During the first two weeks of February, my life was pretty busy. Between the Fulbright research and working more than ten hours a day at the Daily Monitor, I didn’t really have time for anything else. So what have I done in the last two weeks?
I opened a bar and restaurant in Kampala.
Anyone reading this post probably knows more about restaurants than I do. There are many people out there who dream of starting an eatery, wowing people with their culinary talents, and owning the coolest bar on the block, but I’m not one of them.
I have never dreamt of owning a restaurant and I never intend to invest in one again. The failure rate is high, profitability low, and there are a million and one details to attend to that eat away your time. For the last two weeks, I have worked more than sixteen hours a day counting beers, selecting toilet paper, making fliers, and doing other mundane things in an attempt to make Jakob’s Lounge a success.
So how did this happen?
As you can infer from the name of the restaurant, it involves a guy named Jakob.
Jakob was actually the first friend I met in Uganda. On August 29th, I landed at Entebbe Airport and was shuttled by an embassy driver to Jakob’s guest house. Well, it wasn’t actually his guest house, as I would find out later, but he managed it and graciously showed me around Kampala on my first day.
That feels like yesterday. I remember being exhausted and overwhelmed. Oh boy, I thought. What have I gotten myself into? Nine months in Uganda—how will I survive?
Thousands of miles away from friends and family, I expected these months to crawl. Looking back, I was very, very wrong.
Still shell-shocked from my 40-hour trip, I toured Kampala with Jakob that first day. Weaving through the city center to buy a cell phone, I was immediately put off by the traffic, the garbage burning on the side of the road, and the pick pockets hovering behind me, searching for my wallet.
I never would have imagined that six months later, I would be completely comfortable navigating these roads and alleyways—sometimes with Jakob, but mostly alone. Now I love downtown Kampala, with all of its smells, thieves, and inadequate roads.
The journey from being fresh off the boat (or plane) to starting a business was neither linear nor planned. For the first month, I waddled around the city—still uncertain of what I was doing here. I did one thing right: I made a lot of friends. I grounded myself with a solid support network of Ugandans and expats, who helped make life in Kampala enjoyable and familiar.
I also studied Swahili and audited a few classes at Makerere in the departments of journalism and peace and conflict studies. Although I enjoyed Swahili and am thankful for the people I met at Makerere, I am glad that I ended my studies in December. Despite my brilliant classmates and professors, I wasn’t getting a lot out of the lectures themselves. The teaching style here is very different from my liberal arts college in the U.S. Instead of encouraging interactions with the students, the professors read their lecture notes for two hours straight. And because those lecture notes usually consisted of basic definitions, the two hours ticked by very slowly.
As for Swahili, I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I didn’t want to do it halfway. If I really wanted to master Swahili, I would need to study more than 20 hours per week, and for a few weeks in the fall, I did. But for every hour I spent at home studying Swahili, I removed myself from being active in Uganda.
You see, most Ugandans don’t speak Swahili—they speak local languages and English. Swahili is mainly spoken in Kenya and Tanzania. While there is a chance that I could live in one of these countries in the future, I would rather focus on the here and now while I’m in Uganda.
So once I returned to Uganda after the holidays, I put away the Swahili textbooks and stopped going to Makerere. Then I buckled down on my academic research, went to Gulu to interview journalists and members of civil society, and started the internship at the Daily Monitor, filling my schedule with exciting and meaningful work.
So where does the restaurant come in?
Like many new ventures, it started with another restaurant, a magical place called La Fontaine that was my favorite restaurant in Kampala until two weeks ago. There are several reasons that I loved La Fontaine. It was close to Jakob’s guest house, the service was decent, and they served awesome brunch, which is my favorite meal. Most importantly, it was reasonably priced.
For the most part, Kampala is a very foodie city and you can find almost any cuisine you want—Chinese, Italian, Mexican, Sushi, Ethiopian, etc. But one thing that irks me is that there is an enormous gap between cheap local food (which is $1-$3 per meal) and expensive international food (which is often more than $8).
La Fontaine bridges this gap by providing delicious international food between $4 and $8 per meal. Good value and consistent service enticed me to visit La Fontaine at least three times per week and I also had more connections to the place than being a regular customer. Jakob, my friend and landlord, had managed La Fontaine for several years before his uncle hired him to manage the guest house.
Ever since Jakob left La Fontaine, he has dreamt of opening his own restaurant that also bridges the gap between local and international prices. And as a fan of that concept, I have always encouraged that dream. But for many reasons, primarily financial ones, I doubted that this dream would become a reality.
While I was home for the holidays, I received a Facebook message from one of my housemates at Jakob’s guest house. Jakob’s uncle had fired him and was kicking us out of the house. I’m still not sure what happened, but as soon as I came back to Uganda, my housemates and I had to find a new place to live and Jakob was out of work, scrounging to start his restaurant.
I started by loaning him a little money, which he used to buy some appliances. But then those appliances were stolen when he was moving them into his new restaurant. Then that restaurant fell through when the owner of the building went bankrupt and left Jakob searching for a new location.
This seemed to spell the end of Jakob’s restaurant, but there are few things that I hate more than failure. I started consulting with Jakob to see how he could revive his dream, and then I wondered—if he just needs some more capital, could I possibly invest in his business? I loved the concept, I trusted Jakob’s restaurant experience, and I strongly believed that there was a gap in Kampala’s market for high-quality, mid-ranged restaurants. I also had a little money saved from tuning pianos and summer jobs in college that wasn’t earning much interest in the U.S.
