There is a bottle of 14-year old Oban waiting for me at Babalus Bar when I pitch up at the Crowne Plaza hotel, courtesy of the GM – Anthony. It’s a bonhomous Wednesday evening. Alice, the barlady, pours me a double and drops one ice cube in it as I instal myself at the bar. There is that moment before the first sip, the moment of liquid innocence, when the aroma of whisky seductively drifts to you, that sweet spicy smell of dried figs, fruit, honey-sweet spices, old burnt wood and heady smokiness. The ice melts slowly in the short-glass, breaking down the small Scottish port of Oban and the lores of its small but boisterous distilleries into an aroma of stories; the story of worn, wooden tubs on rooftops, the story of salted sea air and of fastidious Scots keen to keep a tradition. It’s only fair that you let this moment simmer in the glass for a tad longer, so you let your whisky sit there, unclothed.
I turn my attention to the center of the heavily carpeted room where a clutch of birds are enjoying post conference cocktails. Corporate types. One, with a beautiful, heavy pearl necklace, has her legs up on an unoccupied chair, her discarded high heels lying under the table, their red underbelly flashing the room. She’s taken the expression “put your feet up” to heart.
I eventually take my first sip and it’s a burst of insanity, a mercurial pleasure. It’s like tasting an exotic liquid fruit soaked overnight in an urn of smoke. Leonard Mudachi pitches up seven minutes before the appointed time of 4pm. Such a pleasure dealing with people who keep time. He is carrying a massive book – The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy – and a black iPad. He passes on my whisky invitation and instead, orders some weird juice with beetroot in it, talking of a cold or some throat thing.
Leonard Mudachi reminds me of a boxer with one knee on the canvas, having been bludgeoned on the head, blood streaming down one side of his face, struggling to see through the blood of his one good eye, slumped, head bent in near defeat, the frenzied blood-thirsty crowd cheering as the referee – who is called Life – counts slowly towards ten. The crowd doesn’t want him to get up because crowds like it when you remain down but on the seventh count, he gets up on his wobbly feet and sways like a rubber mannequin, his head swimming and his vision blurred. But he gets up. He gets up because men like him get up.
Unfortunately this story doesn’t start (or end) in a ring, but at Carnivore restaurant.
It is there that Leonard made his bones as a restaurateur, six years on that grind, joining as Simba Salon manager in 2000 (before that was a stint at Hyatt Regency, Houston Texas and then Sarova Stanley) and leaving as the Deputy General Manager in 2006.
“If I hadn’t met guys like Gerson Misumi (GM Carni), would I be as passionate about the industry?” he poses. “I was lucky to have worked under teachers and bosses like him. They taught us. And at Carni we had a ball,” he reminisces. “We were doing fun stuff like New Jack Swing, Rock Night, Soul Night and concerts, I had clarity about the job and a boss I liked; all this set the stage for me to go out and give it a shot. That level of mentorship gave me the confidence I needed to say, ‘I can open my own shop.’”
So at 30-years, he resigned from Carnivore and decided to open up his own restaurant called Blanco’s Lounge and Grill, along Argwings Kodhek Road, a chic afro-fusion restaurant that took guests’ coats to hang in the cloakroom. Starting capital was 6-million; raised from savings, friends and family.
“When I think of Blanco’s, I remember your stir-fry matumbo,” I tell him nostalgically. Behind me a waiter balances a tray full of cocktails and heads towards the ladies in the middle of the room.
“The question I asked myself before I started the restaurant was ‘Where would you take a visiting CEO for dinner if they asked for authentic Kenyan cuisine?’ So we fused local dishes like three-ways fries featuring ndumas, sweet potatoes and regular potatoes, we called it Mseto Wa Vibanzi.”
“Eish, what is vibanzi?” I ask.
“Fries,” he laughs. “We used Asian style of cooking on some meals, continental style on foods from say coast, we tried crazy stuff like omena on toast in cream sauce that tanked a good one. But, guy, it was fun.”
Then he knocked on doors and got investors to support his next big thing. He opened Blanco’s Sports Grill in Galleria Mall, a behemoth 30-million investment sporting big screen television sets even in the bathrooms. During the 2011 Rugby World Cup the place was kicking. “We had cracked it,” he says, and indeed things looked up for a while but then one day all this came a cropper; first auctioneers closed down the Sports Grill bar and then a few months later Blanco’s closed. It all went down like a pack of cards. He was defeated and in debt. He was 35.
“You know when I think of Blanco’s closing I picture you sitting in that office in the backroom where I once interviewed you,” I tell him sipping my whisky. “ You have just closed the restaurant for the night, the last staff has said goodnight and closed the door behind them and you sit there in the darkened tomb of impending failure, the low light from your desk lamp throwing a ghoulish shadow of you against the wall. You hear the sound of the occasional car driving by on the now-deserted Argwings Kodhek road, you look at your books and know for sure that this ship is sinking and you are afraid to go back home to your one-year old daughter because she might see defeat and dejection in your eyes. So you sit in your office for a little longer. You stew in foreboding.”
