What it’s like to Start a Restaurant and Catering Business in Abidjan

by phil on March 20, 2012

I have been self-employed for a year and a half or so. I quit my teaching job in June 2010 and bought a one way ticket to West Africa. I rode out my savings for six months, coming back to the states during the winter months and taking advantage of several free housing opportunities (I plan to continue freeloading in the first world–do you have a nice couch? Also, is Portugal a first world country?). I then started making money online via freelance writing, advertising, and affiliate marketing, and that, along with a few web design projects, has been my source of income since.

It has not always been easy or straightforward. I took on debt initially and at one point I was spending hours writing articles like “things to do with your kids in Cleveland, OH in the winter time” for the soul-destroying content factory of demandmedia.com.

Now things are better. Last month was the most productive I’ve had in the past two years (coming in at $3370). I am making less than I did when I was teaching, but my cost of living in West Africa is low. My Bamako apartment costs me $240 a month. Many of my meals are between $.70 – $2. In Abidjan, I don’t pay for accommodation and my food falls mostly in the same range.

The low cost of living has given me room to partner with two friends, former couchsurfing hosts actually, on a restaurant and catering business in Abidjan. In this post I will explain what it’s been like to get this thing off the ground.

Our petit restaurant space. Soon to be filled with customers?

While I have contributed since its conception, this business is entirely David and Faty’s idea. They saw a need for affordable lunch delivery in Abidjan’s central business district and realized that food could be prepared cheaply in the working-class neighborhood of Yopougon and easily transported.

The kitchen space we have rented is part of a larger complex of small restaurants and vendors, so why not also operate a restaurant at the same time? The idea: rotating menu with 3 different plates each day, tiered pricing, most of the food sent to Plateau for catering and the rest available for customers coming to eat at the Allocodrome (literally house of fried plantains), which is the larger eating area where we pay our rent.

David and I have put up the money for this project, splitting it 50/50. We have each contributed 800,000 CFA (about $1,600) over the course of 6 months. This money has mostly gone towards the following one-time payments.

One-time payments (somewhat comprehensive):

– Materials and labor to build a small house to serve as an office as well as a store house for bulk ingredients
– Two freezers
– Cost to repair one of them
– 1 refridgerator
– 2 large bottles of gas
– two multi-burner gas stoves
– Registre de commerce (gives us authorization from Gov. to do business)
– Comptes contribuables (fee for gov. to figure out how much tax we owe. nice.)
– A large amount of cooking equipment, including enormous cauldrons
– tables and chairs
– registering with CNPS for social security payments
– miscellaneous payments like having a stamp made
– Deposit and 3 months rent up front for kitchen/restaurant space
– an initial purchase of bulk stock, notably non-perishable ingredients like rice etc.

Operating expenses

To give an idea of our operating expenses, we have two salaried employees right now: David who is the head chef (also business partner) and Michelle who works under him. David’s salary is 50,000 CFA a month. This salary will go up in time, but for now the focus is to re-invest as much money as possible back into the business. David is also a partner so he has an interest in this as well.

Michelle’s salary is 40,000 CFA a month ($80), which to start will be for 4 hours of work a day (m-f). Her salary will also go up as she takes on a larger role in the kitchen. As outrageous as that salary may seem to you, it is more than she would make with longer hours at any other kitchen in Yopougon.

Our rent is 20,000 CFA a month ($40). We are mainly renting the kitchen space for the catering. The restaurant is a bonus. We are paying an accountant $10 a month and our taxes are paid each trimester and they are looking to be about $80 for 3 months, which includes contributions to social security.

Our other expenses are stock and transport, both of which are slowly coming in to focus. We have spent a lot of time sourcing bulk ingredients. We have made arrangements with a few other businesses (a spring roll maker, a patisserie, a fish vendor) and it’s looking like there will be more of that to come.

As far as transportation, we have been delivering via taxi ($4) and returning via pinasse (a 30 cent water taxi). If we successfully scale up, this will have to change.

While our profit margin is still shifting, we are looking at a 40-50% margin, higher in some cases, for almost everything we will be serving. A big reason for this is that we are selling food in the business district but we are not paying rent or dealing with the other expenses of operating there.

David, most likely arguing with one of the carpenters

Right now

The restaurant should be open in two weeks. Catering has already begun. We have one client (CNPS, which is like Cote d’Ivoire’s Social Services Bureau) that we have been serving for the past couple of weeks, catering for small workshops/trainings of 15 people. We approached several businesses last week and it’s looking like our next clients are going to be the offices of Air Mali and Air Burkina, with a few other likely candidates on the horizon.

We get dressed up, I put on my best French, we carry fancy folders and business cards and we make our pitch. If the company is interested, we come back in a week with a free tasting of some of our plates, which in all likelihood will blow them away because David and Michelle are seriously skilled in the kitchen.

We have planned a trajectory for this business and if things work out, I will be spending a lot more time in Cote d’Ivoire. There will be obstacles and setbacks, but there is reason to be confident. Right now, it feels like we can largely control the ceiling of this project. We’ll see how long that lasts.

There have been many gratifying aspects of this work so far, but notably among them is the collaboration with and hiring of other businesses and individuals. The other day I was sitting in Madame Fanta Ouattara’s house. She has a small sign on her door (“vente de nem”) and a modest business selling spring rolls and bissap juice. Her dad worked at a vietnamese restaurant when she was a kid and later taught her some chops in the kitchen.

We came to her house and requested to try the spring rolls, mentioning the fact that we were looking for someone with whom we could place large orders. In her living room, we sat down in oversized chairs, staring up at the family photos, smelling onion leaves. Fanta brought out a tray of spring rolls and we ate together. After the first bite, we knew we would be buying spring rolls from Fanta. It was now a matter of negotiating the price. We made an offer and she accepted, an enormous smile on her face (75 CFA per spring roll, about 15 cents, with minimum orders of 5,000 CFA). We then spent the next half hour chatting, munching on spring rolls and drinking bissap.

Now we have delicious spring rolls and Fanta has a new client.

More to come on the food biz. I also have some narrative-ish stuff I want to get up here along with some music things. In the meantime, I will be traveling back to Bamako.

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