Throughout my research and work in Africa, I have become fairly convinced that private sector growth is the best path for development and I have pondered what it would be like to come back to East Africa in the future to invest in businesses and factories. But this has always been a distant dream. Never would I have considered investing in something now until a thought seeped into my head three weeks ago—what if?
There are many reasons why I shouldn’t have invested. The project will likely fail, I have never worked in a restaurant before, I have no idea how to run a business, and I am starting law school in September. These are some pretty serious deterrents, but none of them seemed to stick.
Instead, I found myself writing a business plan, mulling over my options, and feeling strangely confident. This can work, I thought. I might be unqualified, but Jakob and his team can do this.
Only time will tell if my decision was the right one. The good news is that we have a great location and an even better chef. After Jakob’s other restaurant fell through, he found a new location on the third floor of a guest house in a busy area of Kampala. We have a balcony with incredible views and we pay less rent than my housemates and I pay for our apartment.
So far, our chef is the restaurant’s MVP. She used to work at La Fontaine and has experience working in Mexican, Middle Eastern, and Indian restaurants. She is a wizard in the kitchen and this enables me and Jakob to focus on other parts of the business, which is great, since I know absolutely nothing about back-house restaurant operations.
I think the concept for our business is strong: a mid-ranged bar and restaurant where we serve high-quality food and drinks at lower prices than all of our competitors. The challenge with this strategy, however, is that our profit margin is razor-thin and we need to attract swarms of customers to turn a profit.
So far this hasn’t happened yet. We had over a hundred people come to our grand opening on Friday night and we gave out more than 70 free cocktails, but we’re still trying to spread the word. On a tight budget, marketing is difficult and it requires a lot of time from me and Jakob.
Unfortunately, time is the main thing that I don’t have enough of. Because I’m not planning on staying in Uganda indefinitely, time is ticking and there is so much that I still want to do. I have taken a brief leave of absence from the Monitor to get this restaurant started, but I want to go back and write stories that I’m passionate about. I also want to finish my research on the relationship between the media and the military. That research is going well, but I have a lot of work left to do if I’m going to accomplish my goal of getting it published in an academic journal. And naturally, I also want to spend more time getting to know people and traveling around Uganda.
With everything on my plate, there are some days when I feel exhausted and overwhelmed, but then I pause and remind myself how lucky I am. Few people have the chance to travel, let alone research, write, and start a business in a foreign country.
A year ago, I knew nothing about Uganda and now I live and own a business in one of the most beautiful countries on the planet.
A few months ago, I would have said that it was an impossible dream for me to work as a journalist in Africa given my lack of experience. But now I can write whatever I want to for the most respected newspaper in the country.
Sometimes things work out and sometimes they don’t, but for the most part, I have been very fortunate. If Jakob’s Lounge succeeds and becomes one of the best restaurants in Kampala, that will be incredible. If not, then what do I have to lose? I have already learned a lot and law school is still around the corner. Once I take on over $200,000 in debt, a small loss won’t seem so bad.
With that said, I really want to make this restaurant soar for the sake of Jakob and our employees. It’s a strange phenomenon that a middle-class 22-year-old from the United States could come to Uganda and use his savings from summer jobs to buy a restaurant. I think that speaks to the incredible socioeconomic inequity between our two countries. Our employees are older than me and better trained, but now I am responsible for their well-being. If this business fails, I’ll go to law school and they’ll be out of a job, left to fend for themselves in Uganda’s struggling jobs market.
It’s tempting to be as hands-on as possible and do as much as I can to make the restaurant a success. I spent a couple nights bartending and I closed the restaurant most of last week, regularly staying until one or two in the morning because I didn’t want to ask our employees to stay later than I would. There is an uncomfortable power dynamic when you ask someone to clean the restaurant so that you can go home early, but I guess that’s a dilemma that all employers face and the employees are more than willing to work for their salaries.
It’s also tempting to help as many people as possible, but we are deliberately starting the restaurant small so that we can expand later. We only have five employees–two servers, two in the kitchen, and a security guard at night. The hardest thing I have done so far was turning down a Somalese refugee who came to me yesterday and asked for a job. Perhaps he was lying, but I believed his story that he had been displaced by the conflict with Al Shabbab and desperately needed a job. He was willing to clean the restaurant for two dollars a day and I wanted to help, but I also realized that we don’t need the excess labor and we don’t want to become responsible for another worker. I asked the man to come back next month–if business is going well, maybe he can wash some dishes.
In a way, you would think owning a bar and restaurant would be great. You can eat for free and introduce things in Uganda like bagels and breakfast tacos.
But there is also a sobering reality that you are responsible for a business and its employees and that you have a long, steep climb in front of you.
Speaking of climbing, I am leaving on Thursday to go trekking with two friends in the Rwenzori Mountains. Predicted by Ptolemy in 150 AD, who called them the “Mountains of the Moon,” the Rwenzoris are the highest mountain range in Africa and are higher than any peak in the continental United States.
The climb won’t be technically difficult, but it will be arduous since the Rwenzoris are some of the most remote mountains in the world. They mark the border between Uganda and the Congo and you have to trek through the rainforest to get to the snow-covered peaks. Starting a restaurant has certainly interfered with my training schedule, but I hope that I make it through the jungle and up the mountain.
I look forward to using the cool mountain air to rest, relax, and reflect on the last few months. Conducting research, working as a journalist, and starting a restaurant have also spawned a lot of questions about what I want to do during and after law school. But no worries—I have plenty of time to answer those questions—I just don’t have much time right now.