How I started my café business

Bowl of food from Algerian cafe-restaurantWith his wife Sabrina, Djamel Ait Idir opened Algerian café-restaurant, Khamsa, in Brixton in October 2009. So what did they learn and what advice do they offer?

“I’ve had a passion for cooking since I was a child and wanted to put my skills into something I cared about. I was a pastry chef for three years and then I went to Westminster University and did a diploma in culinary art. When we got married I said: ‘let’s start our own business’. Running your own business gives you the freedom to be more creative and adventurous, even though there are ups and downs.

Finding business premises

“People in London have been getting into healthier foods for years, but there aren’t many Algerian-Berber restaurants, so we were confident there would be a market, but the location had to be right. We liked Swiss Cottage and found a place there, but that fell through. Then it came to me – ‘Brixton’ – where my business idea would work better anyway, because it already has a large African community.

“We looked at premises advertised in Loot and elsewhere. Acre Lane is one of Brixton’s main streets, so it’s a great location. We searched on Gumtree, found the perfect premises – a former bakery – and contacted the landlord. Soon we’d agreed a deal.

“We contacted Lambeth Council to register and they sent an inspector around after we’d got the place right. From my college course, I had very good knowledge of food hygiene/safety rules, but I had to find out about some health and safety regulations.

“Money was tight and our quality of life dipped temporarily, but starting your own business involves sacrifice and compromise. We had some savings, but also went to our bank with our business plan and they gave us a loan, as well a free 45-minute advice session. My wife and I are degree educated, but we had no formal business training. You don't need a business studies degree to start your own business.

“I redecorated the premises; we made our own seating and replaced the doors. Before opening, I also sorted out business insurance. We bought all our furniture, pans and crockery cheaply online and from second-hand shops. We designed our own menus using a simple Windows template.

Ensuring customer loyalty

“We’re very honest with our customers and do what we can to ensure they keep coming back. If people like what you do, they’re more likely to recommend you and word of mouth is hugely important.

“To test the water, we started off doing just coffees and cakes. Problem was, there are plenty of other cafés in our area that sell drinks, cakes, salads and sandwiches. We needed to offer something different, so we started selling traditional Algerian hot meals, which proved hugely popular. We were on to something and introduced more authentic Algerian dishes.

“We don’t have an alcohol licence — we have a ‘bring your own’ policy. We might need to get entertainment licence soon, because we’re thinking of starting comedy nights, just to get more people through the door.

“Frequently, I must work after we close, so I don’t usually get to bed until 4am. I’m going to explain the accounts to my wife soon, so she can take them over. It’s hard work because there are just the two of us, but it’s rewarding. Soon we plan to take on staff, but we need to be able to afford it first.

Supply and demand

“We made a lot of little mistakes at first. In food businesses it’s easy to misjudge demand, but you learn what people like and dislike, and when they’re most likely to want them. I’ve had to learn to accept criticism and not take things too personal.

“What makes Khamsa successful? We’re are friendly and honest, and the place has a good atmosphere. The food is good, too, of course. Everything is fresh — we buy our food from the local market every day.

“Since opening and establishing the business, we’ve reinvested. For example, we didn’t have the money for a dishwasher until recently, so often we were spending two hours clearing up after we closed. Buying one has saved us a lot of time – time we can spend doing other things.”

Djamel’s three key lessons

  • "Think carefully about equipment and stock before you buy. You need to keep your start-up costs to a minimum. As the business grows, then perhaps you can spend a bit more"
  • "Be passionate. No one will believe in your business if you don’t. Passion can also carry you through when things are tough or don’t go to plan"
  • "Have patience, too. Don’t expect immediate results, you have to build a business gradually"

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