Tamarind Group: Meet The Owners Of Carnivore, Kengeles, Tamarind, And Tamombo Restaurants In Kenya And South Africa

Tamarind Group is arguably one of the biggest hospitality firms in Kenya.

The company has successfully run a chain of restaurants in the county for over 50 years, starting with Tamarind restaurants in Mombasa and Nairobi and later the Carnivore restaurant in 1980.

Over time, it has opened several restaurants under the Tamarind, Carnivore, and Tamombo brands in the coast region, Nairobi, and South Africa.

According to the company’s group executive chairman, Mr. Martin Dunford, the Tamarind group was started in 1972 with the opening of the first Tamarind restaurant in Mombasa by Martin Seex. In 1975, Seex partnered with Dunford and 8 other partners, all Kenyans.

They went on to establish the Tamarind, Tamombo, and Carnivore restaurants in Mombasa, Johannesburg, and Nairobi. They also diversified their ventures into fish farming, furniture, and the manufacturing of animal feeds. However, these businesses were unsuccessful and they decided to stick to the restaurant business.

In 1993, the first carnivore restaurant was opened in Johannesburg. By 2012, it had expanded to include a conference hotel and spa, a game farm, and a meat butchery, where they supplied game meat to high-end restaurants and hotels.

The Nairobi carnivore restaurant, started in 1982, included a three-in-one establishment with a restaurant, club and ground for events, with more than 300 staff and 10 managers.

According to Martin Dunford, the concept of the carnivore restaurant was inspired by his visit to a barbecue restaurant in Brazil, where cooked meats were served on one’s table until they had had enough. This inspired him to create a similar concept for nyama choma lovers in Kenya.

When The Carnivore was started in 1982, it was initially meant for locals but soon grew its clientele to include foreigners.

Dunford attributes the growth of the Tamarind Restaurant to not growing too fast. According to him, the carnivore brand has been growing for over 40 years.

“We have been a bit hesitant to franchise Carnivore because it is a very complex concept to franchise. There are too many variables and that has held us back,” he said.

The South African restaurant proved the hardest to maintain high standards, due to competition from other establishments in the country.

The group had tried starting a carnivore restaurant in Egypt, but they ran into problems and abandoned the project because they had underestimated how hard it would be to run a franchise in the country.

The main challenge for Carnivore was the banning of game meat by the government in 2004 due to increased poaching.

This hampered their operations as customers would come expecting to eat giraffe, zebra, Oryx, and antelope meat, which was unavailable.

“It put us on the back foot and it was a big challenge keeping the restaurant popular and relevant,” he said.

However, they survived by serving ostrich and crocodile meat as these were reared in cages and were not affected by the ban.

By 2013, Tamarind Group had a turnover of over sh 1.5 billion and an overall net worth of sh 2 billion.

In 2018, they set up a sh 1.2 billion Tamarind Tree Top Hotel in Lang’ata, targeting the growing number of conferences and foreigners.

The four-star 160-roomed hotel is adjacent to the Carnivore Restaurant off Langata Road and is the group’s first hotel. It is a 160-roomed hotel.

The same year, Tamarind acquired the iconic Kengeles restaurant, giving them an edge in the high-end suburbs of Lavington.

When asked about the challenges they faced, he said “When you are trying to implement international standards, the public sector doesn’t give you the support you need in terms of water, power, security, and garbage disposal. You have to provide all these services yourself. That is a big challenge.”

He added that their Mombasa restaurant had been affected by the decline in tourism levels, and therefore a decline in the number of ‘big spenders’ in the region.

He also cited the 1998 US embassy bombing which damaged part of their Nairobi hotel and the 2008 post-violence elections.

Dunford’s advice to entrepreneurs running a partnership business is for them to complement each other.

“We have never had a fight. How boring is that? When somebody screws up, we move on. We run it almost as a family business,” he said.