He chuckles at my dramatic construction. I ask him, “How did you know that it was all coming to an end and how does it feel to know that everything you have put up will be no more?”
“The end isn’t even an event, guy. The biggest heartache isn’t that you are closing down, it’s that you are closing people’s dreams, you are shattering your staff’s dreams. These are guys you have bebad with you all through, guys you sold your vision to, guys you have built and sold dreams to, and now you have to tell them that it’s all over, that you can’t carry them with you anymore, that the ride is over. Guy! That is the hardest thing I have had to do.”
[Leonard likes to prefix the word “guy” before a sentence. So he will say, “Guy, that story was scary” or “I went there and what I saw! Guy!” It’s his signature.]
“We need to be more honest about entrepreneurship,” he ploughs forth. “Because entrepreneurship has been made sexy. Everybody wants to quit their jobs and do their biashara but without the full knowledge of what it really entails. It’s fun yes, the freedom and building your own thing, but you will also cry.”
“Do you regret leaving employment and starting your own restaurant?”
“Look, this, for me, is passion. From an early age I was clear that I wanted to be a chef. I’m the kind of guy who does random barbecues at home, inviting friends over for a chat and some nyama. It’s my thing. I don’t regret it. I have rehashed the situation many times over and I still insist I couldn’t have waited any longer to start a restaurant. My problem was naivetë, hubris and some arrogance,” he says. “I also grossly undercapitalized my business. Guy, it just couldn’t stand on its own two feet.”
[Note: I’m starting to feel like a guy]
At this point Anthony, the Crowne Plaza GM, ambles to the bar in a grey suit. The sort that Steve Harvey would borrow for a wedding. He’s carrying diaries, obviously coming from (or on his way to) a meeting. He has a rich voice; rich and charming. “Boss, did you get my whisky? Do you like it?” He asks. I say it’s fantastic, thanks. “Oh, this is Leonard Mudachi, you might know him,” I say. They shake hands. Leonard tells him, “I interviewed you once for a job at Utalii some years back.”
“Oh yes! I remember!” Anthony says. “You sit on the board at Utalii, right?”
“I do,” Leonard tells him. “Good to see you again.”
“Good to see you too,” he says. “Listen, I will let you do your thing as I finish some work and I will join you later.”
He walks away. He is a bit bowlegged, walks like a casino owner. The walk of someone who knows the buck eventually stops with him.
“What can you tell me about this moment of failure?” I resume the conversation after asking for another double and one ice cube. I am experiencing a nice buzz, by the way, that beautiful floaty feeling.
“I can tell you that as employees we ignore the power of the brands we work for,” he reflects. “When we work for successful companies for many years we imagine that those successes are ours to claim. Being at the pinnacle of corporate success doesn’t automatically mean that you can be a successful entrepreneur. I enjoyed some level of success at Carnivore and because of a combination of naivetë and impatience I left because the market was changing and I wanted to be a part of that change. What I came to realise soon after I left was the power of the brand and the weight it comes with.”
“Are you sure you don’t want a proper drink?” I ask him.
He says he will have something else and orders a Gin and Tonic (“Bombay Sapphire with lots of ice, please”)and that song “Classic Man” by Jidenna starts playing in my head. Another trayful of cocktails pass behind us towards the table with the ladies. Who said Ladies Night is dead?
Outside, behind the large glass windows of the bar, the rain starts falling, whipping the palm trees outside, wetting the tarmac, and turning everything a misty grey. “I love that smell. “Do you smell that?” I ask Leonard and he says, “Yes, the smell of wet soil when it hasn’t rained in awhile.”
He continues with the earlier conversations about systems. “ When you work for an established brand like Carnivore or KCB or whatever, there is a whole system behind you that has been cultivated over time and that comes with a great deal of goodwill and trust. You then belong to a part of a system that works. This system allows you to have an audience and have doors open for business because you are not just going as Leonard but as Leonard of Carnivore or of KCB. It’s because of this brand and the system that you get to hobnob with all manner of important people and the successes of the brand comes with its compliments and puffs your chest out. But always remember that those compliments don’t entirely belong to you, they belong to the brand you represent and the system it comes with.”
I lean in closer, my nose on fresh trail like a bloodhound.
“When I left Carnivore, I thought naively that all these people I interacted with at Carnivore would flock my restaurant. Little did I know that when I left Carnivore I stopped being Leonard-of-Carnivore and became Leonard-who-has-opened-his-own-restaurant-that-nobody-knows-about, and that restaurant – and not Carnivore where I had worked – is what I would be judged on. I had to start building relationships afresh, build my own system because nobody really cares where you were or where you have been in business; they take you for the business you are in now. I had to learn such lessons pretty fast.”
