The ‘Take Away’ Craze – Kofi Akpabli

Junk food filling up the place…
This is another disgrace’  – 
Muta Baruka (Jamaica reggae musician)

You notice them in the evenings, young men feverishly displaying their culinary skills by the wayside. The typical set-up comprises: an ice chest filled with boiled rice, chopped up vegetables, frying pan on the ready, scores of disposable plates and an eye-catching array of fried meat.
For customers who wouldn’t want to ‘take away’, a long table with accompanying bench is provided. At other points, furniture is more comfortable. But at all the joints, one key feature is the brightly lit bulbs festooned more to attract customers than for any other reason.
This latest variation of eatery is known as ‘check check’ or simply ‘take away’. With our big towns getting more cosmopolitan, it becomes more convenient for the urban Ghanaian to just grab ‘something fast and decent’ for dinner. In a bid to serve this need, young hustling males have cashed in.But the question is, are these ‘take away’ operators qualified to dish out the service they provide?

Ken is twenty-two years and has a joint at Abeka Lapaz, in Accra. He has been in the business for three months. Ken said he received training from his ‘master’ Chris who operates ‘check check’ at Kwame Nkrumah Circle.

Mawuli, a twenty-four year old polytechnic student claims he was trained for two months by his aunt. With a little start-up capital from his mother, he was able to set up a vibrant ‘take away’ joint at Dzorwulu. Mawuli confesses that although he enjoys cooking, his prime motivation is the ‘good money’.

It goes without saying that food provision is serious business. The enterprise of cooked food is so delicate that not  just everybody is disposed to engage in it. How can we be sure that all the guys and even ladies that are into the ‘check check’ business know their grain when it comes to food handling and food storage?

These concerns are pertinent because of the peculiarity of the ‘take away’ phenomenon. In more ways than one, they are different from the already established formal and informal catering sectors.The restaurants, for instance, form part of the formal sector. Because they operate fully under the purview of the Ghana Tourist Board, quality control is easier to monitor.

The typical ‘chop bar’, sorry, traditional caterer is largely manned, sorry, ‘womanned’ by personnel who have received informal yet extensive training. Invariably, they have been cooking the same traditional dishes for their families over the years. These women in the informal sector are therefore at home with what they do.

The exemplary references to the restaurant and the traditional catering services do not imply that all is well in those sectors either. A large number of them are still grappling with structural and operational defects. For instance, the statutory requirement that cooked-food handlers must undergo mandatory medical check every six months is largely ignored

If basic rules such as health check for registered, levy-paying establishments can be flouted, then one can imagine what may possibly go amiss in the liberal ‘take-away’ environment.

The ‘take-away’ business is relatively the easiest to set up. Space needed is quite little and shelter is out of the question. Perhaps, it is this ease in setting up of the business that has sparked up the joke that smart shoeshine boys pack down their boxes after the day’s work and operate the ‘check-check’ in the evening.

Operators can also shift their act from one location to another with relative ease. For some, therefore, the motivation to provide the kind of service that would retain a discerning segment of customers is not priority.

The working hours for the ‘take-away’ eatery, range from early evening to the wee hours of dawn. This provides them with a special kind of cover. City authorities and tourist officials are not on duty within these hours.

Another feature of the ‘take-away’ craze is that the main meal and sauce are prepared elsewhere before being mounted at the sales point. According to Ken (the polytechnic student), the only thing he does in the presence of the customers is mixing up the vegetables and frying the rice. Under what hygienic conditions are these meals prepared? How, for instance, are the unsold pieces of fried meat stored?One characteristic of the ‘take-away’ business which allows for easy entry is that it is neither capital nor labour intensive. Ansah who runs a joint at Kotobabi engages his girlfriend to lend him a hand during weekends. ‘Otherwise I do everything on my own’ he says. Like Ansah, many operators run the business alone.

All said and done the ‘take-away’ service is an ingenious attempt to serve the sophisticated taste of city dwellers. Their clientele range from businessmen to white-collar workers. Also young men who ca

nnot afford to take their girlfriends to the restaurants settle for the ‘check-check’.

Additionally, there is among our social ranks a class who though could afford, do not feel comfortable within the cutlery set, ‘brofosem’ atmosphere of restaurants. For such folks, just a walk along the street, and fried rice with chicken and salad is a reality.

In terms of cost, the ‘take-away’ offers a price regime that customers find flexible. This is in contrast to the fixed à la a carte tariffs that pertains in restaurants. Master Kwesi is an Accra-based taxi driver who describes himself as ‘the bachelor with good taste’. According to him when he feels good, he buys ¢9,000.00 worth of rice. On days that the ‘HIPC temperature’ rises to boiling point, he still gets his rice but this time the ¢6,000.00 option. This taxi-driver asserts that the ‘check-check’ guys are good and their meals are as tasty as those served in restaurants, if not better.

An added positive aspect of the ‘take-away’ service is explained by Kumi, another bachelor; ‘I don’t compromise on hot food and seeing the food being mixed right in front of me gives me some assurance. Kumi is on a ‘short visit’ from Kumasi and claims that the ‘check-check’ business has mushroomed in the Garden City too.

Although it largely operates on the limited menu of plain and fried rice, the ‘take-away’ service is positioned in a strategic vacuum. If there is one recurring complaint that the average tourist to Ghana has about our catering sector, it is the vast gap between our traditional caterer and the restaurant. This difference is not only reflected in tariffs but also in structure. The nearest attempt at bridging the gap is the institutional canteens.

If well resourced, the ‘check-check’ business can evolve in response to this quest. After all, we have the good examples of catering ‘empires’ such as Chris Café, and Odo Rice which started on the back streets of Accra Newtown and Nkrumah Circle respectively.    The ‘take-away’ phenomenon is becoming too widespread to be ignored. City Authorities (not just for the taxes) must begin to consider streamlining. The Ghana Tourist Board must begin to consider standardisation.

Once again, food business is serious business. These days certain folks are prepared to go to any length to survive. The Kejetia Vulture meat episode still has a sour taste in our mouths. ‘Fast food’ is filling up the place. This is another food for thought.