James Kinuthia is the owner of the Hidden Gem Restaurant, an Italian-themed hospitality establishment located at the Lavington Mall in Nairobi. The eatery is described by many as one of the date night spots in the capital. It has also been famed for its pizza and pasta.
Kinuthia is a wine enthusiast and former wine distributor. Before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, he used to import wine from around the world and distribute it to various restaurants and hotels in the country.
“When the pandemic hit home, our wine distribution business was gravely affected. Hotels, which were the majority of our customers, closed their doors, leaving us with uncertainty about payments owed to us. To date, we are still trying to recover debts owed by hotels and it is not an easy process, especially considering some permanently closed their doors and may never come back,” James told Business Daily during an interview in August 2021.
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He explained that the wine importation business was great and abandoning it was a tough decision to make, however, it was necessary.
“There was nowhere to supply to. Soon after the announcement of the first case of Covid-19 in Kenya, alcohol sale was banned and restaurants were ordered to do deliveries only. We had to stop importing more wine and decided to focus on debt collection and selling the remaining stock which was harder than we expected,” he added.
Kinuthia always wanted to get into the hotel industry but he could not find the time to dedicate towards starting a new venture, let alone a restaurant.
However, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit and their wine distribution business was halted, James and his team decided to get into their next venture. So he opened Hidden Gem in January 2021.
“You see, for us to open a brand new restaurant during this time, it wasn’t as difficult as most people would expect. We were starting anew so we did not have pending bills from expenses like rent or salaries which I believe are some of the hefty debts some restaurants and hotels are grappling with now,” he explained.
When they opened, the government had allowed restaurants to offer dine-in options. Being a new restaurant opening for the first time during a time when most people had missed dining out with friends and family, worked for them. People were curious about what they had to offer and they got on a good start.
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“We import our cheeses and cold cuts from Italy to ensure we serve the authentic Italian flavours and experiences and our seafood is from Malindi and Kilifi,” he said.
The wooden pallets currently being used as restaurant furniture were previously used to store wine.
“The restaurant is doing fine, given the circumstances, and since life has to go on, we are currently focused on building the restaurant as we hope the situation will improve enough for us to resume the wine distribution business,” he adds.
The restaurant has a French ambience but the cuisine is Italian. Each of the two chefs who were at the eatery in 2021 used to work at one of two long-established Italian restaurants in Nairobi – the Mediterraneo and Osteria del Chianti. Their menu offers Italian dishes including pasta, pizza, cheese boards and cold cuts among others.
Hidden Gem’s two-floor space is decorated with plants, flowers and wall murals that give patrons the feel of Italian streets. The backyard looks like a courtyard restaurant where the two rows of what used to be small offices depict a boulangerie, a charcuterie, a café du pain and a maison du Chocolat.
The restaurant has stairs leading up to the wide balcony seating, with views across the rooftops and the Lavington area. During the evenings the dim lights on the rooftop while sipping on their extensive Australian wine selection or some fine cocktails gives one a feel of a holiday in the city.
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