If you thought celebrities are only musicians, actors, politicians and sports personalities, you may need to think twice. When you walk down town especially to places like Arua Bus Park, Old Taxi Park, Cooper Complex and the surrounding streets, and ask for Kassim, the first thing you will be asked is, “you mean the Pillau chef?”
Kassim, a simple but famous person, on the streets and in the taxi parks in Kampala, has gained popularity in the last five years he has been in the business of preparing pilau– a common specially flavoured rice meal mostly a delicacy among Arabs and Muslims. However, it has turned into a favourite meal of many in Kampala.
Located on Cooper Complex House, at the lower rentals, is a well organised food kiosk that hosts hundreds of Kampalans flooding in to have breakfast, lunch as well as super, served by Kassim. At 9.15am, one by one, customers begin to walk into Kassim’s food kiosk to receive their share of the morning breakfast comprising mainly kikomando (beans with chapatti), matooke with offals (ebyenda) and white rice with meat.
Commencement of the cooking
A few minutes past 10am, the six by six square metre room is filled with clients having their meals and a large number patiently standing as they wait for whoever finishes eating to give them room to be served. At this hour, Kassim is cautiously mixing ingredients, ensuring that the different spices are mixed into the right saucepans. you may mistake him for a chemist in an open laboratory if you watch him do it.
Behind him, a huge charcoal stove of a circumference of about 60cm and a height of 30cm is completely heated up and a large saucepan of a circumference of about 200cm and a height of 100cm is warming with five litres of cooking oil and onions. That way, he starts preparing Pilau. After two hours of preparation, Kassim rests to have a heavy dish of two chapattis, matooke, rice and meat mixed with beans. He jokingly tells me: “I have to eat heavily; you know for all the energy out, there must have energy replacement,” he jokes. “A good chef has to look what he cooks!”
During lunch time, Kassim’s major work at the kiosk is done and a young man comes in to serve the pilau as more clients move in to give their orders. “I have been eating at this place for over two years, and I keep appreciating the Pilau that Kassim prepares,” one of Kassim’s clients remarks when asked why he had to bear queuing for food in the hot sun.
Kassim says the size of his room can serve about 1000 people a day. “when I count the people I serve, on average both who take-away and those eating from the kiosk on a daily basis, over a thousand people eat food from my kiosk,” Kassim proudly says. “Even my competitors buy Pilau here to serve to their customers, and that gives me an upper hand in the market.
“Since I had operated a separate kiosk near William Street before I moved here, I receive hundreds of calls from people who want deliveries, and that forced me to have a separate boy whom I prepare for Pilau at William Street so that I do not disappoint my old clients,” Kassim narrates of his business.
His team component
His business employs on average 12 workers, six on a permanent basis and the rest on a casual basis. Kassim is not yet willing to quit this business because of the benefits he has accrued from it. He says on a daily basis, he earns a profit of not less than Shs200,000 after deducting all the operational costs of the business. He boastfully questions me, “how can an office worker equate to me?” He says due to the quality of his food and fair prices especially the Pilau and chapattis, he is able to serve all kinds of people regardless of their status.
At Kassim’s food kiosk, the cheapest item on the menu – beans and chapatti goes for Shs1,300 while the highest priced item goes for Shs4,000. The prices keep varying depending on the type food a person prefers. Before he moved to Kampala, he was working at his father’s butchery. However, Kassim says he never liked the way the business was running. “At my father’s butchery, we used to cheat clients, something I didn’t like,” Kassim narrates.
In regard to people operating butcheries, he says most of them cheat clients in order to get profit. “Imagine, you bought meat in the morning while it is fresh, a day after, that meat is dry and it has lost weight, how would you count for the lost kilograms in order to earn a profit – it is through cheating your clients. They put many bones when measuring so that the weight measurements seem high,” Kassim tells of the tricks used butchers.
“So, by doing that, I felt terrible and I decided to contact my uncle who was already in Kampala to arrange for me to come. In July 2004, I arrived in Kampala, but life was not so pleasant for me since it was my first time in the city. I had to find ways to survive. I could not depend on him all the time since he already had a family to look after.”
The humble beginning
His uncle booked for him a small place in Kinamwandu, a slum of sorts in Arua Bus Park, where he started frying chapattis for the passersby. He started with one carton of wheat flour, but due to the expertise he had in frying chapattis, clients picked interest in buying from his kiosk. He advanced from one carton to three and that would yield him profits of about Shs60,000 per day.
“With changing times in Kampala, I realised they would sweep us out of the place one day since it was not hygienic enough so I decided to hire brokers to get me a small place that would suit a small restaurant. With the little money I had saved (about Shs8m) for over two years, I knew I could start up with it. The brokers got me a place in Cooper Complex, though it was not so good. But because I was already working in Kinamwandu, which was more unhygienic than this one, I realised I could do some upgrading on it and that is what I did the next day.”
Market research is key
“I paid rent for three months, bought all the necessary simple requirements and tried to make the place look a little bit modern.” “But as in business, I did simple research, in all the restaurants that were already in operation at this mall, and from the high prices of their food, it seemed their clientele was of high class people.”
On getting to the complex, he realised his new competitors’ chapattis were not better than the ones he was making at Kinamwandu. “The first day I started with a short menu of matooke with offals, and Pilau, and the turn-up was indeed pleasing, he narrates.
Due to the high client turn up, Kassim is planning to open up another restaurant at the new building on William Street in July if all goes well. Kassim never had the chance to complete school due to financial constraints at home.
He stopped in primary six but that did not hinder him from persuing his ambitions. He plans to join adult education so that he can upgrade his education standards.
By Mukisa Farahani, Daily Monitor