle .Each was to contribute Kshs150, 000. However, the plan did not come through because the rest of the members backed off. Nevertheless, he did not give up. He approached his father, who kindly advanced him a soft loan of Kshs. 150, 000 and the venture kicked off.
“The amount was not enough but I carefully planned for it,” he recalls. “After using Kshs.90, 000 to settle rent, I purchased the necessary equipment with the balance,” he adds.
His business idea was not too well understood in the beginning. His first client was a friend and through referrals, word of mouth and social media presence, Lemon Grass Kitchen gained tract. In a month, he would get as many as five clients. The number went on increasing with time.
After the first three months, Lemon Grass Kitchen got a corporate consultancy job with Sirville Breweries at the Galleria and since then, consultancy services became part of the package. “I realised that consultancy was bringing in more than just individual training and that is when I decided to venture into consultancy as a different branch of the business,” he explains.

Packages on offer
Lemon Grass Kitchen is unique in the sense that all the training offered there is individualised. “Customers have their preferences and that is why we rarely do group training,” says Ndirangu. At Lemon Grass Kitchen, packages are offered according to the needs of the customers and their availability. “We have over fifteen cuisines that we teach here, but that does not mean that we are only limited to that number, if a client comes with a preference of another type of food, then we offer classes on the same,” clarifies Ndirangu.
The targeted age bracket is 24 to 38 years and kids between 4to 5 years. He offers training to kids during the holidays, during cooking camps designed specifically for them. These camps are meant to give them a sense of responsibility that would enable them sustain themselves by making meals even in the absence of their parents.
“Apart from these, we offer one off training sessions in areas such as bridal and baby showers as well as date dinners.”
The modules are classified as follows: 10 classes go for a fee of Kshs 30,000; 25 classes cost Kshs 50, 000 and 45 classes go for Kshs 90, 000.
All this while Ndirangu has been running the classes on his own but he is currently training apprentices to take over the classes whenever he is absent.
At the Lemon Grass Kitchen, the produce is provided for, and majorly, all the meals that are cooked are organic. Training for all categories of food is offered: salads, soups, main dishes deserts and pastries. “We even train the clients on other accessory knowledge such as table setting, wine matching among other culinary skills,” adds Ndirangu.
Other clients that are targeted include the patients who have been restrained from eating certain kinds of food such as fried food. Such people eat mostly boiled foods, partly because they are not aware of alternative ways to prepare food without using oil. Therefore, classes that expose them to many other ways of cooking healthy foods would be of great use to them.

Trends in the industry
There is a rising number of middle class consumers in the country. “Middle class is the spending bracket and foreign franchises have taken advantage of this opportunity. Many of them are coming into Kenya to tap on the huge potential of this market segment with their unique hospitality services’ offering.”
The craze of healthy eating has also been embraced by many people. Consequently, they are willing to pay premium prices for food with health benefits.

Challenges
A major hurdle that Ndirangu has had to deal with is convincing interested clients that the amount of fee required is actually commensurate to the skills being taught. “Some clients call and on hearing the cost of the training, they back off, but others appreciate that we give value for money after attending our classes,” he says.
He also attests that it is difficult to convince people about a service whose concept is unfamiliar. But so far, so good. Ever since he got his fist client, the number has kept on increasing.

Future plans
The training centre is meant to be a launch pad for a restaurant that will be known as Lemon Grass Kitchen once it is established. Plans are underway to have it ready by the end of 2017.
He expresses his concern on the nature of the existing hotels whereby in almost all cases, they offer the same menu for a long period of time, hence leaving their customers with limited choices. To fill this gap, he envisions that Lemon Grass Kitchen will be creative in its choice of menu and none will be on its shelves for an unnecessarily long period of time. “I plan to have a rotational kind of menu, that provides different dishes at different times such that my customers will have something to look forward to everytime,” he avers.

Lessons from experience
Even though his journey hasn’t been seamless, Ndirangu has invaluable advice for the young people hoping to start their own ventures or are already in business. One of the lessons he has learnt from the hurdles is that, to be successful, one has to do some things that could be embarrassing. “It’s not always that business people receive admiration and plaudits, often times especially when the business is still so young, one has to go outside his or her comfort zone,” he explains stating that when the business was young, he would walk long distances distributing cards to publicise it.
Ndirangu also acknowledges that entrepreneurs should align themselves with likeminded people. “By keeping the company of fellow business people, one is constantly motivated to carry on and dream even bigger,” he quips.
On acquiring capital, Ndirangu admits that bank loans are becoming more and more inaccessible especially after the capping of interest rates. They require collateral which most aspiring business people lack. He however, says that, capital should not hold any one back. “ With a clear road map and mind on the idea one wants to implement, it is easy to get people who are willing and able to buy some shares in your venture,” he advises.
He concludes by stating that failure is not always detestable. “Fall because things didn’t work out, not because you didn’t trust your business”.

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