Girma Degu is a noted entrepreneur involved in the local hospitality industry. To him, the local hospitality sector is not just a business but rather helps make the capital a tourist friendly place. He is owner and operator of Mama’s Kitchen Boutique Hotel chain in Addis Ababa. Here, he reflects with The Reporter’s Samuel Getachew on his business, its growth and challenges including the recent COVID-19 pandemic, creating a local brand and finally gives advice to those who may want to emulate his story. Excerpts:
The Reporter: You are one of the most successful entrepreneurs involved in chain restaurants and now hotels. Tell me about that?
Girma Degu: I have always loved food and the hospitality industry in Ethiopia. From the get-go, I have seen much potential in it. I started working at a hotel in the early stages of my career. My dream has been to open and operate my own business. When the opportunity presented itself, I grabbed it. I had plenty of mentors who wanted to see me realize my potential and they were ready to assist me.
In 2004 (E.C.), l opened my 1st branch of the Mama’s Kitchen Chain, which soon grew to be popular for its unique dining menu, with the best customer service in town. Due to the growing demand for Mama’s Kitchen services, a catering unit was derived to extend Mama’s Kitchen facilities to the wider community. Shortly, Mama’s Kitchen catering units also developed into managing huge events for big companies including providing staff meals, daily, for Meta breweries. Within less than 2 years, the 2nd branch was opened in the DH Geda building on Bole, and took the industry surprisingly to a whole new level. The branch was soon labeled as the first Sports Bar & Lounge with live music every night.
The business has grown much in recent years. From one success story to another the Mama’s Kitchen Chain multiplied. The Baritone Lounge & Restaurant (currently also the head office branch) was opened in 2008 (E.C.), followed by the Royal Lounge opened in 2009 (E.C.). Since its opening till today, the Royal is still the talk of the town, built as a luxury “one of a kind lounge” fit for royalty and hosting major stage shows or album launches. In early 2011 (E. C), I took the Mama’s Kitchen concept from a recognized restaurant, catering & lounge chain, to the next level, in the service industry, Hotels!
How did you decide to go Hotels?
Also known as a Boutique hotel for its elegant and graceful ambiance, the first two Mama’s Inn branches opened at 22 and Meskel Flower, out of the need to host Mama’s Kitchen’s international and regional guests. Each Inn has top notch features such as spacious rooms, Mama’s Kitchen restaurant services, a fully stocked bar and a variety of Spa services, adding multiple quality services to the brand. Since the Ethiopian New Year September 2012, we have also opened three new branches in 4 Kilo around the University, Entoto Park and Unity Park, accordingly. However, I did not stop there. The idea is to do something no chain in Addis has ever attempted to do before, which is to champion the local market and take the brand outside Ethiopia with its head office located in Ethiopia, adding plenty more benefits & value to Ethiopia’s hospitality industry than today.
How about in terms of employment?
Now in its seventh year of prosperous operations, the Mama’s Kitchen chain currently employs and sustains over 286 professionals in the hospitality industry.
Our hotels have local and international cuisines prepared by our professional chefs. We attract tourists and professionals looking for a wonderful and safe space, without having to pay a hefty sum of money. In the last two years, we have hosted tourists from all over the world and some of the reviews we have received are encouraging and they guide us to be and do better.
How did the pandemic affect you and your own business?
It certainly has. There is no sector that has not suffered because of it. For the last few months, we had almost no tourists coming to our country. At the beginning of it, there were even very few people on the streets, let alone in public restaurants. We did suffer and I am sure our employees suffered as well. For instance, we were forced to suspend our services at some of our businesses, including our night club and at our location inside Unity Park.
For me, creating a business is to be sustainable at a time of challenges and hardships and as you can see, customers are coming back, expecting from us the same stellar service they have come to expect. COVID-19 has been a learning curve for me, which is to always prepare for the unexpected and always be zealous, always charitable and understanding. Your customers can see that and that is why, I believe, we have some of the most loyal customers around.
What is the secret to your success?
There is no secret. My success is simply the result of hard work, and to always learn new things and always have a standard of service that people can depend on. In all of our businesses, we have some of the best trained workers who are like family and they are happy to be with us. They carry our signature where ever they go and always standout among others. That is simply our success.
What is in the pipeline for you in terms of expansion?
We are opening the new restaurant in Entoto Park after New Year’s. I am happy with its prospects and offer those that come to the beautiful park, to have an option of a good, home cooked food and receive an excellent service, while enjoying the new development of our city.
I am of the view that more parks are good for us all in order to have a livable city where we can take our family and friends and children for a great outing. While fast food is tempting, we have now become a society that is ever conscious of what we consume and we created our brand with that in mind.
How are you celebrating the holidays?
I am spending it with family and friends and my employees. My employees are loyal, they work hard and they know the ingredient of a successful business is to make sure everyone on board is really a team player and they matter. They also know the impact of the business is to help Ethiopia become a friendly place for tourists and have our society earn good forex. They know they are ambassadors of tourism and they show it regularly. I am happy to spend the holiday and every day with them.
What message do you have to those who want to emulate your success and journey so far?
I hope they know there is no easy passage to success but hard work. I hope their ambition reflects their reality. To be ambitious is fine, but I have seen people with big ideas but little means get into the business and burn out easily. The hospitality industry is hard, but offers you much satisfaction at the end but it can also be heavy and difficult if you do not see it from all angles.
When I opened my business, I was lucky to have had mentors and those I could count on whenever I needed advice and to also reflect on mine. I tell anyone who sees the value of mentorship and the willingness to learn from others. While the hospitality industry is great and attractive, it is not for everyone. You might have ample resources, but it does not mean you will be successful at the end.
But always, always, have a heart to do what you do. That is either at home or at work. That way, you will be happy at the end of the day, that is whether you are successful or not. Because what is most rewarding is the experience of trying out best!