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

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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{ 32 comments… add one }

  • Claire / Bintou March 20, 2012, 10:02 am

    Love it Phil! You’re an inspiration!

    • phil March 24, 2012, 4:41 pm

      Claire, you’re an inspiration!! Have you talked to your host bro in Mali by any chance?? Can’t get through on his phone.

  • Laura March 20, 2012, 11:47 am

    Keep the updates coming! I’m really intrigued by the whole process and happy to hear that it’s up and running πŸ™‚

    • phil March 24, 2012, 4:49 pm

      More on the way, Laura! Thanks for the support πŸ™‚

  • Eddie March 20, 2012, 5:31 pm

    Best of luck on this latest endeavor. So you’ll still be back and forth between Abidjan and Bamako? The spring rolls sound delicious.

    • phil March 24, 2012, 4:49 pm

      Thanks, Eddie. Yes, that’s what it’s looking like for the moment.

  • Martin March 20, 2012, 6:14 pm

    Hi Phil, That’s amazing! Best of luck! I’ll definitely pass by the restaurant next time in Abidjan.

    • phil March 24, 2012, 4:50 pm

      Hey Martin, I’m hoping we can meet up there in April!

  • Rebecca/Kansas March 20, 2012, 11:58 pm

    Phil…this is AMAZING! I loved reading about your restaurant, I want to make reservations! I will start planning a trip!

    • phil March 24, 2012, 4:54 pm

      Kansas, no reservations needed!! Your meal is on the house

  • Tami March 21, 2012, 4:57 am

    Beautiful story…and like everyone else, I wish you and your partners the greatest success. Certainly sounds like you’re well on your way! And as far as couchsurfing whenever you return to America, you really ought to plan to come visit the beautiful Pacific Northwest and freeload/sleep on my couch!

    • phil March 24, 2012, 4:55 pm

      Pacific NW is definitely on my list! Is that where we will play our first game of catan???

      • Tami April 12, 2012, 12:51 am

        How did I miss your reply??? YES, seemingly so: Catan in Seattle! I even have friends here who play, so it would be easy to round up a foursome!

  • Kirstin March 21, 2012, 6:24 am

    OMG you guys use stamps too? I mean, companies there have to have their own, official, one-of-a-kind stamp in order to do any business? I have one for my company in Kyrgyzstan, I never realized it was such a big deal.

    • phil March 24, 2012, 4:59 pm

      gotta have the stamp πŸ™‚

  • Alexis Grant March 21, 2012, 8:48 am

    This is so great, Phil — Rooting for the biz!

    • phil March 24, 2012, 4:59 pm

      Thank you, Alexis!

  • Janet G March 21, 2012, 12:47 pm

    I love reading your posts – keep ’em coming……. Please describe the food, ingredients, cooking techniques, tastes, etc. (I’m signed up for an African cooking class and looking forward to it.) The costs of everything are especially interesting! I love that level of detail. I share your story with my friends, so someday when we get the courage to leave the rat race of corporate America, we can follow in your footsteps and start a fun restaurant in some exotic country………..what a great dream……….

    • phil March 24, 2012, 5:11 pm

      Hey Janet,
      That will be next — talking about the plates on offer and how we are cooking large quantities etc. More to come!

  • jill March 21, 2012, 4:14 pm

    Whoa! Completely awesome! Good luck on this new venture – just out of curiosity though, what constitutes a standard catered lunch over there?

    • phil March 24, 2012, 5:12 pm

      Thanks, Jill!
      Each day we have 3 plates to choose from, usually 1 western and two W. African/Ivorian dishes.

  • Adam Pervez March 21, 2012, 4:49 pm

    Awesome article. Nice to see you trying your hand in business πŸ™‚

    • phil March 24, 2012, 5:15 pm

      Thanks, Adam. I may soon be seeking your counsel πŸ™‚

  • Christy @ Technosyncratic March 23, 2012, 11:33 am

    This is really cool to read, Phil – good luck on the new venture! It’s great that you’re able to keep the costs of the new business so low and you have a brilliant chef partner. πŸ™‚ We’ve been thinking of investing in some sort of business idea in the U.S., but start-up costs are just so outrageous.

    • phil March 24, 2012, 5:17 pm

      Low start-up costs are a big reason this business in Cote d’Ivoire is so attractive. Just looking at rent, we are paying $40 a month!!

  • Andi of My Beautiful Adventures March 23, 2012, 9:51 pm

    What an exciting endeavor! Can’t wait to read about your success with it. πŸ™‚

  • Ian [EagerExistence] January 1, 2013, 3:57 am

    I feel a new blog coming on “Entrepreneur without Borders”. Brilliant work.

  • Claire June 5, 2013, 7:54 am

    Hello Claire,
    How are you and the daily running of your restaurant going?
    I came across this site by chance,or it was meant to be.
    You are live gym dream. I live in Abidjan but is not in the country right now.
    Reply to me via my email please.

  • fatou January 9, 2014, 10:14 pm

    I have been following you. I am Ivorian and I came to the US to earn my bachelor in Marketing, Now i am coming back to open a restaurant so it is very interesting following your post. You giving me hope. Competition coming lol

  • Fide June 16, 2015, 4:57 pm

    Hi Phil,
    I need to discuss with you something. May I have your contacts please.

  • gold July 6, 2016, 10:26 am

    Hello Phil,

    this post was in 2012, does the restaurant still function….I’m in my way to Abidjan over the weekend. Would love to visit

    • phil July 13, 2016, 9:32 am

      Hi, unfortunately, due to a number of factors the restaurant does not still function.

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