“That’s insightful. I have never thought of it that way.” I say. “How did things go awry so fast?”
“The 2007 post-election violence happened, for one,” he says. “Running battles on Argwings Kodhek road and ODM house just around the corner meant we remained closed for a month. I had rent to pay, salaries to pay and KRA to pay and nobody cared that I had closed due to post-election violence. We never recovered from that.” He sips his drink. “Then in Feb 2012 they started building the Bomas interchange and it made little sense for anyone to go through a 3-hour traffic jam to come to Galleria. The planned construction period was six months, instead it took 19 months. Guy, it malizad my business, we couldn’t survive. And I kept going back to the shareholders for more colour and of course it seemed ridiculous even for them because already they had pumped a lot of cash into the biashara and were not seeing results. They thought I was mad to ask for even more colour. The lesson there for me was that if you have shareholders you have to have a unity in expectations.” He then adds. “When my pals used to come to Carni for Soul Night and the place was packed and they found me standing behind the Deejay’s booth they would say, ‘yaani you guy, all these tu-head paid 2-sock, you guys are making a killing.’ But what they didn’t see was when we were not full. Nobody sees restaurants on slow days.”
“Where were you when you were told auctioneers were carting away your stuff?” I ask. He thinks about it with a slight grimace. He was in bed, early morning. By this time he had managed to keep them off for many months. He had even become friends with one of them called Gathiru, whose number is still saved on his phone as “Gathiru Auctioneer”.
“Guy, in six years we saw this guy come over so many times mpaka we became pals,” he laughs. “For two years after they closed down the business in Galleria I couldn’t drive past Galleria,” he says quietly. “Guy, that thing almost finished me.”
“What predominant emotion did the closure of the business come with?”
“Failure. It’s an admission of defeat and it’s tough to admit that you failed,” he says.“It comes with self doubt that perhaps you were wrong about yourself and your capabilities. Some days you are just angry. It wasn’t easy at all.”
I don’t want to say anything. I stare at some man’s shoes as he climbs up the winding staircase to the upper section which is more private. He adds, “When I started the businesses I was single, but when I closed I was already married. I don’t know how I would have pulled through without the wife.”
“What did she tell you at that time?”
“It’s not even what she told me, it’s the presence. It’s the way she helped me think things through clearly and stopped me from feeling like a victim.”
He was 37 when everything went tits up. His daughter was one, which made things trickier because he had just gotten into fatherhood and provider mode. He could have curled up in a corner and spent days sucking his thumb but he tucked his pride in his back pocket, went out and sought employment. He wanted a job that would firstly get him back in the game to learn, but he also had creditors on his ass, beating down his door.
“2013 was bad because I spent all my time keeping creditors at bay,” he says, “and creditors are bad guys when they want their chums. Also, there are guys who want to take advantage of you when you are falling, kicking you while you are on your knees.”
He got a job at Java House in 2014 as Business Development Director and left two years later as COO. I ask him why he left and he says, “To be politically correct? Leadership differences.”
A few minutes to 5pm my phone suddenly rings. It’s an unfamiliar number. “Looks like a bank number.” Leonard says and climbs off his stool to visit the little boys’ room. It’s my bank, Stanchart. They are doing some customer survey or something. The gentleman asks me if I’m happy with the services so far and I say pretty much, yes, I’m a happy hippo. “Well, except for one thing,” I add.
“What?” He asks.
“My relationship manager,” I say. “I don’t want him.”
“Oh, I’m sorry about that Mr Jackson. [Grrrr!] May I ask who your relationship manager is?”
“Some clown called Samson.” I say and I can almost hear him smirk.
“Oh, may I ask what’s wrong?”
“I don’t have a relationship with him, that’s what’s wrong.” I say, “Do you know how many times he’s called me the past year and half?”
“Once. One time, guy!” [Leonard’s influence]
“Oh that’s totally unacceptable. I’m so sorry to hear that.”
“Yeah, me too.” I say. “Listen, what did you say your name was?”
“Eish boss, such an exotic name! Ebu spell it for me.”
He laughs and says, “ “B-I-G-V-A-I.”
“Wow, what a name, and your second name?”
“Eish, Bigvai Mwailemi. I love it.” (I write it down on a serviette).
He laughs and says thanks.
“Listen Bigvai, I don’t want this relationship manager anymore. It’s an abusive relationship and I’m done! Done, guy! I deserve better. Do you have powers there at the bank to change him?”
“I will definitely talk to someone and make sure that you get a new one.”
