Joab Okeya’s story is that of servant-turned master thanks to what he attributes to patience and humility.
For nine years, he was cooking at Ranalo Foods, popularly known as KOsewe, on the busy Kimathi Street in Nairobi.
Ranalo stands out for its traditional dishes, a niche that has seen it get clients from all walks of life.
Mr Okeya’s interactions with customers at Ranalo helped him to nurture a friendship and trust that bore what is today a business partnership.
Mr Okeya, 32, is the chief executive of The Branch Restaurant on Moi Avenue, sitting next to Kenya Cinema.
He must have studied the behaviour and tastes of guests while at his former workplace, if The Branch menu were telling the story of a careful reader of his environment.
Like Kosewe, The Branch’s menu is also African and traditional: Athola (roasted beef stew), fish, chicken, ugali and veggies. Fast foods like chips, sausages, and samosas are also available.
“We do not put artificial additives in our dishes, which has helped to grow the popularity of The Branch,” said Mr Okeya about the restaurant that opened its doors in September last year.
He says the restaurant is still running on launch prices, for example a dish of fried tilapia goes for Sh550, smoked fish Sh450, while white coffee is Sh200.
True to its name, guests enjoy the view of tree branches while rhumba music plays, adding to the homely ambiance and interior décor, chosen by his doctor wife Esther.
Mr Okeya and his partner raised “around Sh30 million” for the venture that opened its doors during the recent turbulent political period characterised by street battles with the Opposition seeking reforms.
“As other restaurants closed doors because of the street demos, we kept ours open in order to capture the clientele who at the time was looking for well-prepared African dishes,” says Mr Okeya, who holds a diploma in Hotel Management and Catering from Jinja College in Uganda.
The Branch, Mr Okeya says, is a 50-50 partnership with a proprietor he did not reveal for this story.
How did the business partners meet? Mr Okeya says the would-be partner approached him with the idea of setting up a restaurant “when I was already contemplating leaving Ranalo, popularly known as KOsewe.”
The plan was to step out and expand horizons, he says, by finding a new role at a high end restaurant for career growth.
As a young boy in a family of 11 children in “the depths of Nyanza”, Okeya says he performed every chore at home. That’s how he realised he had a passion for cooking.
“I used to cook, clean and wash clothes just like my sisters did,” he recalls, noting this is what ignited in him the dream of being a chef.
This childhood dream was sharpened when he emerged tops in a Home Science class at school. He, therefore, knew his training would be in culinary art.
On a good day, The Branch receives up to 500 guests with popular orders being the coconut, wet and dry fish as well as athola.
“Since quality is our value proposition, at The Branch we are ever on time and our food is always fresh,” says Mr Okeya, adding they get fish from Lake Victoria, kienyeji chicken from Ukambani and Western Kenya.
The traditional vegetables include saga, mrenda and managu are sourced from Western Kenya, Nyanza and Central Kenya.
The Branch has 28 employees, including three chefs and two cooks.
It hosts group meetings at no extra cost, so long as the guests buy food and drinks.
His dream: “To see The Branch become the mega city of real African dishes in Nairobi.”