I have always thought that having a successful food event in Kenya is hard. But I changed my mind. I now believe that if you have a fresh idea, it will work.
Meet Nicole McMahon who dared to invest in the Kenyan hospitality industry. She took an idea and it flourished. With minimal initial costs, Pop-Up Nairobi was born. The only money she injected into the business was the cost of food. She donates 100% of profits from her monthly brunch events to charity. Pop-Up Nairobi has burgeoned to become one of the best events for Sunday Brunch. I met up with her in Casual Bite Café in Westlands where she told me more about this event.
Here is the Q&A.
Tell me about Pop-Up Nairobi
Pop-Up Nairobi began as a monthly brunch event a few months ago. People come to a set location and they enjoy Sunday Brunch at a cost of Kshs 1,000 only. We cook great food and serve great drinks with a smile. It has since expanded to include other events as people ask me ‘Can you..’ and I think ‘Sure, why not?’
When and how did it begin?
I love cooking and I love entertaining, but I really miss a nice relaxed Sunday brunch. I realized that most cafes are closed on Sunday, so I got the idea to ask people to let me use their cafes. The first café I requested was Café Rouge in Kilimani, where I had been regularly enjoying their delicious ndengu na chapo. The owner agreed and I had my first event. I had marketed the event myself through social media, mainly Facebook and was overwhelmed (in the best possible way) at the 100 guests that came to enjoy a new brunch event. Proceeds go to charity as it was just a hobby with my friends volunteering as staff and I want to give something back to this amazing country. I volunteer tutoring Math at Kibera with ROCK an organization that offers tutoring and scholarships to students so it made sense to raise money for scholarships. I’m passionate about education and now each event supports a new education focused cause.
What prompted you to set up shop in Nairobi?
It started as a hobby when I realized that in Nairobi Sunday brunch does not happen in many establishments. Sunday brunch is a big thing in some parts of the world and I wanted to introduce this idea here.
How did you do it and how much money did you earn at first?
I started buying food on Thursday and I did some preparations. On Saturday I make the chutneys and relishes. By the first event, I had retrieved all my capital outlay and I had profits of 70,000kshs. This money would sponsor at least one child and I plan to do it over and over again. After that, I get many people coming to my events. I’ve spent $2.66 USD on Facebook ads, but other than that it has all been through my social media pages and word of mouth.
Who is the brains behind it and how many employees do you have?
Currently I am doing it all; menu’s, marketing, deciding on causes, and planning the events. I now have five wonderful part-time staff that work at the events with me. Four of them are recent graduates from Kito International which runs a 2 month soft skills course in Kawangware.
What services do you offer?
We offer an array of foods depending on the event. Wherever possible food is cooked fresh on site; at blankets and wine we bake pies and cupcakes at the event using a Cookswell Jiko oven. We make sure the customers get fresh healthy food. I also enjoy serving Kenyan foods with a twist; ugali arepas use common Kenyan ingredients to make a Venezualan street food. At the next brunch I will be serving Coriander and Chilli Chapati topped with cumin fried eggs and an avocado Kachumbari. I love seeing people’s reactions to the food – Kenyans tasting ugali cooked in a different way, or expats enjoying ugali.
Do you go to other parts of the country?
Right now Pop-Up is mainly in Nairobi but we had an event in Maai Mahiu last month. It was at Café Ubuntu. I had over 50 people who had taken the hour drive down from Nairobi to enjoy the event. I’m in the process of setting up a Pop-Up website with best practices and an open source ‘manual’. This way, interested parties may hold Pop-Up events in other parts of the country as long as they adhere to the Pop-Up code of conduct.
How many successful events have you had?
I have had three successful brunch events. The first one was at Café Rouge in Kilimani, the second at Petes Café in Bishop Magua Centre and the third at Café Ubuntu in Maai Mahiu. I’ve also had a stand at two Blankets and Wine events.
Do you cater to private parties or events?
Yes we are very open to private parties and events. Whether it’s canapes and cocktails, an order of our delicious brownies to cheer up your Monday blues or an intimate dinner for a group of friends.
What makes you stand out from the restaurants or hotels?
The fact that the experience is different, our food is fresh and interesting and we care about our customers, valuing feedback and serving with a smile.
What are the challenges of running the business?
Honestly I haven’t really had any challenges so far. The reception has been incredible, with strangers emailing me to volunteer at events, cafés asking me to ‘Pop-Up’ at their locations, and people offering business ideas and partnership opportunities. The closest thing to a challenge would be managing my own time. The days before an event are hectic, but the elation after a successful event makes it all worth it.
What progress have you made?
From a single test brunch event in March I know have a dedicated once a month Sunday Brunch event where all profits support an organization. We are now also at Blankets and Wine, and are in discussions with a few other organisations about setting up regular events. This week we are holding a Trivia Night to raise money for Tunapanda and if it’s a success it may well become a regular event. My personal win is being able to employ my dedicated team of staff, some of whom this is their first job. One used her initial pay to purchase a mobile phone so I could contact her easily. They are wonderful to work with and I hope to be able to partner with a hospitality school to offer them an accredited course, using Pop-Up as a paid internship. This would then lead them into future employment opportunities or the ability to set up their own business.
What is the future for Pop Up?
I intend to write a step by step model which people can replicate and work with in other parts of the country and continent. Someone may intend to do Pop-Up Mombasa, Pop-Up Rwanda etc. I would happily work with these groups as long as they have a similar social focus.