“Thanks. I will be so grateful. And listen, could I get a relationship manager with an exotic name like Bigvai? I don’t want a Paul or John or Fred – I never have luck with such names.” He’s cracking up. “In fact, why don’t you become my relationship manager?”
Leonard comes back.
“You are 42 now, what would you say are some of the major lessons you have learnt in life?” I ask him as he perches back on his seat.
“ An old mzee friend of mine told me that he can summarise his life in a series of 20s; between 0 and 20 you learn to walk and eat and read and learn and you grow. Between 21 to 40 is the age of the experience of love and disappointment, of trying to make money, of heartbreaks, and between 40 and 60 is the age of mastery. Like you now, you are about to get to the age of mastering your writing. 60 to 80 is the age of reflection where you look at the ages of 40 to 60 with either regret or admiration. I’m in the age of mastery and I don’t intend to be 65 and look at my 40s and feel any regret. So at 42 I’m back to the marathon and in marathons you choka but you keep at it. I’m knocking on doors again, fundraising, I’m an entrepreneur at large.”
We sip our drinks.
“I think most people misunderstand what wealth is; people imagine wealth is a car, a house or pieces of land. I think that is a plastic way of looking at wealth. Wealth is responsibility and we need to teach people how to create responsibility for themselves and for others. We need to appreciate the value of carrying people with us, not going alone.”
Okay, I’m getting tipsy. Not because of this cerebral conversation about wealth and responsibility and marathons but because I’m on my fourth double and I’m light weight.
“At this age I think I’m more deliberate about things.” He continues. I have suffered an extreme type of failure and I think it was a good thing for me. After the period of mourning and all that comes with failure, I have now thrown my name back in the hat, safe in the realisation that there is far more knowledge in failure than there is in success.”
Anthony the GM joins us just after 7pm and we share my whisky. There is banter all around. Musau the Operations manager then joins us and I pour him a whisky too. Then Perez the Rooms Division manager joins us after her shift and orders a glass of wine. A platter called the GM’s platter is brought; king prawns, samosas, chicken wings. We stuff our kissers. We talk. Leonard excuses himself at some point and heads home to take care of some stuff. At 8:30pm I know I need to go home. Do you know how I know I’m getting tipsy as hell? My forehead becomes numb. As in no feeling whatsoever. Like I could touch it and feel like I might as well be touching the handle of a thermos flask.
I say I need to leave and someone says, “Aaaah it’s too early, have another one, we are also working tomorrow.” So I stick around for another 45-minutes, drinking mostly water. The bar is now buzzing, there is lots of laughter. The girl across the room has put her shoes back on. Her group is now significantly louder. A pianist called Karuma is doing his virtuoso magic on the grand piano by the entrance. His father – a grandmaster – played piano for 30-years in various bars and lately at Babalus, and when he retired the bar seamlessly transitioned to his son. Karuma plays with a small secretive smile. That annoying smile of someone who knows something the world doesn’t.
I have a motto; always leave the bar when you are having the most fun. So I grab my Scottish lover by the slender neck and whisper, “Baby, we are going home,” and then make my way out into the wet crisp night. In the Uber (I hear NTSA guys now have motorbikes) I test the Uber guy by enticing him to taste my Oban and he laughs and says, “No, thanks,” and I tell him, “Come on, just a sip, don’t be like that.” He says he doesn’t drink and I go, “Really? Never tasted alcohol in your life?” He laughs and says “Never.” “Your WHOLE life?” He laughs harder. Atta boy.
On my way I think about the things Leonard said, they bubble to the surface in little fragments: the thing he said about there being more knowledge in failure than there is in success. And that other thing he said about brands and systems and how entrepreneurship shouldn’t be made to look as sexy as it does because it’s gore, blood, joy and tears. I also think about how Blanco’s and the sports grill looked like well-oiled machinery from the outside when they were running. Nothing seems like what it is in this town; businesses struggle and hang on strings and businessmen and women barely manage to stay afloat. I think of his honesty and his beatific vulnerability and the maturity behind it. I think of how some Saturdays when I’m running around State House road I see him and his mates wearing luminous cycling gear, big boys on bikes and he shouts, “Bikooooo!” [haha] and my running mate – Young Mogeni – asks, “Who the hell was that?” and I say breathlessly, “Leonard Mudachi” like the whole world should know who Mudachi is.
But now I picture him on his feet, in the middle of the ring, still bleeding from a cut on the corner of his eye. He’s wobbly but he’s on his feet, squinting, trying to see his next move and the crowd, the crowd that rises and falls like a hungry wave, is surprised and somewhat disappointed that he’s gotten to his feet and they watch him closely to see if he will give up and fall back down or if he will remain standing.It matters little anyway because he’s up now and sometimes just getting back on your jelly feet, to try again, is already a win.