The Keep is in trouble. Yes..again. Right after we paid our back rent last September, URA (the “Ugandan IRS”) came to Sarah and said we owed 50,000,000UGX (approximately $13,820) for past VAT tax. That in itself is a long story, but we took bad advice from an accountant, book keeper and even from our landlord at the time (who is a local businessman) that indicated that we did not need to pay VAT for a restaurant of our size, especially since our goal was to be a non-profit entity. In the end, the URA “agreed” to accept 10,000,000UGX ($2,764) as payment in full for back taxes.
Sarah, our manager, has been making payments here and there as money was available.
Meanwhile, our landlord’s father (the “Mzee”) has taken over as landlord of the Keep property this past year. We have always dealt with his son, Romeo, who was a very understanding landlord. He knew that slow season was tough and was okay with us paying what we could, and then during busy season we would always catch up and pay forward a few months. This arrangement had worked well for the past six years.
Since the Mzee, has taken over he has not been okay with this arrangement. So in September we made a plea to help bail out the Keep, and many of you responded, and we were able to keep our doors open since the community “bailed us out” of our back rent payments. It should be noted that this was the first time in six years we have needed a “bailout”.
Fast forward to now. The Keep is yet again behind on its rent. The situation with customers has not changed since the last post. So many restaurants have opened within the last six months, and customers have so many restaurant choices. Our staff has tried different special events and special foods with some success. However, the back rent (because of the typical slow season) and the money owed to the URA has completely hamstrung our staff, both financially and emotionally. As opposed to pursuing their ideas to revitalize the Keep, they are stuck having to maintain the “status quo”, which means the Keep is falling behind the times, and slipping as more organized and well-funded competition settles in Jinja.
To make matters even worse, the Mzee has fallen behind on his land tax payments. As a result, the town council is demanding that he settle his deficit immediately. However, he is insistent that he needs our back rent money to settle that debt as this is his only source of income. He has hired a lawyer who is saying we have until the end of May to pay this off or else we will be evicted, and then things will get very bad for all of us. The police will be involved, as will the courts. The property inside the Keep will be sold off to pay the debt and “other fees”, and our staff, in an inexplicable but unavoidable way, will be held liable and could even face prison.
To be honest, we really don’t know what to do. The Keep needs so much more than just to pay off what is owed. It needs fresh eyes to change things up there, someone who is passionate about The Keep being a family friendly place with good food.
Our biggest fear is not simply for the future of the Keep, but that Mzee will escalate this and take our employees to the police. The police have no problem locking people up for no reason. You are guilty until proven innocent or until you pay a bribe. I don’t want it to get to that point. We have some extremely loyal staff who have been with us for years. We don’t want anything to happen to them.
Sarah, and our staff believe with all their hearts that they can make the Keep vibrant and thriving again. They have a real heart for their work, and their loyalty is staggering. This is one of the primary reasons we haven’t closed up shop already. In addition, the Keep is more than a restaurant. It has a “soul” (not to be blasphemous) and has been a lifeline for many people, locals and ex-pats alike, and is a thread that has woven through so many stories of hope in Uganda.
So the reason Jen and I want to post this is because people are always asking how things are going, what they can do to help…… This is how things are going. If we don’t tell you, then you won’t know. As to what to do to help? I have no idea.
We can say that if we miraculously pay our past rent debt ($7,100) and remaining URA debt ($1,100), I fully believe that our staff can “make it”, but deep down we always wanted more for our staff and for the Keep, and we think that will take someone with a special heart for people, for food, for helping others, for serving and for revitalization. It may be a single person, a couple, a family, or even something much bigger, like Robert at Restaurant Impossible, Gordon Ramsay at Kitchen Nightmares, or Ching-He Huang at Restaurant Redemption.
But we aren’t ready to give up. It doesn’t feel like it’s time to give up. We’ve faced adversity so many times in the past, and come through it to find something amazing, something worth fighting for, and we think we’re facing that situation again, we’re just not sure of the path through.
Thanks for reading and for any thoughts or ideas you might have.
Johnny, Jen, Sarah and the staff of the Keep cafe, Jinja.