The Restaurant Whisperer: A chat with Eat Out founder Mikul Shah

Mikul Shah talks restaurants, travel and Eat Out.

You want to find a restaurant to eat where you’re guaranteed a good meal. But short of word of mouth, there’s really no way to get that information. You could say social media but back in 2009, Mikul Shah, CEO of Eat Out Kenya, didn’t have the option as the Kenyan market didn’t have Facebook Pages then.

For most of us, the solution would be eating at the first affordable restaurant found. But for Mikul, it was an opportunity to a problem that many had failed to recognise in the first place.

Business Insider SSA got a chance to talk with him at the Eat Out Headquarters in Westlands, a suburb of Nairobi. Their offices are beautiful and minimalist chic. The way young magazine offices want to look when they grow up.

Mikul is of medium height, his face framed by the beards you see on barbering Instagram tutorials. Intricate tattoos cover his forearms where his long-sleeved checked shirt was folded to his elbows. After pleasant introductions, Mikul went on to explain how it all began.

On noting how only a handful of restaurants in Nairobi had websites, Mikul decided to start Eat Out- which was serendipitous as he had a background in technology and was a bit of a foodie.

“There was no way [in 2009] to find out anything about restaurants. What time do they open? What are they serving? How do I get in touch with them? What people think about them?” he said.

By his own admission, Mikul said his return was “at the right time”. He started Eat Out in 2010, enabling restaurants to upload their information without needing a web page. Tech and payment methods were also added. Events such as the Nairobi Restaurant Week, an annual celebration of food that has turned out to be one of the highlights on the social calendar and magazines such as Yummy were launched. He is also the founder of Nomad magazine, a travel publication.

In the five years of Nairobi Restaurant Week’s existence, it’s fair to conclude that the success of Eat Out is irrevocable.

Mikul is one who clearly understands hospitality, so it begs the question whether his unique perspective could be applied to other industry segments such as retail.

“There’s no expansion in retail but we are planning to expand in travel.” He went on to add that the platform was mainly about food and drink culture and while he can’t ever lock himself out of the retail option.

Strangely for someone with such a passion for food, Mikul can’t cook.

“But I do hope to study to become a chef,” he added mirthfully.

As it was clear that Mikul was heavily involved with restaurants, there are no restaurants that bear his influential name.

“I have been involved as a shareholder, partner or investor. We started Naked Pizza which was sold to Pizza Hut in 2016.”

He was only an informal advisor. Mikul shies away from formally opening a restaurant because it’s a hard business to be in.

“The market isn’t growing as fast as the number of restaurants that are opening,” he said, adding that he prefers working with different restaurants rather than trying to compete with clients.

He grew up in Mombasa, went to university in Manchester in 2000 then lived in London for 10 years. He also attended Stanford University for Graduate School. He is a nomad.

“Because of Eat Out, I’ve had a lot of travel opportunities. I’ve been to Rwanda, Uganda, Dar-es-Salaam, Addis Ababa, Cape Town, Lagos. I’ve also extensively visited Europe, Asia and the Americas,” he continued, “Travel is a passion. The best thing about travel is food.”

Mikul explained he wasn’t an expert on food so he couldn’t criticize it. For him, the best part of the experience was the people around him. Referring to his life in London and New York and his visits to Mumbai, Istanbul and Thailand- he said that some of his best experiences were in hole in the wall hotels. Such as one in Nairobi’s Diamond Plaza that had “plastic chairs, not the best hygiene and very unique.”

He has also visited Test Kitchen in Cape Town. Ranked 13 on The World's 50 Best Restaurants – the only one from Africa and his “favourite high-end dining experience.”

The CEO admitted that he has also had some disappointments.

“Don’t judge a restaurant in its first week of operations… Go back two months later when they’ve figured out their menu and service.”

He says Eat Out’s objective is to elevate the dining scene in Africa. Getting young Kenyans to try new things. He launched into an anecdote about how he got his team to try oysters- which they hated before and after trying.

“That’s what I want. It’s fine if you don’t like it, but if you don’t try then you’ll never know.”

Mikul’s influence on Nairobi’s restaurant landscape is significant. The small changes in restaurants brought about by Eat Out reviews are as palpable as a new manicure. Eat Out has managed to have a small presence in Uganda and Rwanda where the team in Kampala also runs Kampala Restaurant Week and Kampala Cocktail Week.

The restaurant whisperer also envisions a Nairobi where the dining industry would become a notable rival to Cape Town.

There (Cape Town), is a consistent supply of quality local produce which makes prices reasonable. Because of the low prices, more people go out to eat.

“I think Kenya needs to get to the stage where we encourage people to go out,” he said.

Mikul is a businessman who wishes to see his environment prosper. And what better way than to have the people actively interact with the restaurants of their choice through Eat Out.

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