Two unrelated events happened on Mashujaa Day, 2021. One of them invoked an almost-audible sigh of relief across the nation. The end of a long, crippling Covid-19 curfew that had started in March 2020. The other event?
I joined the enviable league of rich pub owners, the hitherto uncelebrated 'purveyors of happiness'.
Or, so I thought.
Infinity Liquor at Igoji, Meru - is a modest drinking den, by local standards. It has a sitting capacity of, perhaps - thirty. It serves assorted liquor, but Keg is the flagship product. This is sold by the barrel. The joint is quite popular - for its 52" TV screen airing Premier League games.
I became a regular when it opened in 2020. I quickly reconnected with friends from my childhood who had landed city jobs with blue-chip firms. They had been laid off, as was the joint's owner. Misery loves company. The pub, too - was an investment from a send-off package.
For us, with little or no interest in home farming, Infinity Liquor was a safe place to while away the long weeks. I dare say, the local was an arena for award-winning debates and intellectual discourse. It was so richly crammed with top brains across academia, IT, and business.
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Pleasant Mashujaa Day surprise, when the owner asked if I could buy the joint. He had got the back-to-work call immediately after the announcement. I was ecstatic, but I was broke.
That evening, unseen before for over a year - I was home at 6 pm, sober as a judge. It took a lot of begging, cajoling - and, my mum doing a few Hail Marys - to get father to agree to a soft loan.
The joint's owner had asked for Ksh150,000. I had bargained to Ksh120,000. Father offered to lend me Ksh80,000. The seller quickly agreed, with a Ksh50,000 balance paid in 5 monthly installments. Looking back, I realised that he had agreed too quickly.
Wait, father - my financier, had me append a signature to a list of conditions. Mother, as always had my back, as my sole guarantor. I did not have any tangible assets, though. In the event that I defaulted, the old man swore to sell off one of my mother's dairy cows.
Really, dude? Ok.
The main condition: Pay Ksh300 daily, to his mobile phone account for 1 year. Quick arithmetic showed that the old fox would earn some interest, about Ksh29,500. I sulked, pretentiously - but I did not have an option.
I reckoned that as regulars, my friends and I collectively spent a thousand bob daily on Keg beer. at the joint. That's on a bad day. The curfew was off, so longer opening hours. The English Premier League had also resumed. Higher traffic, higher sales.
So, 300 bob a day should be chicken feed. Or, so I thought.
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Well, all was fun in the first few days. Business was brisk, with good sales thanks to a post-curfew celebration mood - riding all the way into December. Word spread fast - my home boys thronged the joint. End of October, after 10 days in business - hard business lessons started.
First off, I had kept the bartender employed by the previous owner. Why? She was good, and an absolute crowd-puller. She was a beautiful, talkative Kamba girl with an eye for fashion - called Mwende.
I knew little about Mwende. And, neither did her former employer. She served my first lesson in pub management, when she failed to turn up for work on 1st day of November, a Monday that had been preceded by a particularly busy weekend. She vanished with the weekend sales, in total some Ksh22,300.
It was pointless to report to the police.
I called the previous owner, he says: Bro, never trust the girls with the sales. Always make DAILY COLLECTIONS.
I was stuck. I did not have money to buy new stock. The business is restocked from dealer trucks that make daily rounds. No sweat. A friendly chap I knew in one of the trucks agreed to a restocking agreement:
Take stock on credit, then pick the money on subsequent days for any sold stock. For them, it was a way to secure a client, from their competitors.
I got a new bartender. That November, we worked entirely for the beer suppliers. The arrangement worked - I would pick the margin profit. Meanwhile, I called up a friend from campus and asked for academic writing gigs. I worked long into the night, doing exams and writing proposals. I injected back Ksh20,000 end of November.
I had fallen behind on my daily payments to my financier - my father.
Barely back on track when more problems hit. Besides the bartender's salary, I had to pay DSTV subscription fee - the sports package doesn't come cheap. Remember, the joint did well due to football fans following the EPL!
Then, enter law enforcement. There's an unwritten rule for pub owners: Pay up, or Close up.
On a daily basis, a certain 'goodwill fee' is handed over to cops on patrol. There's no system to it. Someday they may not come, the next - five different cops from five different stations are angling for your handshake, asking: Mkubwa, maneno yetu iko vipi leo?
I also know people, so I called up a favor - from a distant relative, quite senior in the police service. It worked like magic. All I had was send a monthly "token of appreciation" to the police chief in my area.
The daily harassment ceased.
My greatest handicap in the liquor business, though - was my friends.
On a typical evening, a guy would show up at Infinity Liquor, with an entourage. Or, a bevy of beauties in tow. Often, he is a guy I've known since kindergarten. A friend. I would be happy - like, man, let's support our own.
They would order drinks, make merry - spend a fair amount reminiscing about our childhood. A lot of times, they would even order a drink for me.
Cue in time to leave, or close up. Either the money for the bill is not enough, or - there's totally no money. We would have an uncomfortable drunken talk around "Si unajua kwetu? Si unajua mpaka mother?"
The other wolves aiming for a bite were my relatives. It turned ugly. I would turn down a debt request, It would raise spiteful remarks. I came to near fist-fights a couple of times. With a sneer, a cousin once told me: "Ah, tangu upate tupesa umekuwa na maringo sana...."
I'd let a guy walk - only, to bump into him later in the night at a neighbouring pub - BUYING IN CASH! Friends are ruthless!
That's how I made enemies, from my childhood friends. I would give them a couple of days, sending emissaries. If there was no response, I would swoop down like a debt collector - pick mobile phone handsets, a bike, etc - as collateral.
In October 2022 - after a year of an absolute rollercoaster, I decided to cede ownership. I sold off my beloved joint.
I decided to dump the proceeds from the into a new investment. Since we had space at Infinity Liquor, I bought a brand-new pool table.
As it is, a pool table is quite hassle-free. Minimal attendance rakes in good returns and pulls crowds for the liquor joint. It's a win-win.
Of course, I'm still in talks with Father, over some pending loan payments. I did manage to pay off the principal amount, lest he made good his threat of seizing and selling off one of Mother's dairy cows.
About my dream of joining the Extraordinary League of Pub Owners - good riddance. There's nothing but pain, blood, and sweat down that road!