- The hotel whips up success in a pandemic with its four restaurants.
- One of its restaurants is suitably labeled “The Living Room.”
- Inca restaurant, on the fifth floor and which serves Peruvian dishes, is its party point.
There is a tranquil sensation that hypnotises you when you step into the lobby of The Social House, Nairobi. It is either the lulling coffeehouse music or the gentle, lustrous lighting.
A burst of coffee notes hangs in the air. Coffee, though, is not what this establishment in Nairobi is famed for.
Rather, it’s the avant-garde fixtures and offbeat model that lends The Social House its distinctive character. There is no reception here, for instance. Just a desk whose occupant could be anyone. Bathrooms are labelled “Boys” and “Girls.”
Where a giant chandelier would ordinarily hang, a grand bike, a Harley Davidson Fatboy (2018), overlooks the vestibule.
One of its restaurants is suitably labeled “The Living Room.” Its “Copper” restaurant, features a coppery scheme and is the home of a wide range of steaks, prepared from all kinds of influences.
The city’s view from here is one for the books. Curiously, its main restaurant is called “The Other Room.”
Juliet Njogu, 40, is the founder and invisible yet omnipresent director of The Social House. For years, Juliet has run her businesses in a deliberate discreetness of manner. But when you engage the former banker, you soon discover that her unreadable persona suits this role down to the ground.
“It’s about the business, not about me,” she says. “There’s an entire team that makes this place tick. I originated the idea and assembled the team, but I’m only a small element in it.”
In hospitality, Juliet seems to wield a magic wand. She tells me that she owns “the best hotel” in Meru. So, what is the story of this facility and why a social house? “We wanted to replicate our property in Meru in Nairobi. But we also wanted to create a product that’s different from the rest in the market,” she says.
Juliet desired to emulate the concept of Hoxton Hotel. And when National Geographic unveiled 2021 winners in its Travellers’ Hotel Awards last month, The Social House had placed second only to Hoxton’s property in Rome in the City Slicker: Best Urban Hotel category. “To be compared with Hoxton after having been in this for space for only 19 months was humbling and a huge statement.”
Her neighbours are residential, in keeping with the neighbourhood’s predominant use. For Juliet, the challenge was to put up a “monstrosity of a building” for commercial use in the vicinity and “to fit within the space.”
To do this, she had to be tactful. “Ours is a house like any other. The only difference is that we combine multiple elements,” she says.
The Social House is a meeting point for artistes, tech whizzes and fashion designers. Some people come here to work and others to dine.
Occasionally, she acknowledges a greeting from passing patrons, some of who she knows by name. Other times, she walks over to their table for chitchat. But what is she selling to her guests? Happiness, she tells me quickly. “If a guest is well attended to and their needs are met, they’ll come back.”
Even so, I wonder what kind of community she is building here. “We thought of the less spotted and adventurous careers. People who often feel out of place, even unwanted, in certain establishments,” she says.
The moccasins and jeans type, essentially.
As we chat, I spot among the patrons a few senior State officials and businesspeople. One of them, a chairman of a parastatal, is slurping soup with insouciant abandon, his tie lying on the table.
“In your house, you’re always completely at ease. You aren’t worried about who’s checking you out,” Juliet observes, adding: “Besides the basic procedures where guests are guided by staff, those staying with us navigate the facility on their own.” “We like to be, almost to a fault, down-to-earth and low-key,” she says. The mode of address here, I discover, is informal too. At the Social House, staff are discouraged from using formal titles on patrons. “We break this stiffness by calling people by their first name. This puts them at ease.”
After losing her general manager just before Covid-19 struck, Juliet has had to hold the fort since last year. How does she run the place?
Open and free is her leadership style.
“The foundational principles of business management don’t change. We need to make money and to make sure our guests are happy enough to come back.”
When we turn to food, I’m curious about how they maintain the distinct features of each of the four restaurants.
Sam Maina, the restaurants, bars, and events manager, says The Social House was designed with culinary explorers in mind.
To set up, they had to hire a food consultant from the UK. The four restaurants were opened in piecemeal, based on customer feedback.
“We’re the first Peruvian restaurant in Nairobi and Kenya, complete with a chef from Peru,’’ Sam says.
Bringing Peru to Kenya was intentional. The global food profile of the Latin American country has risen in recent years, winning five of the last global food contests, Sam explains.
That Inca is on the sixth floor of the building is not a mistake. “Peruvians are about life and colour. They like to sparkle and to party,” says Juliet.
What’s her relationship with food like? She is almost as adventurous as her palate. “I experiment with different flavours and occasionally go for food shows all over the world.”
Her favourite food fair is the Global Restaurant Investment Forum, which she has attended every year for the last seven years in different world cities.
“You learn new concepts of presenting cuisines and drinks.”
Kenya may be several calibrations below some of the western food scenes, but it is maturing with establishments such as Blue Door, Mercado and Nyama Mama, all with diverse food concepts.
What does this diversity mean to Juliet as a restaurateur? “It’s now possible for diners to have different experiences in one place. If you’re staying with us for five days, for instance, you’ll get an experience each day for four days. On the fifth day, you can go find something different elsewhere.”
Globally, it’s the same path that hotels are taking, moving away from rigidly corporate to lifestyle because without business travel, locals are hotel’s best bet.
Open for five weeks only before the world went into lockdown, Juliet says having one centre of power made it easier to make decisions around closing, reopening, and staff retention.
“Like a grocery shop owner, decisions started and ended with me,” she says.
Alba Hotel, I discover a few days later, is the Meru property she had hinted about.