Early Successes and Failures of Running a Business in Abidjan

by phil on April 23, 2012

This picture was taken one month ago. See the end of the post for what the maisonette/store house/office looks like now

We officially launched our business a couple of months ago, but it was last week that we started operating at capacity (see this post for the early early stages). Up until that point, we were catering small workshops (10-15 people) at Cote d’Ivoire’s social services bureau. We are still doing that, but we’ve now started lunch deliveries for a handful of clients. So far, so good. We haven’t poisoned anyone, knowingly or otherwise (although, we may need to poison an employee at an optometry office) and we are benefiting from lots of positive testimony.

Our strategy for finding clients has been simple. Approach #1: find someone we know at a particular company and use them as a gateway. Approach #2: go door to door in the business district making our pitch. Our pitch involves some shiny folders and the promise of a few free meals before they commit to anything. We drop off the folders and if they are interested, we come back a few days later with a few different samples of our plates on offer. No one has turned down the free food, and so far, only one company did not place an order afterwards (out of 7).

This week, we will prepare food for our 6 current clients at the same time that we try to secure 4 more. Already, we are hiring another cook and it looks like we will be hiring another delivery person as well. That said, it hasn’t been all roses. We’ve had delays, frustrations, and several days where seemingly everything went wrong.

Failures

First, none of these failures have been fatal in anyway, so perhaps failure is the wrong word. It’s also worth nothing that in almost every case, we’ve learned a valuable lesson.

1. The freezer repair guy. We’ve hired some exceptional people. The freezer repair guy has been exceptional in his incompetance and general aversion to work. The freezer is critical for lower priced bulk purchases and we have been without it for weeks. Originally we paid the freezer repair guy for an actual freezer, but then changed course when we inherited a non-functioning freezer that he said he could repair. So we took some of the money back and left the rest for him to complete repairs. In other words, we paid up front, before any work had been done. This was a mistake. After much harassment, he completed work this weekend.

2. Our ordering system. Last week we released a menu at the start of the week with the expectation that our clients would call and place orders in the morning. Some clients have indeed called to place orders. Others expect us to come to their office every day with enough plates but no guarantee that they will actually buy anything. We have obliged them so far. We are also dealing with a woman at an optometry office who is apparently enamored with our delivery man. This has become a problem. What’s clear is that our clients will see how far they can push things in their favor and it’s up to us to bring this shit back down to earth.

3. The restaurant (or lack of it). We’ve been steady catering, but the restaurant hasn’t launched yet. The catering is more attractive because of the higher profit margin, but we’re making enough food that it is silly to not be selling all of it when we have an actual restaurant space that’s just sitting there. This delay has mostly resulted from our inability to secure equipment at the allocodrome. By tomorrow, we should have lockable cabinets for everything that’s not nailed down. The allocodrome itself is also now employing a night watchman.

4. Finding balance on our menu. This has been difficult. We are trying to maintain our profit margin while responding to varying customer requests and fluctuating prices at the market. As an example, the potato season is coming to a close in Mali, which is sending prices upward in Abidjan. It was 350 CFA (about 70 cents) for a kilo a few weeks ago. It is now 400 and will likely be at 500 before too long. As we scale up and our bulk purchases become larger, this should be less of an issue. The good news is that it’s avocado season:

7 enormous avocados for 80 cents. It’s also mango season. I bring up mangoes at every meeting. I am working hard to get some mango-centric plates on the menu, but I am facing insane resistance.

Successes

1. Our team. We have 3 employees outside of me, Faty and David. So far, everyone has been showing up on time, working hard, contributing ideas and playing practical jokes on each other – all signs of a healthy work environment in my view. There have been several near-disaster moments that were resolved mostly because everyone kept a cool head. We’ve also been successful in establishing “open lines of communication.” Mistakes are addressed directly, criticism can go in any direction, and nothing is personal.

2. Two rocks. The two things written on the locker room chalkboard are 1. quality and 2. on time delivery. We have been consistent with both. The reviews for the food have been incredibly positive and we are starting to collect new clients based on word of mouth. Also, we’ve yet to have a late delivery *touch wood*. Watch, today the bateau-bus (public water taxi) will capsize and we will lose all of our orders to the lagoon.

3. Delivery system. Speaking of the bateau-bus, it’s what we’ve been using to deliver our food to the business district. We have a wheeled chariot type thing that we had custom built by a metal worker in yopougon. The food is loaded into plastic bins and then placed on the chariot. After that, our delivery man takes a shared taxi to the lagoon (150-200CFA – 30-40 cents), bateau-bus to the business district (150CFA), delivers food to our clients, which are all within a ten minute walk of the water taxi terminal, returns back on bateau (150 CFA again) and then shared taxi (150-200 CFA). This puts our transport costs at 700 CFA ($1.40) for the day. This is affordable and it has the added benefit of bypassing any traffic jams on the auto-route. We will soon be adding at least one other delivery person.

4. Partnerships. Excepting the freezer repair guy, we have worked, and continue to work, with some excellent people. We have arrangements with a fish vendor, a mason, a spring roll maker, a small patiserrie, and we’ve been building relationships with certain market vendors. All of these people benefit from steady business and we benefit from reduced prices. In some ways, they have become invested in our business and as far as I’m concerned, that’s apparent in the products/services that they have been delivering.

5. Growth. The other day, I paid for an air ticket back to Bamako. While I was in the Air Mali office, the employees were ordering lunch from us. How did Air Mali and Air Burkina become clients? Several weeks ago, I was buying a different ticket back to Bamako and I started chatting up the office, asking them what they did for lunch etc. I then made a soft pitch and pledged to bring a few free samples later in the week. And like that, we had a new client. This has everything to do with the quality of David and Michelle’s (the sous chef) food. So far, we’ve only had one prospective client not take the bait and it seems to be a matter of price rather than quality of food. This week, we will be working to attract at least 4 more clients.

The maisonette/store house/office as it looks today. See photo at top of post to see the before.

I will continue to write updates on the restaurant/catering biz as things move along. In a future post, I will break down the numbers for an average day (transport, preparation costs, salaries, revenue, profit etc.) and in another, I will offer a look at some of our plates, including recipes. Next post will be about the Bamako to Abidjan bus ride. I head back to Mali’s capital in a week.

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